Ukrainian president shows steel and emotion in marathon press conference, as Joe Biden says having China as peacemaker is ‘just not rational’
Volodymyr Zelenskiy has cautiously welcomed China’s peace plan to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but said it would be acceptable only if it led to Vladimir Putin pulling his troops out from all occupied Ukrainian territory.
Speaking at a press conference in Kyiv to mark the first anniversary of Moscow’s full-scale attack, the Ukrainian president said he “wanted to believe” Beijing was interested in a “fair peace”.
That meant not “supplying weapons to Russia”, he said, adding: “I’m doing my best to prevent that from happening. This is priority number one.”
Western leaders are sceptical about the proposal, and argue that Beijing does not have the international credibility to act as a mediator.
Joe Biden said on Friday night that the idea of China negotiating the out come of the war was “just not rational”.
But there seems little realistic prospect of any direct negotiations with Russia, a year after Putin sent his army to seize Kyiv and to topple its pro-western government. Zelenskiy
– who was dressed in a black fleece, khaki trousers and desert boots – said compromise with a “sick” and “bloody” Russian leadership was currently impossible.
He recalled how Ukrainians “didn’t run to Russian troops with flowers” when they came across the border a year ago and instead greeted them with weapons.
Russia had turned from a “neighbour and friend” into a prodigious murderer that “killed and tortured people”, and abducted children, he said.
“Do you think we can sit and negotiate with them after this?” he asked. “They need to stop shelling us, destroying infrastructure, launching airstrikes, killing animals and burning forests.”
Zelenskiy spoke for two-and-a-half hours in a basement location in central Kyiv. He was relaxed, confident, passionate, and sometimes amusing, speaking mostly in Ukrainian but with flashes of English. On a green backdrop were the words: “Year of invincibility”.
Predictions that Russia would swiftly crush Ukrainian resistance turned out to be wrong, he said. He thanked the “army and people for not losing the country”. And added: “It was maybe down to me a bit. I’m not a hero. Perhaps I did something.
Asked by the BBC’s Kyiv reporter James Waterhouse who would be to blame, if Ukraine failed to win the war by this time next year, Zelenskiy struck a humorous note. “Where are my Typhoon aircraft?
Ask my friend Rishi [Sunak],” he said, referring to his recent visit to London and plea before MPs and Lords for powerful “English planes”.
Zelenskiy repeatedly emphasised the war was not a local dispute between unhappy neighbours. He said Ukrainians were fighting and dying for civilised European values and for freedom.
Asked if Moscow would invade another state, if it won in Ukraine, he said: “Unfortunately, yes. Putin has failed on the battlefield. He needs to demonstrate success.”
For Zelenskiy personally it has been a long and extraordinary journey – from celebrity actor and comedian, to wartime president and the world’s preeminent and most sought-after politician.
There were moments when his old career as an entertainer and crowd-pleaser bubbled to the fore.
Asked if Australia should reopen its embassy in Kyiv, which remains closed for security reasons, Zelenskiy said he would like to shake hands with the returning Australian ambassador. He quipped in gravelly tones:
“Please come back. But on a Bushmaster [four-wheel drive armoured vehicle]. We need one more.”
Quizzed by a German reporter if Putin wanted to kill him, he replied: “I always thought Germans have more information about Putin’s thoughts than I have.”
“Putin’s applauding it, so how could it be any good?” Biden told ABC News. “I’ve seen nothing in the plan that would indicate that there is something that would be beneficial to anyone other than Russia, if the Chinese plan were followed.”
Biden also ruled out sending F16 fighter jets to Ukraine “for now”. “We’re sending him what our seasoned military thinks he needs now. He needs tanks, he needs artillery, he needs air defence, including another Himars [rocket system],” Biden said.
“There’s things he needs now that we’re sending him to put them in a position to be able to make gains this spring and this summer going into the fall.”
Ukraine has come up with its own 10-point peace formula. It demands the withdrawal of Russian troops, reparations and prosecutions for Russia’s war leadership.
On Friday, Zelenskiy indicated he was willing to consider aspects of the Chinese proposal. He said he planned to meet president Xi Jinping and said it would be “useful” to both countries and global security.
“As far as I know, China respects historical integrity,” he stressed, adding: “Let’s work China on this point. Why not?
“I’m speaking to you from de-occupied Kyiv,” he said.
Asked about the worst moment of the past year, he cited Bucha – the garden town just outside Kyiv where Russian soldiers last spring executed at least 700 civilians, dumping bodies in the streets in a grisly display.
“It was horrible,” he said. “We have seen that the devil is not somewhere underground but among us.”
Ukraine’s president expressed confidence that his armed forces would drive Russians out from everywhere including Crimea, the peninsula illegally annexed by Russia in 2014.
“We will win,” he predicted – a belief shared by 95% of Ukrainians, according to an opinion poll this week. Asked when, he replied: “This year”.
But he also underlined that Ukraine’s future success on the battlefield depended on the west rapidly supplying modern weapons to Kyiv, including long-range artillery and fighter jets.
He said he had had “very frank” discussions about this with Joe Biden, who visited Kyiv on Monday, and with the EU and UK.
So far the US president’s administration has refused to provide long-range ATACMS artillery to the Ukrainians, apparently on the grounds that it could be used to hit targets inside Russia. Zelenskiy said it was needed to protect civilians from Russian predation, adding Ukraine would employ these systems solely to target enemy logistics centres in occupied areas.
The conversation was reminiscent of what happened with tanks, he said. European countries and the Biden administration initially ruled out sending them, only to later change their minds. They would similarly agree to supply F16 fighter jets, he predicted. Delay was terrible since it means “we lose more people”, he said.
Zelenskiy’s gifts as a communicator appeared as formidable as ever. But he conceded that Ukraine had failed to get its message across to countries in the global south, including India and much of Africa.
He said the Kremlin had waged a successful disinformation campaign in Latin America, which Ukraine was trying to combat.
He acknowledged he sometimes made mistakes. Asked how the war had affected his personal life, he paid tribute to his wife Olena.
He said he loved her and their children, wished he saw his parents “more often” and hoped they are all “proud of him”.
A year since it broke out, the conflict in Ukraine has changed the world, and the Guardian has covered every minute of it. Our reporters on the ground have endured personal risk to produce more than 5,000 articles, films and podcasts. Our live blog has been expertly updated continuously and comprehensively since the outbreak of Europe’s biggest war since 1945.