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'It's not just a war. It's much worse.' Volodymyr Zelensky's first interview with Russian journalists since the war began

Source: Meduza

On Sunday, March 27, Volodymyr Zelensky gave his first extensive interview with Russian journalists since the beginning of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Zelensky spoke over Zoom with Meduza editor-in-chief Ivan Kolpakov, Dozhd editor-in-chief Tikhon Dzyadko, writer and journalist Mikhail Zygar, and Kommersant special correspondent Vladimir Solovyov (not to be confused with the Russian propagandist who shares his name). Read Meduza’s translation below.

Minutes before this interview was originally published, Roskomnadzor, Russia’s censorship agency, demanded that no Russian media outlets release it. The agency provided no reasons for this demand, saying only that it had begun a “review to determine the degree of responsibility” held by the publications that conducted the interview. The Russian Attorney General’s Office said it would provide a “fundamental legal assessment of the contents of all published statements and the fact of their dissemination.”

Mikhail Zygar: Let’s begin with a question from [Novaya Gazeta editor-in-chief and Nobel laureate] Dmitry Muratov. I’ll read it. “Dear Mr. President: You’ve probably heard the joke that the letters V and Z, which are being used widely in Russia right now, refer to your initials. Excuse my bluntness, but is a 'final solution to the Zelensky problem' one of the main goals of Russia's attack on Ukraine?"

— I’ve heard a lot of different ideas about how they’re planning to eliminate me… There have probably been several attempts by various people already.

“He means political elimination.” — a voice from offscreen.

— It doesn’t matter… Whatever word you use, I understand the meaning well.

I’ve made peace with this. They’ve sent some groups of people, starting with the political ones… As for my political elimination, it was the group led by [Ukrainian lawmaker and Putin ally Viktor] Medvedchuk, the father of the Russian leader’s goddaughter. They found a political means of elimination. There was a lot of propaganda in local elections. The weakening of local governments. This was one of the main reasons after my victory in the presidential election and the victory of my party — the party, today, of the mono-majority [in Parliament]. Basically, they understood that the Russian authorities were losing their strong — and I’d say quite strong — influence on Ukrainian politics. They had influence, and it was fairly powerful. So they chose a different tactic — winning in the regions.

Why? Because what’s happening in the regions? I don’t know what it’s like for you all — I don’t fully understand it — so correct me if I’m wrong… But what did we have? We’ve had a majority system in our parliamentary elections on the ground for a long time. And we also had, as a rule, various groups — financial and political groups. I’ll put it this way, they were career politicians who exerted influence over local law enforcement agencies, over politics, over everything.

In that case, you can win [on a national level] and control — in the normal, democratic meaning of the word — the central authorities; have the powers that the people gave you in legitimate, fair elections. But on the local level, you can’t solve anything. You can do reforms that just never quite get there. It’s like a political colander. It seems like you’ve arrived, you have a bunch of ideas, ambitions, a huge amount of energy and fairly young people — I don’t mean their experience, I mean a team of people with young, bright heads on their shoulders... But you can’t reach the regions, because everything there is just blocked.

That’s why they chose that tactic. They ended up with a lot of influence regionally. We don’t know much about how they go and buy the other parties’ votes on the local level. There’s a lot of money there and, as far as I know, the Russian Federation has always assisted this political structure in one way or another.

Then we saw the first steps. In certain councils, district ones or regional ones, they started coming out with these ultimatums. I’m talking about political elimination. Sometimes they block candidates, sometimes they take down representatives of the governing party, and so on and so forth. [...] Basically, that was their ideology, and they planned to move from the local councils to parliament through reelections. And it happened — reelections to parliament. They really wanted it… even the left and right were united. They aligned themselves with everyone possible, even in the middle — in an attempt to make the process uncontrollable.

Why? Because… This is when we move smoothly over to speculation about — or the reality of — physical elimination. Because, when there’s an unstable situation in the country, an unstable economy, everything falling apart, chaos in the Verkhovna Rada… Essentially, this destabilization was only necessary so they, having strong control over the regional authorities, could make the transition to splitting the mono-majority. Chaos in the country’s economy and political instability in Ukraine would have led to escalation from Russia no matter what — and to rule by the current President of the Russian Federation. The difference is that they would have been able to occupy our country much more quickly. That was definitely in their plans. This doesn’t come from other countries’ intelligence, this comes from our own intelligence. Particularly, from our understanding of how Ukrainian politics are generally treated [by the Kremlin].

Unfortunately, they don't see Ukraine as an independent state. That’s essentially the tragedy of our, and of your… Well, I don’t know if I can say “your.” Yes, I suppose it’s yours, too — because there are two societies. First there are the people, and then there are the rulers. This tragedy happened — their inability to perceive us as an independent state. Their perception of us not as an independent state but as a kind of product, as a part of some large body, which the current head of Russia sees himself as controlling.

We don’t see ourselves as a relic. We see ourselves as an independent state — with a long, deep history and morality. As far as morality and unity goes, I have nothing to add… I think we’re showing how things are [through this war].

I’ll finish the thought we started on… This might be a long answer, forgive me.

This destabilization didn’t come to pass. But both those political groups inside our country who I told you about and the external groups from the Russian Federation had plans for escalation. I don’t know what they’ve been reporting at the top in Russia, but they’ve probably been saying they’re waiting for us there with flowers and smiles. That the situation is very bad, the current president doesn’t support it, and the current ruling party doesn’t support it. And maybe that's the case!

I’m 99.9 percent sure that’s what they’ve said. I wouldn’t just throw words around in a situation like this.

They basically said the ice has broken, gentlemen. And when they saw things weren’t quite going according to plan, naturally, they [came up with] a Plan B — to neutralize the people stabilizing the situation from the top as much as possible, of course. And when there’s a war going on, who can guarantee stability? Only the president — because there’s martial law. By virtue of authority, by virtue of the current legislation of independent Ukraine.

Tikhon Dzyadko: Mr. Zelensky, I wanted to ask you about what’s been happening in recent days, about combat, about the war. In the last few weeks, one of the worst hot spots has been Mariupol. We know the city is practically completely destroyed, and we know about the humanitarian catastrophe Mariupol’s population is going through. Nevertheless, who controls the city right now? There have been contradictory reports.

— There hasn’t been any inconsistency. It’s clear where the informational chaos comes from. That’s the reality. The city is blockaded by Russian troops. All entrances and exits from Mariupol are blocked. The port is blocked. Without question, there’s a humanitarian catastrophe in the city — because entering the city to bring food, medicine, or water is impossible. Russian troops fire at humanitarian convoys. They kill the drivers. I don’t know what happens to the cargo. A lot of it has been transported back.

In other words, that direction — Zaporizhzhia–Berdyansk, all of the Zaporizhzhia region — is complicated, it’s 100-120 kilometers [60–75 miles] of the most difficult challenges. They’re shelling constantly.

[…] Some agreements have been reached. They’ve lifted the blockade for some passenger transport to depart from Mariupol towards the Ukrainian side. They’ve also forcibly removed people from Mariupol to the other side — in the opposite direction, the occupied one, so to speak; that’s also happening.

According to our data, more than 2,000 children have been removed. Their exact location is unknown. They may or may not be there with their parents. This is essentially a catastrophe. I can’t tell you how bad it looks. It’s very scary.

Mariupol. March 26, 2022
Chine Nouvelle / SIPA / Scanpix / LETA
Graves in the courtyard of a Mariupol apartment building. March 25, 2022
Mikhail Tereshchenko / TASS

They’re holding them there as souls for an exchange fund. I don’t have any polished words — I only have the emotional words that are tumbling out right now, unfortunately. But since you and I are being forthright, and I always try to be forthright…

Our troops are inside [Mariupol]. This is part of the reason there’s chaos on the information front. Because the Russian troops have gotten in everywhere they can. But there are some parts of the city they haven’t reached, because our guys are there, and they’ve refused to obey the Russians’ calls to leave. In addition, these guys’ families have reached out to me. I’ve spoken with these guys. I talk to them — well, at least once every two days, I really try to find time for it, it’s important to me. I tell them I understand everything, guys, and we’ll definitely be back… But if you feel that you need to be [there] and you feel that it’s the right thing, and that you can survive, then do it.

I understand how it appears to a soldier. They said as much… But I gave them the right to choose. They said, “We can’t [abandon the city]. There are injured people here. We don’t abandon the wounded.” Not only that, they also said, “We don’t abandon the dead.” You have to understand, bodies are lying in the streets, on the sidewalks. Bodies are just lying there, and nobody’s picking them up — not Russian soldiers, not Ukrainian citizens. All of them. It’s crowds… Not crowds, excuse me. I can’t refer to people as “heaps.” I can’t find the right word in Russian. I just don’t know.

You understand, it looks awful. But our troops aren’t willing to leave even dead soldiers behind. To go out and, excuse me, I don’t want to put it this way… To bury them somewhere, like trash — they’re not willing to do that. Not just the officers, but everybody.

So they’re defending the city, defending the wounded, defending the dead, who they want to bury. We asked them [to let] us take out the bodies. They wouldn’t let us remove the bodies, the wounded, anybody. I don’t know whether they remove Russian soldiers — to the other side, where they took our children. That I don’t know. There’s conflicting information, and it’s all unclear from the perspective of truth and justice, so I don’t want to make any definite statements. But everything else you heard is true.

Zygar: Regarding the conflicting reports, including those about the number of casualties. The Russian and Ukrainian estimates of the number of dead Russian soldiers are especially different. Why such different estimates? What happens to the bodies of the Russian soldiers who are killed? Do they take them back to their homeland or bury them on the spot? Do you have any lists of people who died?

They’re compiling the lists. Our guys, I know, compiled lists — our military guys. Everyone who’s being held hostage, they’re on lists, we have the data. I don’t know if everybody is interested in them… I don’t think politicians are very interested, and from their parents’ perspective, of course… It’s just hopeless… It’s impossible to live. They need the information.

A Ukrainian soldier and the body of a Russian soldier. March 10, 2022
Heidi Levine / Washington Post / Sipa / Scanpix / LETA

Zygar: Are you planning to publish them or share them with anyone?

— I think the Russian side has all the lists. Our soldiers have reached out to them about conducting exchanges. The Russian side has also reached out to the Ukrainian side. If you want to talk about exchanges, you have to have lists. We don’t keep our prisoners of war a secret — in most cases. So we have exchanged lists.

Some soldiers reached out to me to ask what my decision was. My first offer was to exchange all of our prisoners for all of theirs. We don’t necessarily have to operate by the commonly-accepted rules — to wait until the end of the war, or to try to get more prisoners to exchange. I don’t understand the point of that. I believe that if we make an agreement to exchange all of our prisoners for all of theirs, it doesn’t matter. ‘Today we have this many, let’s trade them for that many.’ It doesn’t matter. You can’t measure 10 for 10 like that. ‘Oh, sorry, we’ll collect some more.’ That’s what they’re doing right now with civilians… just barbarity.

I said that if they’re willing to steal children, we’ll do anything, of course… And this will all end with there being no negotiations, nothing at all. We’ll walk away from everything. We won’t discuss anything with you. We won’t stop anything and we won’t exchange anyone.

I saw this brutality during the Minsk agreements. I called it brutality even back then. Putin and I were negotiating in 2019 about exchanging all of our prisoners [captured over the course of the conflict in the Donbas] for all of theirs, over the following two months. Our meeting was in December. We had a great exchange — about 110 people. The only thing left was the list on their side — nobody could tell us which of their people we had in our prisons. And so on and so forth, and there were still questions about the people from Crimea. We gave them up just in case. We gave our list to the Turks, the Germans, the French, the Russians. We gave it to everybody — especially the OSCE [the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe]. To prevent any future uncertainty. We did everything. They didn’t give us anybody — the all-for-all exchange didn’t work back then, either.

So that’s what’s happening with exchanges right now.

As far as our exchange fund, we have nothing to hide. I don’t know how public this is; to be honest, I haven’t been asked this question before. […] But only God knows if they need it. I’m just not sure whether they need these lists. Because as soon as some of these guys [Russian soldiers] appear in public — they’re just children… Especially the ones born in 2003–2004… I’m just amazed… Some of us were reaching the ends of whole periods of our lives in 2003-2004. And these people were just being born.

That’s why I don’t think they want to show the dead bodies. [...] We want to transfer them, to hand them over. We don’t want to keep the bodies, you know that perfectly well. We want them to leave. At first, they refused [to take them], then it was something else. Then they offered us some bags. Listen, it all just looks… I don’t even know… Look, all of you have likely had times in your life when somebody’s passed away — not even your loved ones, not your family… Listen, even when a dog or a cat dies, we don’t treat it that way. They’re essentially like… they’re basically trash bags.

I don’t understand what people are thinking, honestly. Especially what these children’s parents are thinking. I don’t understand. I’d just… I’d burn it all down if I could. If there were a deputy like that living near me… And I’m being completely frank. This is basically who I was even before the presidency. Here [in Ukraine], if a district head or someone like that brought someone back in a bag or didn’t want to take a body, or hid it, we’d smash his face in. [...]

I’m telling you this as the president of a country that’s at war with Russian soldiers who came here, and we hate them, we hate what they’re doing. But I… Listen… Even in the hatred… This is a war. But these aren’t cattle. They’re not cattle, and that’s why this is all, of course, affecting me.

Why is this all so horrifying? I’ll tell you. It’s horrifying because if that’s your attitude toward own people, what does that say about your attitude toward all others? And the Russian government certainly doesn’t see us as their own. That’s what’s scary.

I believe this is savagery. And it’s going to end badly. For Ukraine, we understand how it will end, but as for you all [in Russia]…

I don’t want to offend you. Forgive me for saying “you all.” I just don’t know how else to say it. I’m telling it how it is. What’s happening with you all, in Russia — it’s incomprehensible. It’s a tragedy. Yes, a tragedy. And it affects us. That’s why I’m saying this.

And a lot of [the Russian soldiers] are children. I don’t know if they swore an oath, or some kind of pledge… [But there's] a lot of children who didn’t know where they were going. A lot of people say all kinds of nonsense and lies at first, out of panic. And then, once they see that we treat them decently — to the degree that that’s possible, because there’s a war and anything can happen — many are shocked.

And all of [their] phone calls to their parents: come pick us up. And how they abandon their tanks… We’ve intercepted a huge number of phone calls from Russian soldiers. There’s just a huge number of calls where they say, “I shot myself in the leg today, and Pasha broke his [something else].”

Well, look. There’s a column of 200 tanks. Our guys blew up 30. That’s it. Now there’s no column. 70 tanks are running away. They’re not warriors. They were forced. They were sent into battle. That’s just how it is.

But, unfortunately, let’s get back to the consequences and results for us. The result is that Mariupol is gone. It’s just gone. Volnovakha is just gone. The cities around Kyiv and Kyiv region — our smaller towns… the kinds you have too, I think… All of those towns that surround the capital cities — as a rule, they’re small towns. But a lot of people live there, people have their summer homes, and the local population lives there, too. That doesn’t exist anymore. Scorched earth. Just scorched earth. Completely.

You’ve probably seen the photographs, but you haven’t seen everything. We can’t even show all this. It’s impossible to show, because it’s impossible even to show our population what it looks like. There are no buildings. In Volnovakha, there’s nothing at all — no streets, no buildings. Nothing at all.

Volnovakha. March 11, 2022
Alexander Yermochenko / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA
Medical workers outside of a destroyed hospital in Volnovakha. March 12, 2022
Alexander Yermochenko / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Mariupol, a bigger city, had half a million people. Imagine, a city with half a million people, 90 percent of the buildings were struck. They’re gone. They burned up, they’re gone. But there are at least some apartment buildings left. And you can imagine the state they were in. But in cities like Volnovakha, there’s nothing left at all. Absolutely nothing. That’s what they do. They just come in and burn everything, just burn it. I can’t even think of another example of the Russian army treating a place that way. Never. I’ve never seen it. Maybe I was still too young back then — and I can’t remember all of the pictures from the wars in Chechnya very well. It was scary, but there, excuse me… You just can’t compare it. We’ve had two wars so far.

Not only that. I’ll tell you, it’s impossible to compare the scale of what’s been going on [in the Donbas] for eight years with the last four weeks. It’s impossible to compare. And the things our own people have told us about the Donbas… Or in the temporarily occupied territories… I want you to understand, it’s nothing compared to what’s happening right now. Nothing at all.

Yesterday, for some reason, six missiles hit Lviv. Six cruise missiles! For some reason or other. They were looking for some paramilitary unit there… So what do they do? They strike all kinds of oil depots. They know perfectly well that it’s sowing season. What does that have to do… Even if they were targeting some militarized units or activities… What does that have to do with sowing season? Ukraine feeds part of Europe and half of the Arab world. You have good relations with the Arabs — the Russian Federation does. The Turks don’t have sunflower oil or grain, none of them do. Moreover, there’s no reason this has to be true. But [Russia] didn’t allow them to take out some grain first. None of these countries were allowed to take any.

Ivan Kolpakov: Mr. President, how has your personal attitude towards Russians changed since February 24, 2022? Are there still people in Russia whose opinion is important to you? And here’s the most difficult question. Do you believe Ukrainians and Russians will ever be able to normalize relations?

— Firstly. Despite the fact that I’m the president and I’m supposed to be a fairly pragmatic person, my attitude has worsened after [February] 24. Worsened quite a lot. The emotional component [of my attitude] towards the Russian Federation, to its people, has been lost. Even to the people. Despite the fact that I understand intellectually that Russia has a lot of people who support Ukraine. I’m grateful to them, because without word of mouth, without the work of honest journalists, without the internal capactiy of a Russian person who supports justice and supports Ukraine… And sure, he can be for himself, first and foremost, which would mean that he supports Ukraine in the current situation. Because war on our territory won’t bring anything good to the Russian people, if they’re honest with themselves. Our entire population’s attitude towards Russians has worsened.

It’s irrevocable. I’ll explain, and I think you’ll understand. In 2014, when this all began, so to speak, Ukraine’s Russian-speaking regions — or Russian-speaking families, if you prefer — had hope that this would finally end. That this would end now. All of these things that happened, the confusion, the way it grew for all these years, and so on… Some of these families — they believed that anything was still possible, that it could somehow end. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. You see: somehow, something. Without any details — because this is a war. And there was a clear understanding that something needed to change.

When I became president, I realized I needed to do everything I could to end the war — and to fight against propaganda. You have to show by example that you want to change: change the country, change your relationship with your neighbors, return everything, so to speak… In some sense, to return everything to the past. In some sense, to 2014. To find understanding. To sit at the negotiating table.

Today, in this last month, there’s been a global, historic, cultural split. Global. It’s not just a war. I believe everything is much worse.

There are still some people in Russian [with whom I keep in touch]. First of all, I’m talking to you. Second of all, there are those who have fled Russia. I don’t mean to say I support people leaving — it’s their own personal decision. There are people in the cultural sector, the art world, who can be reached with this or that argument. I’ll put it this way, they’ll find [the truth] themselves. The reading part of the population will figure it out. But the real disappointment is that a high percentage of the population supports Russia for various reasons. I don’t even want to say that it’s due to information [warfare] or to brainwashing. Look, on one hand, yes. On the other hand, propaganda is also an excuse.

Let’s be honest: it’s an excuse. It’s impossible not to notice a full-scale war that goes on for multiple years, isn’t it? Maybe if it lasts a week. They told us one thing, it was another thing. Do you understand? This isn’t even September 11 in the U.S., do you understand? A tragedy that everybody saw. No. And it’s not the explosions in the apartments in Moscow that you all remember, and so on. It’s not like that. It’s not just one step. It’s eight years, for God’s sake! That’s a long time! In eight years, people finish school; they grow up, get an education, study a subject, and become professionals.

I would just go into journalism, I’d become an investigator. I’d find it myself, I’d dig, if I really wanted to figure out what to do with this. But if I don’t want to, I don’t want to. It’s easier for me to support the current regime. And I consider this the most terrible disappointment of all. A disappointment that’s led to hatred between nations.

As for how to go back to the way things were, I don’t have an answer. I don’t know whether things will ever go back. I’m not a prophet. And this will be decided by the same people who…

Look, I’ll tell you this: after a few more months of this, every family will have lost somebody one way or another. Someone will have been driven out, someone will have been injured, someone will have moved to Bulgaria, someone will have gone to another country, whether or not there’s work for them there. It doesn’t matter. They’ll be too scared. Their children will have a stutter because of all the bombs, God knows what else. Everyone will have some pain to deal with. Of course, it’s not the Second World War. It’s not years of occupation. We aren’t done yet yet, so… And the technology is different.

But the occupation is more brutal and more intense, you understand? Because the occupation is… I don’t want to compare it to fascism. I don’t want to make comparisons. We know there are different kinds of occupations… You’re deep people, educated people, you know what’s happened in the past, in various historical periods, various occupations. It’s a bad idea to wipe a city from the face of the earth, because when you’re occupying a place, you need somebody to work and live there. You still need someone to wash your underwear, soldier. And who’s going to do that while you’re standing guard? The laundry, the cleaning, the cooking. The movie theaters were still working in France and all that, you understand? It’s not like that here. Not at all. They come in, and if the local government or someone else doesn’t want them here, they remove the government; then people start shouting, and then they burn everything down.

Mariupol. March 10, 2022
Evgeniy Maloletka / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Zygar: Mr. Zelensky, I’d like a small clarification — literally just a yes or no. Do you support the boycotts against Russia, Russian artists, Russian musicians, and Russian athletes? Because we all heard recently about what happened with [Ukrainian director] Sergey Loznitsa, who spoke out against the boycott and was removed from the Ukrainian Film Academy. What do you think, should all Russians be boycotted?

— I believe boycotting Loznitsa, for example, was wrong. In my view, Loznitsa is an artist, and his… what I heard… I could be wrong, yes? I don’t even know why the organization removed him. I believe it was some kind of mistake. I don’t know. I definitely don’t have a thorough understanding of the issue. But he’s an artist who supports Ukraine. As far as I’ve heard. [His] position is fair.

Pro-Ukrainian doesn’t mean communicating your position in Ukrainian. You have to understand, we don’t have anything like that. That’s some kind of information bubble that citizens live in. I mean Russian citizens. They’re told about some language policy or other. I’m speaking to you calmly [in Russian]. And when somebody talks to me in Russian in Ukraine, I switch to Russian. I’m the president. I believe that the president can help you understand the people… If people support me as president, it means they support this too, they’re fine with it.

But hatred towards everything Russian will grow, that’s for sure. I’m giving you this explanation instead of a yes or a no because that’s the direction my thoughts are going, forgive me, my day has been a bit of a mess. I didn’t sleep well last night.

I answered the part about Loznitsa, but I want to say something else about language. The person who’s done the most damage to the Russian language is Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. I believe he’s done irreparable damage. Of course people will hesitate to speak Russian in certain settings outside of Russia now. That’s just a fact. That’s what happens after a war when the entire world recognizes a specific aggressor. That’s it. So he’s certainly the person who made it irreparable. For many years to come.

These Russian-speaking cities, as I was saying — if you look for a common thread for even a moment, you’ll see that these are the cities that have been razed to the ground. And these families, they fled twice. Look, in 2014, when all this first began, the country moved everything to Mariupol — Donetsk State University and things like that. They transported the higher educational institutions, the colleges, the schools, the sports leagues. The people all moved. Where? People believed, as I said, that this would all soon end, and that they would return. People stayed in different cities that were close to the occupied ones. Imagine — now there are tanks outside their homes… They’re trapped in Mariupol, there’s no way out.

So tell me, what attitude can you have towards any history associated with Russian culture or with Russians at all? It’s a very difficult question. That’s why I’m afraid this is here to stay.

And about athletes. You asked if it’s right to boycott them, right? Look, I don’t think you can feel the pain that we’ve felt — but you should at least know about it. You should at least know about it and feel at least some discomfort. Then you’ll be able to understand that you’re not like everybody else. And your government took you without a fight. And that’s why an international boycott of this or that Russian athlete, even when they have nothing to do with politics, is the right thing to do. Because unfortunately, they’re still tied to it. They might not completely feel that that’s the case, right? But they need to understand that they’re a tool of the country’s international image.

And if there’s isolation — cultural isolation, athletic isolation, any kind of isolation, then… [Isolate] those who stay. Of course, not the ones who have left — cultural figures, directors, journalists, athletes. People who fled, went to another country to live, and so on. That’s their right, of course. That’s their right, let them live, work, develop their lives, and so on. It’s their right. But to say that they’re all completely innocent is also dishonest, because if somebody has never used their voice… At least just one time, at least one post on social media, at least one protest in the streets… You don’t have to light someone’s car on fire, you don’t have to shoot anybody, you don’t have to force anyone… “If you haven’t killed your own tsar, you’re no friend of ours!” No, we’re not saying that! Just support us. Just say, I can’t take this, I don’t want this. If even one person hears me, that will be a plus, not a minus. When people say, “They won’t hear us anyways, it won’t help,” that doesn’t work. It’s unjust.

So the purpose of the boycotts is to make them understand that when people are dying, you should at least feel some discomfort.

Ukrainian Presidential Press Service

Vladimir Solovyov: Mr. President, I’d like to move from the very important humanitarian topic to the no less important topic of diplomacy, because there are talks going on, they started fairly early on, but we’ve only heard about significant progress from people like the Turkish president, for example, who said, first of all, that there were six points being discussed. And second of all, that progress had already been reached in four of the six points. These points are Ukraine not joining NATO, demilitarization, security guarantees, and protection of the Russian language. And regarding the status of the Donbas and Crimea, you haven’t yet made progress. Could you explain where there’s actually been progress? And then clarify, if you will, your thoughts on a referendum. Because it’s not quite clear, if a compromise is reached, how a country that’s either in the midst of a war or has recently come out of war can conduct a referendum.

— First of all. Concerning the [negotiation] points. Why is the rhetoric based on six points? Because, first and foremost, there’s an ultimatum, and the first document was an ultimatum from the Russian Federation. I wouldn’t call it a paper ultimatum — it was a public ultimatum, because, as usual, it’s been released into the information space. In general, yes, there were the points you mentioned. Essentially the same points. It’s true that there were phrases like “demilitarization,” “denazification,” a lot of “de-” words. And we don’t see anything there but an injection, something to liven up the information space [with the idea] that Russia is doing something and setting the agenda — we believe that’s all it is.

One more thing about the information space… During the Minsk talks, we got used to it… They always sent this or that format and kind of drew out the process. This speaks to their desire to delay the negotiations because they wanted to quickly occupy us.

You know we found military parade uniforms, right? I don’t know if you heard about that, but it’s very funny how they were preparing for it. Funny, if it weren’t so tragic. A parade on Independence Square [in Kyiv]. They wanted to send tanks through on the third or fourth day [of the war]. And now look…

So these are just injections. Turkey’s reaction has been somewhat incorrect, and we’ve discussed this with President Erdogan. There are also some subtleties in the translation of his statement, and subtleties in his rhetoric.

“Denazification and demilitarization” — that’s not something we’re discussing at all. I told them that our group… We’re not going to sit at the table if they’re talking about any kind of “demilitarization,” any “denazification.” Those things are absolutely incomprehensible to me.

Dzyadko: So you’re not discussing those things at the negotiations?

We’re not discussing them at all. They asked… The Russian side [asked] at the first meeting in Belarus… Which I agreed to send our group to because I’ve long been saying that both sides need to talk — even since before the war. I’m not opposed to these conversations, because they could lead to a result… The Russian side takes it as a victory that this meeting happened at all, that it provides a role for [Belarusian leader] Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko… For God’s sake. If we manage to finish this war, and Alexander Grigoryevich gets to feel that he’s the man of the house again — for the love of God, be my guest. To be honest, I don’t care. That’s the Belarusian people’s choice, it’s definitely not ours. So I agreed, as long as it was a substantive meeting.

The meeting took place. I wouldn’t call it substantive. Our side told them there could be no mention of “demilitarization” or “denazification” — we’re not interested in these points.

As for the third point, protection for the Russian language… I don’t know if they’ve delivered all of my arguments. Every other day, the war calls into question what the Russian language even is. People don’t want it. People aren’t going to want to read, to watch movies, to speak. I’m telling you plainly what’s causing it, do you understand? Even when someone likes something very much, too much can have the opposite effect. And they tried to deliver it to us through blood, this love for the Russian language.

That’s why this is a serious point for us, the Russian language. This was my opinion: I wanted to get rid of this constant arguing about how, what, which language… In our country, everyone speaks in whatever language they want. We have more than 100 nationalities in our country. So we said we’ll mirror the respect they give us. An agreement on mutual respect for history, languages, cultural values with all neighbors. That’s what I would accept. That’s what I would accept. I’m confident our people would accept it too, if that’s what they want, because everyone’s going to be decided by popular election anyways.

So what does this mean? It means it’s time to stop messing around — just like the Hungarians are playing around with this a little, though less than the Russians. It’s time to stop playing with school closures in Ukraine. If you want a Russian school, if someone wants to study in Russian, be my guest, open one, but on one condition: if you open schools in our country, we get to open them in your country. If you publish something in our country, we get to publish in your country. What kind of attitude do you want people to have towards the Russian language? It’s your language, the official language of the Russian Federation, everything should be fair. Just respect us and our official Ukrainian language.

Don’t say our language is the language of illiterate people. I’m ready to argue with anyone who says this, I’m ready to talk to any Russian politician. Ready to talk about the amount of literature people read and so on. Personally. A tête-à-tête. And in Russian. And in Ukrainian as well.

Zelensky’s meeting in Kyiv with foreign journalists (though not the journalists he spoke to for this interview, which was held via Zoom). March 2, 2022
Ukrainian Presidential Press Service

Solovyov: I’m sorry, you just brushed at least three of the points I brought up off of the table, as far as I understand. Demilitarization isn’t being discussed; denazification, whatever that means, isn’t being discussed; the Russian language isn't being discussed. So what is being discussed?

— The Russian language is being discussed, like I told you. Respect for the languages of our neighboring countries, that’s an agreement that interests me, I’d like to sign something like that with all of our neighbors. I’m interested in Russia, Hungary, Poland — we have a lot of historical issues. Romania and so on. We have a lot of different issues, a lot of minorities, nationalities, and this agreement would be enough to promote respect for any languages within our country. The language issue, I’m sure, will be taken off the agenda, because it will be resolved but this kind of agreement.

The fourth point is a security guarantee and neutrality, a vow to maintain our non-nuclear status. We’re willing to do that. That’s the main point. It was the main issue for the Russian Federation, as far as I remember. And as far as I can remember, it’s the reason they started the war. It’s only now that they’ve begun adding points to their ultimatums — at first, they said the issue was NATO expansion. And that we couldn’t join any military treaties. That we add to the constitution that we won’t join any military treaties. And then they decided to go in a different direction… “We don’t agree with where you’re going, and this is outside of our agreements with the West, which we’ve had for so many years. So this is the main issue, and because of it, we’re defending our national security,” said the Russian Federation. So this point is a security guarantee for Ukraine. And since they say it’s also [security guarantees] for them, this one’s understandable to me, and it’s being discussed. It’s deeply developed, but it’s important to me that it not become just another paper like the Budapest Memorandum or something.

That’s why we want to make sure this document turns into a serious agreement that will be signed… And now I’ll address your question about the referendum. The document should include all of the security guarantees and should be signed by all of the security guarantors. It’s imperative that it be ratified by the parliaments of the guarantor countries, that’s point number two. And it’s imperative that there be a referendum in Ukraine. Why? Because we have a law about referenda. We passed this law. Changes of this or that status… And security guarantees imply constitutional changes. You understand, don’t you? Constitutional changes. That’s two [legislative] sessions.

When our guys met with the Russian group, they weren’t so deep in the material. Let me tell you, that’s putting it lightly. What does “two sessions” mean? It’s the only way to change a constitution. Two sessions means a year. Can you imagine how long this could take? I’m not talking about a referendum, I’m talking about constitutional change. A referendum is faster than changing the constitution. That’s what I’m talking about. The Russian side wants a guarantee that this will happen. So we need a referendum — because only the people can make the decision to implement this status and these guarantees. A referendum will take several months, and changes to the constitution will take at least a year, in accordance with our current legislation. At least a year.

Zygar: Sorry, but will the refugees who left Ukraine also take part in the referendum?

— Of course. We have foreign precincts — it all works, and we’ve done this all before, in the presidential elections, parliamentary elections — it works everywhere. I don’t see a problem with this. But until now, our people… […] Right now, 90 percent of our country wants to return to the first day […], because the majority of the men didn’t go anywhere. It was the women and the children who left. Of course, everyone wants [inaudible]. So the agreement must be between us and President Putin. The guarantors aren’t going to sign anything if there are troops stationed in their country. So I believe this war could be ended quickly — but Putin and his entourage are dragging it out.

Because… Johnson, Biden, Duda, Erogan? Who’s going to sit down for talks when there are troops stationed there? Who’s going to sign an agreement? Nobody would, it’s impossible. So nobody should wait for a change in the law. So when the Russian side says, okay, let’s change the law, and then we’ll withdraw the tanks… They don’t show a deep understanding of political processes when it comes to legislation. So we need to negotiate with the President of the Russian Federation, and in order to negotiate, he needs to come out of there on his own two feet and meet us in any corner of the world, other than… I consider it pointless to meet in Belarus, Russia, or Ukraine, and our delegations’ meetings have underscored that. They’re politically pointless. One way or another, those are the three conflicting parties today.

We’ve met, we’ve negotiated with them, and we’ve given enough — enough signatures, enough stamps, even enough blood. Enough to start the process of withdrawing troops. The troops must be withdrawn, the guarantors will all sign, and that will be it. Everyone will work to move on. We’ll ratify it in Parliament, we’ll conduct a referendum over several months, and then the Constitution will be amended.

Ukrainian refugees on the border with Poland inPrzemyśl. March 25, 2022
Petr David Josek / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Solovyov: But a referendum has two possible outcomes: yes and no. If the people decide, “We don’t want to change our status, we don’t want to be neutral,” will that be it?

A referendum is impossible when there are troops occupying your country. Nobody will ever consider a referendum’s results legitimate if there are troops, illegal armed forces on the country’s territory, or legal formations from another state without any legal foundation. It’s not possible. It’s what happened in Crimea. What [was] this referendum? It’s only for one person. Let’s have a referendum that nobody will recognize. Why? Because there were troops there. It’s an illegitimate process. […]

The Russian side should start bringing in lawyers. Or at least people who have at least a legal education, not just a military one.

And that’s why the Donbas, which you also asked about… That’s why the security guarantees, the neutral status, the mutual respect as far as languages are concerned… Though not just languages, but also cultures, traditional, they’re raising the question of respect for Roma people, though that’s not our place as a state… The issues of the Donbas and Crimea must be discussed and resolved, of course, so I didn’t brush away all of the points.

Kolpakov: I have one more question about the negotiations. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that you asked President Biden not to impose sanctions on Russian businessman Roman Abramovich. In addition, various sources of ours have said that there are some other contacts between Ukraine and Russian — people close to Russian President Boris Yeltsin are reportedly taking part in negotiations; various cultural figures are reportedly representing the Ukrainian side. In this context, I heard the last name of film director Alexander Rodnyansky. Could you tell me whether there are parallel negotiations, and whether there’s any contact beyond the talks we were just discussing?

— I’ll put it this way. First of all, there’s a huge amount of communication going on. But you need to understand. All of the things you just mentioned have a right to exist, to some extent, and are already in effect. I’m not confident that any of these are official negotiations, because as soon as the war began, a lot of people appeared who wanted to help.

You mentioned Alexander Yefimovich Rodnyansky… I know he’s in touch with our people. And other cultural figures. And as soon as the sanctions started… You named a certain major businessman from the Russian Federation — now he lives in other countries. I’ll tell you that all of these people are fearing sanctions… I’m confident that there’s no patriotism in this. No, not confident, but it seems that way to me, I’ll put it that way. I understand the comfort they had and that they’re having to leave behind, or have already left behind, and the path ahead doesn’t seem so bright. Of course they’re all looking for an exit.

But I’ll tell you that for all these years, both the Ukrainian and Russian sides, especially businessmen, journalists, and cultural figures — they’ve all been looking for one exit or another. Getting through to the Russian government was unrealistic. Someone’s getting in trouble there.

Regarding my conversation with Biden… We’ve had several private conversations that I’m not willing to discuss for various reasons… I know that this businessman was in a subgroup from the Russian side. I don’t know whether it was official or unofficial, but they were in touch… And he really did, as far as I know, help with the humanitarian issue of transporting people and convoys out of Mariupol. Everyone in Mariupol was trying, and he, in particular, was trying, I know — but nothing came out of it. As I already said, the humanitarian convoys were fired upon.

Men, presumably Russian soldiers, inspect the cars of Mariupol residents as they flee the city. March 20, 2022
Alexander Yermochenko / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

But as far as him and some other businessmen giving us the signal, “Let us help, let us do something…” Some even told us they would be willing to help rebuild Ukraine after the war. “We’re willing to give money, we’re willing to move our businesses to Ukraine, we’re currently located in England or Switzerland, but we want… Is it possible to do this in exchange for getting off of a sanctions list…” We heard it all. We started hearing from them when only our internal sanctions were in effect, before the Western sanctions. Some people don't want to reveal their last names, but they say they “really want to help your army, even as citizens of the Russian Federation.”

Kolpakov: Does your office coordinate these negotiations? Do they just flock to you, or what?

Look, I get the signals, but I wouldn’t say our office coordinates it. I wouldn’t put it that way. They come from all over, these signals — either from particular communities, the Jewish community, the Muslim community, etc. Some signals come through the churches. And we get signals directly to our office. The guys have met, our negotiation team is in Belarus — some come from them… It’s quite a lot, so my attitude is quite simple. Any person who’s willing today… Any Russian businessman, no matter what caliber, who’s ready to give money to support the Ukrainian army… We’re prepared to ensure his safety, protect his work, develop his business. Anyone who supports us today, as we fight for our country…

Kolpakov: Have you discussed sanctions relief for these people?

— I can discuss the things that I, as a guarantor of the constitution, am able to do. I’m talking specifically about the sanctions inside our country — and there are a lot of them. We can talk about a person changing their citizenship, getting an economic residence permit, developing their vision — we can discuss all of this. But if he, she, they, aren’t willing to help us today… They don’t have to do it publicly — I understand that people are scared about what will happen to their family and so on. For people like that, I don’t care what their nationality is. What matters is who they are on the inside. And that’s it.

Dzyadko: I’d like to get to a few more questions about other negotiations. Yesterday, the Ukrainian Defense Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister held a meeting in Warsaw with Mr. Biden, the U.S. President. Two questions. First of all, did any specific results come out of these talks, other than political support? I’m referring first and foremost to weapon supplies. And second of all, the Polish president, Mr. Duda, called for NATO peacekeepers to be deployed on Ukrainian territory. As far as we understand, Washington is opposed to any military presence on the ground in Ukraine. Do you know Biden’s position on the prospect of NATO peacekeepers in Ukraine, and how realistic do you think this is?

— I feel strongly about this issue. I made my suggestion, and understood the risks from the very start… [When] the invasion first began, when there were risks associated with our nuclear power plants, with other strategically significant entities, we offered to invite various peacekeeping forces there in one form or another. But it didn’t occur. That’s the current state of things.

Deploying peacekeeping forces in Ukraine was entirely Poland’s idea. I don’t completely understand the proposal at the moment. We don’t need a stagnant conflict on our territory, and I explained that to my Polish colleagues at our meeting. I know they continued using that rhetoric. Luckily, or unfortunately, this is still our country, and I’m currently its president, so for now, we’ll decide what forces enter our country.

Regarding the Defense Minister and the Foreign Affairs Minister’s meetings with Secretary of State [Antony] Blinken, the number one question, of course, was weapons. I’m not ready to share the details. We explained our position emphatically. The issue is fairly clear. You know the question about an air conflict — I’ve spoken about it publicly and openly. It depends on the decision of these two countries, which is why we met with the U.S. in Poland. The question was decided. I’m not ready to share the answer, as I’ve already said.

Negotiations with EU leaders. February 25, 2022
Ukrainian Presidential Press Service

Solovyov: Mr. President, I’d like to ask you to comment on the documents published by the Russian Defense Ministry, signed by Mykola Balan and dated January 22, which the Russian side says proves that Ukraine was planning a preemptive strike on the Donbas. Please explain what these documents are.

— Well, it’s some kind of fake document. This didn’t happen. Of course we didn’t have such plans. Starting in 2019, once again, both President Putin, and then all of these various channels you’ve brought up today… I’ve said that we have no plans to take back our territory through military means. I want to negotiate with you [Russians]. More than that, I wanted to find a format where we could actually spend some time negotiating — before this invasion. I was looking for possible options. Trust me.

If you name me a country, it doesn’t matter if we’ve had negotiations before, it doesn’t matter whether I’ve prepared papers for the Russian Federation… You won’t find ten countries I wouldn’t have negotiated with in order to have any kind of meeting, in any format, with the Russian President. Despite the fact that I was told it’s humiliating, that I shouldn’t speak constantly about this meeting. For me, it wasn’t humiliating, because I knew how this would end. And now we’ve arrived there.

And about these fake documents, about Balan…

Solovyov: These documents — they don’t exist?

I don’t know what this document is. It’s hard for me to say. If I saw it, I’d give you an answer. Any document that shows plans for a [Ukrainian] attack on the Donbas is 100 percent fake. And it’s the National Guard, right? The former head of the National Guard? Mykola Balan? That couldn’t happen in reality. Using military force to take back the Donbas. He doesn’t even have the power to do that. The National Guard, you understand, is part of the Interior Ministry. That means the Internal Affairs Minister would have to sign. What does the Internal Affairs Minister have to do with our offensive positions? It’s nonsense. That’s number one.

Number two. Recently, there was another document, and this one I saw. It was shown, just like the one you mentioned, by Solovyov (the other one) [Russian state television host Vladimir Solovyov]. So that Solovyov showed my [purported] order for the seizure of Crimea. I don’t know if you saw that order. You didn’t? Well they were showing it all over the TV.

Zygar: There were also some documents that mentioned awards to be given for the capture of Crimea.

Yes. I want you to pay attention to one thing. My name is Vladimir Alexandrovich [in Russian], of course, but this is written in Ukrainian. Look at it, my signature is written everywhere as “V. A. Zelensky.” But [in Ukrainian] there’s no “A” in my name. With all due respect. Everything there is in Ukrainian, and [in Ukrainian,] I’m “V. O.” [the initials forVolodymyr Oleksandrovich]. If you’re writing in Ukrainian there’s no V. A.! There are quite a few things like that. It’s the same with this document from Balan. And so on.

Zygar: I want to confirm some details about the story with the Russian warship. We all remember it — it was a powerful story in the early days of the war. You presented posthumous awards to the Ukrainian soldiers who were on Snake Island, I believe. And then it came out that they all survived. Tell me, what really happened? Are they alive or not?

Some of them died. Some of them were taken prisoner. Everyone who was captured was later recovered — they were traded for prisoners from the Russian Federation. Russia came up with this proposal. We made the trade without a second thought. That’s it. The ones who died are truly heroes. And the ones who survived — we made the exchange, and that’s it.

Dzyadko: I’d like to ask about one more issue that’s constantly brought up by Russian officials and Russian TV hosts. And was written about by the Daily Mail newspaper. Regarding the “bio labs.” The story that’s currently being repeated by the Russian authorities.

Yes, it’s an anecdote. There’s nothing for me to explain. There’s nothing here. We’d love to, but there’s nothing here. No nuclear weapons, no chemical bio-laboratories, no chemical weapons. These don’t exist. If there were somebody like me [in power] in those days, when our country signed away all of our interests, well, that’s exactly what I would call it. I wouldn’t have given it all up.

Just like how I wouldn’t have given up some other things — “here you go, take our ships, go and give out Russian passports in Crimea,” and so on. We should have acted honestly from the start, should have said there are a lot of Russian citizens living here. A lot of our sailors are living here in Sevastopol, despite the fact that this is your independent land, so let’s make a decision that there will be both Ukrainians and Russian here — and they’ll act honestly. Instead of quietly sailing in, distributing [passports]… And that fleet that was purchased by Russian officials, and so on. And the Ukrainian authorities absolutely closed their eyes.

That was territorial theft on Russia’s part and absolutely betrayal on Ukraine’s part. That’s what it was like in the 1990s with regard to Crimea and with regard to our independent territory. So just like with these laboratories… [...] You were all there! How the hell could we have poisoned anybody? That’s not how we’ve ever treated our enemies!

The philosophy of nuclear disarmament is good, correct, and so on. But you can’t build your empire on the weakness of others. It’s just not possible. Because empires are built through economies, not through intimidation.

Kolpakov: How would you articulate Ukraine’s current military objective? How do you imagine — if you do imagine it — military victory?

— Yes. Minimize the number of deaths and reduce the duration of this war. Withdraw Russian troops to the compromise territories — and that’s how everything was until February 24, until the attack. Let them go back there. I understand that forcing Russia to completely let the territory go is impossible, it would lead to World War III. I know that perfectly well and I’m honest with myself. That’s why I’m saying this — it’s a compromise. Return to where you came from, and then we’ll try to solve the Donbas issue, the complex Donbas issue.

Look, I’m not 70 years old — you understand what I mean. I’m not 70 years old, I definitely have time. But I won’t be here forever, and a worthy person will replace me. I want to end this war, I don’t want us to have hundreds of thousands of casualties. I don’t want that. That’s why I was never considering an attack on the Donbas or on Crimea. Because I’m deeply aware of how many thousands of our people would die. And what price we would pay for our territory, even if we recovered it.

Nobody knows. The Russian’s have attacked with all their strength — and lost about 20,000 people. With all of their strength. And excuse me, but they still haven’t made it into Kyiv. They haven’t made it in. You have to understand that the odds of them getting in are slim. But if they do get in, you really have to understand that they’d better have a 100,000 [soldiers]. There’s no other way to deal with that kind of city, with that kind of population. In Kyiv, there’s a living population of three million who haven’t left. Do you understand how many that is? That’s just an enormous number of people.

A military hospital. March 13, 2022
Ukrainian Presidential Press Service

Solovyov: Mr. President, since we’ve been talking, there have been new reports that the head of the “LNR” [the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic] announced that he intends to hold a referendum on joining Russia. I assume the authorities in the “DNR” [the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic] will soon follow his example. What kind of solution or discussion of the Donbas question can there be after that?

— Look, you and I live in a certain space… We try to live in a certain space of legitimacy, right? When someone says something, this person is supposed to represent something — either himself, or this or that territory, on a legal level. The law applies in the context of international institutions, and not just in some separate, occupied territories. So whatever someone reported, that’s his right as a person.

It doesn’t matter. We heard signals from these guys, “athletes,” as we called them in the 1990s. When I was in university, we called these guys athletes. It’s not that they won medals… It’s just that they behaved as if they were great. You know, those athletes in sweatpants. And then they changed into suits and became who they became. But he left his sweatpants on under his suit. The sweatpants and the striped tank top.

So I don’t know what they represent or what they’re saying. No doubt they’ll be followed by the Russian Federation’s other offices on Ukrainian territory, I agree with you. For me, he’s more like President Putin’s CEO. I think I’d rather talk to the owner, not his colleagues, if you don’t mind.

Dzyadko: Mr. Zelensky, representatives of your office have said you’ve survived more than ten assassination attempts in recent weeks. Can you tell us about it in more detail? What happened, when, where, and how?

— There’s nothing to say, really. Our guards take care of these questions and eliminate problematic elements that come here to hunt. There’s nothing else to say.

Zygar: Since our time is coming to an end… Do you have a message for the citizens of Russia or to Russians who will watch our conversation with you through various channels? What would you say to them?

I think there’s an important thing that everyone needs to understand: no matter what, we understand that in Russia — and among the citizens who left the Russian Federation, either forever or temporarily — there will always be a large portion of the population that supports the truth. I won’t even force them to say they support Ukraine — just that they support the truth. Because it’s important to understand the truth yourself, to dot your i’s. But there’s also a large portion of the population that supports the policies of the current president of the Russian Federation.

I just want both of these sides to analyze the situation more, so that there’s more support for Ukraine. So that more people get through to their neighbors, their relatives, their loved ones. Because without that, it’s impossible to get through the information curtain, which used to be the iron one. […] It’s impossible to break through without journalists, cultural figures, artists, writers, actors. Teachers who can give children knowledge. I know it’s a risk. I know, I understand. But nevertheless, without that, it won’t be possible for any of this to come to an end. This war isn’t going to end, because a war doesn’t just end when the fighting stops… Defending our territory until Russia stops its actions here — that won’t end the war, you see? The fences the grenades fly through don’t prevent war. But something will end, there will come a moment. You remember Preobrazhensky, the devastation — it’s in all our heads. That’s why the war will end when everyone is ready to accept that this was a huge mistake on the part of the Russian authorities, and that it led to a catastrophe for the Russian people. And only then will it be possible to say how long this war will drag on.

That’s what I believe we need to think of our children and grandchildren — it’s too late to think about ourselves. Adults like you and I are not going to forgive each other. I don’t believe in that anymore. I’ve just seen how Russians are reacting, I’ve seen the percentage of people who support Putin, and so on. I don’t mean him, I mean his actions. It’s just not possible. But we need to fight for our children and our grandchildren. It’s a big chance, because we understand that none of us is moving off of these lands: not us, not you, which is fair.

So knock on all the doors you can, all of the closed-off human doors. Knock and tell them about this. Because it’s actually quite difficult to figure everything out while you’re being bombed, while you’re under attack. And under this information attack — and it is in fact an information bombardment. I don’t know what’s been scarier: the information bombardment or the bullets. They’re both scary. People who don’t understand this deeply need to figure it out. We need to try to accept this as a tragedy and try to solve it. Try to solve it.

We definitely want peace. Because if we didn’t, then believe me, we’d be in Crimea tomorrow. If we were on the level of “War! Let’s go! Hurray!” — but believe me, nobody’s saying “hurray.” We’re fighting on our own territory. One of our soldiers can beat ten Russian soldiers because they don’t know what they’re doing here. And ours know that their wives are currently over there in Poland with their children. Or in Volnovakha, and she was crushed yesterday. That’s why our people have so much strength, not because they’re somehow special. It’s because we’re experiencing a tragedy, and that’s what I’m trying to explain.

So when Russia says that documents must include that we’re not going to take back Crimea by force… Of course we’re not going to take it by force. Because we care about people, we care about our people. Because people will go there and die. It’s just sad. And you still haven’t done anything in these ten years. What have you done in Crimea? Built hotels like in Dubai, or what? What did it bring you? What about the Donbas? What about the arena they opened? You hit it with a bomb, and now it’s just sitting there. It’s impossible to do this, do you understand? People came with a different ideology.

I just don’t want to waste time on this, but you don’t understand what happened with the flooded mines [in the Donbas]... And nobody can understand it except for the people there. And with those underground floods… It’s just a catastrophe. You think Putin wants the Donbas? He’ll take all the money from Russians in order to “restore order” there.

When I became president, I started studying issues I’d never understood in my life. People here said that we had mines, they were sucking up money, and coal production was decreasing. And some miners had to be transferred from one mine to another. Some of the mines were still functional, and some of them had to be closed… And these are all ghost towns now. You can’t just take a mine and flood it, you can’t just blow it up — you’ll cause a disaster. A social, humanitarian, ecological disaster. And we already have all of that.

Smoke rising after an explosion in Kyiv. March 17, 2022
Felipe Dana / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Kolpakov: Why do you think Vladimir Putin is doing this? What’s the first thought that comes to your mind to explain it? Why did this happen?

— It depends — a lot of things [come to mind]. What does “one thought” mean? One thought like [Russian talk show host Yury] Dud, when he asks questions and someone answers them? That doesn’t work with me.

I have a multi-pronged approach to this question. To the question of Russia, its place in the world, its leadership, and everyone who’s left it. Who have the right not to be in Russia. There’s a whole story here, do you see? My approach is a historical one. And there are a lot of different pieces: the Caucasus is the Caucasus, Georgians are Georgians, Moldovans are Moldovans, and Ukraine is Ukraine.

Ukraine is dangerous from many points of view. First of all, it’s the loss of the Russian language’s influence — he lost several million Russian speakers. He wants to get it all back by force, which would lead to another war, but let’s not talk about that, I don’t want to repeat myself. Second of all — of course, Ukraine’s success. And by virtue of geopolitics, location, people — he definitely understands what kind of people we have here. Not all the way, but he understands. A lot of people understand that such an adventurous and hardworking people, of course, will punch above its weight economically. And of course there are economic risks from the Russian perspective. They’ll look and they’ll think, why can’t we try, too? They told us that the EU isn’t great — well, turns out it is! Let’s look at the steps. And then, look, our political environment is changing, too. Young people are turning out. […] And what next? And if they can do it, why can’t Russia? There are a lot of reasons he acts this way. He has ambitions to bring the Soviet Union back — well, how long does he have left to live? It’s like anyone 70–80 years old. It’s not like he has 50 years left.

That’s why he announced today’s appeasement plans. Unfortunately, I don’t believe his plans are strategic. Strategy is what will happen in a hundred years with the state he’s been leading for a quarter century. I’m not the Russian people’s adviser, but I believe that’s his strategy. Strategy isn’t what will come after me, strategy is what will come after the fifth person like me. What will happen after five more generations, where will we be? I’m curious what will happen to Ukraine — I'm curious as a citizen, for my children. And if it doesn’t interest me, then France, Italy, Switzerland. Send my children there, my grandchildren there. Great Britain and so on. Not a forced departure, I’m not comparing it to dissidence or forced migration, but when I have these plans — to make some money and head there.

Putin has a different approach. He wants the current generation to remember him. He wants a monument — a mausoleum, a statue, a commendation. I see a commendation in his actions, I don’t even see a statue. And I believe it’s a mistake. But I don’t think it’s his mistake — it’s the mistake of those around him. He’s in that circle, you know. Remember… Well, okay, I won’t compare him with that leader, he’s no longer living, so God be with him…

That’s why I have this multi-pronged answer and so forth. And Abkhazia, and all of that — Russia will lose all of it, of course. But the problem isn’t that, the problem is how those people will get by. It’s just like us with the Donbas, where the children have been brainwashed in school for ten years about who we are, how we’re Nazis… What are we supposed to do after that? That’s the problem.

That’s my answer to the question, “What next?” What will happen in three generations or in five? It’s a problem. What’s the point of driving in the nails and splitting it all? Someone has to do it.

The party was fun, guys. Now who’s gonna clean up?

Interview by Ivan Kolpakov (Meduza), Mikhail Zygar, Tikhon Dzyadko (Dozhd), and Vladimir Solovyov (Kommersant)

Translation by Sam Breazeale

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