Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Friday spoke via video conference with the UK-based think tank Chatham House and accused Moscow of torturing the civilian population of Ukraine's southeastern Mariupol city but also insisted that not all bridges with Russia were burned.
He also invited German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to Kyiv, saying Ukraine’s door was open despite tensions between the two countries over Berlin’s allegedly lukewarm support for Ukraine in the face of Russia’s war on Ukraine.
In his opening remarks, Zelenskyy said Russia was blackmailing the world with graphic descriptions of how Moscow could deploy its nuclear arsenal as a means to avoid accountability for its "war crimes."
He said Russia was acting with impunity because it believed Western businesses would eventually return to it.
The Ukrainian president said Russia was purposefully destabilizing international foodstuff markets by capturing some Ukrainian seaports.
This would affect the Middle Eastern, African, and other developing countries the most, he added, saying “the neediest will suffer.”
Zelenskyy also said Russia was seeking to sow political chaos in other countries, because those on lower incomes and even the middle classes would be affected the most by rising food prices.
He continued by saying that while some countries saw "the invasion" as a bilateral affair between Russia and Ukraine, now “the picture is seen differently.”
Ukraine was every day looking for humanitarian corridors and diplomatic solutions to end the war, but “cannot feel any willingness on the Russian side to end it,” he added.
He said the response to "Russia’s invasion" should have been “instantaneous,” but instead, Zelenskyy added, Ukraine found itself discussing the “same things over and over again” -- including oil embargoes, bank sanctions, and weapons.
The international security architecture should be reformed so that states that are victims of aggression receive support within 24 hours, he said.
The event, organized by the Chatham House Ukraine Forum, was chaired by Robin Niblett, the head of the Chatham House.
Niblett asked Zelenskyy if he was surprised by how united Ukrainians were, and the ferocity of their resistance.
“I’ve always been convinced our people are strong,” Zelenskyy replied, describing Ukrainians as a fist that clenched and hit back against Russia. He said most normal people in most countries would rally together to defend their families and homes in the face of an invasion, and that he was happy Ukrainians had the strength to do so.
Niblett asked the Ukrainian president if anything could be done to stop Russia from taking Mariupol, a strategic seaport city, and that if it fell to the Russians how that would change the shape of the war.
Zelenskyy described in depressing detail the humanitarian situation in the city. He said events there were a form of blockade, with starvation used as a weapon of torture.
"It’s not human," he said of the Russian military’s treatment of people.
Zelenskyy said people are not just being killed by the war, but also tortured to death as both international and Ukrainian organizations cannot send food and water to the people of Mariupol.
He said that before the war began, Ukraine and Russia were good neighbors with mixed families on both sides of the border. This situation changed now, he said, blaming Russia's intelligence apparatus for creating hatred against Ukraine.
Zelenskyy said Mariupol is already completely destroyed, so there was nothing in reality for Russia to take. He said weapons could stop Moscow taking this region, and that Russia would continue to militarily advance until the point Ukraine stopped it.
Asked what was the minimum that Ukraine could accept in a peace deal with Russia, Zelenskyy made clear that he was “the elected president of Ukraine, not mini-Ukraine.”
He said talks were needed to stop the killing, and diplomacy could be used to regain the occupied territories.
He added that the first step would be a return to the state of affairs on Feb. 23, the day Russia launched its war, which would involve Russian troop withdrawals and falling back to their original positions.
Despite Russia destroying many bridges in Ukraine, not all bridges have been destroyed, Zelenskyy said, extending a potential olive branch to Russia.
Niblett asked Zelenskyy if it was useful for the UK and US to publicly describe a Ukrainian victory as being one in which Putin is defeated.
“I am not afraid of such blunt statements, I think the more direct the better,” Zelenskyy said, adding that it was a still a complicated question, however.
He said Ukrainians and Russians needed to understand that if this war was not stopped, then all bridges would truly be burned.
Lots of people in Ukraine would agree that victory would involve Putin’s defeat, he said.
Zelenskyy described victory in different terms, however.
He said that for him, victory was not to lose 11 million people, that the 5 million who have fled Ukraine return home, that the country can be revived economically, and at least as a first step the country be returned to where it was at the start of the war.
Zelenskyy added that victory for him was also Ukraine’s accession to the EU, with all its pros and cons. He described this as the will of the Ukrainian people, a journey that started with the Maidan protests in late 2013.
Ukraine’s accession to the EU was not the principal aim in terms of victory, Zelenskyy said, but he added that it cannot be disregarded that people sacrificed their lives for that. He agreed that Russia should be punished for its actions, but that he cared more about Ukraine than Russia.
On relations with the EU generally, and Germany specifically, Zelenskyy said it was hypocrisy to send weapons with the right hand and sign contracts with the left hand.
People and nations cannot be simultaneously a little bit good and a little bit evil, he said.
He welcomed the fact that the West now had a proper and credible sanctions policy, but criticized the delay in parts of its application. He pointed out that Russia was making $1 billion a day in energy sales, so it was wrong to delay bringing in sanctions by four months or a year.
Zelenskyy said that though Ukraine is not an EU member, Kyiv understood what unity meant, and called for greater European unity.
He added that if Ukraine fell, the war would eventually come to Europe, if not immediately, then in years and generations.
On reports of frosty relations with German Chancellor Scholz, Zelenskyy said he has been invited to Ukraine on May 9, a symbolic day when Russia celebrates victory day over Germany in World War II. He added that he also talked to German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and had invited him to Ukraine as well.
Zelenskyy said Russia was drawing a new iron curtain with its “own bloody hands” around itself. He said the future generations of Russia would remove this iron curtain once its consequences were felt.
He said this iron curtain meant imports and exports to Russia should be stopped, and the world should not give into Russian blackmail over its potential use of nuclear and chemical weapons.
Niblett recalled that many countries have remained neutral or tacitly supported Russia, including India, China, and many democracies. Certain countries see the rising food prices affecting their countries as being the joint fault of Ukraine, Russia, and NATO. He asked the Ukrainian president how he could make countries currently not supporting Kyiv understand that this war, and its impact on food prices, was not Ukraine’s fault but the Kremlin’s.
Zelenskyy said Ukraine could keep talking to the world and supplying evidence to spread awareness of its message and do so with certainty.
He said international media would be wrong to take Ukraine off its front pages, because this was not only a war between Ukraine and Russia, but the world against terror. Ukraine’s victory would be a joint victory with the rest of the world against this terror, Zelenskyy said.