The person best embodying the Ukrainian resistance to the Russian aggressor opens up to L'Express. He expresses to us his concern about the fate of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, his confidence in the morale of his people, the outcome of the war, his relationship with Emmanuel Macron and his expectations relative to the European Union... As he was answering our questions, a Russian bombardment of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city, killed six people and injured 16. "A despicable and cynical attack on civilians," he condemned on Telegram. But the Ukrainian president is convinced that victory against Russia is possible.
L'Express :Since the start of August, you've spoken twice with Emmanuel Macron. After six months of war, what do you expect from France in economic and military terms ?
Volodymyr Zelensky : In terms of the military aspect, I'm not going to go into details, but I want you to know that Emmanuel has helped us and continues to help us. We were in direct contact in the very first days of this war, and have remained so. I tell him about our immediate needs and he tells me what it's possible to obtain. I would like to thank Emmanuel and the whole of French society : your country has been unwavering in its support for us ! If you consider the overall envelope of macro-financial aid provided by the countries of the European Union, the French share is extremely significant. I'm deeply grateful to France that has contributed a billion euros: this is very substantial aid ! I would also like to thank Brigitte Macron, who's in contact with my wife. Both are accomplishing a great many things in the humanitarian field. I remember the initial days of the war : after they had spoken, we managed, with the support of France, to ensure that Ukrainian children suffering from cancer could go to your country for treatment. I would like to express my gratitude to France for this assistance.
Would you like to see a tightening of the sanctions against Russia ?
I'm grateful that two important decisions were taken during the French Presidency of the European Union, one concerning the package of sanctions against Russia and the other concerning Ukraine's application to join the European Union. These are two crucial topics. This doesn't prevent us from having different points of view on certain subjects. For example, I think that the strongest sanction would be to introduce visa restrictions for citizens of the Russian Federation. I can understand why this isn't unanimously supported, especially in France, which is visited by many Russian tourists who love the French Riviera. But don't forget that taking a holiday in your country means visiting its beautiful restaurants, that wonderful coast, and enjoying French culture. Of course, tourists pay for it, but in return, they enjoy the benefits of France. But, as in any democratic European country, they rely on the principle of freedom. It's thanks to democracy, the market economy and the fact that there has been no iron curtain. In my view, people shouldn't be able to make the most of all that and then go home to Russia and support the war. This war goes against those very values, in fact. People who are in favour of this conflict and opposed to democratic values shouldn't have the right to enjoy these benefits. They have to stay home in Russia to live and take time off.
Since mid-August, the world has been concerned about the fate of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. How to avoid the dire scenario of a nuclear disaster ?
Of course, we've discussed this subject with Emmanuel Macron. Let me explain to you what's going on there. It's a nuclear power plant six times bigger than Chernobyl : in case of a disaster, the danger won't be confined to the European continent ! It will be a nuclear war without nuclear weapons : we must be cognizant that this scenario can happen and would lead to a global disaster. This Zaporizhzhia power plant was first targeted by tanks and then by heavy artillery. It was targeted by the Russian army, but also by Russian mercenary combatants. They killed all of the guards and brought heavy weapons within the grounds of the plant. They also mined the site's surroundings so that no one could enter it. At the same time, the team of specialists working there was taken hostage: they wanted to shoot them and some unfortunately died as heroes. The whole world has put the Russians on notice, but they're terrorists ! They keep these people inside and control their movements. So, I repeat, the risks are very significant! The plant is currently is in the hands of armed people, equipped with mines and grenades.
Are you in favour of an inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as demanded by NATO [on 19 August, Putin accepted that an IAEA mission be sent there] ?
We're ready to go along with that, but the arrival of these inspectors won't resolve the issue, because the IAEA will only come to say : "yes, there's a risk", or "the risks are high", or "the risks aren't very high". But it won't remain on-site. What will happen once the delegation leaves ? What we need to achieve is the departure of the armed mercenaries at the core of the site and the establishment of a constant presence of IAEA and UN personnel. We must end the occupation of this power station and give the people working there an opportunity to eat, shower, not be afraid, and not fear for their families. As long as the current situation continues, we won't be able to do anything.
In military terms, what developments do you envisage in the coming weeks and months ?
Let me be frank: we aren't looking ahead for months, or even weeks. Our armed forces are fighting for our country each and every day. And the price of each of these days isn't just a question of money: it's first and foremost a human cost, that of the lives of our soldiers. Russia is advancing every day, and we continue defending ourselves every day, especially in the east of the country. Every day, if we can, we're making progress in the south, however small the steps. Every day, we're defending our big cities according to our means. It's our military that's doing this, and our actions take place on a day-to-day basis, even though we have overall plans for the reoccupation of our territory. I'm sure that we'll manage to implement them: we'll be able to move forward and take back our cities and liberate our compatriots who are currently being held hostage. As President, my plans align with those of our society : to restore the territorial unity of Ukraine. Unfortunately, the loss of life is irreparable. In financial terms, we're counting on international support for the time that it takes to rebuild our economy, and to help us absorb the $5 billion a month deficit associated with the war effort.
What's the status of the announced large-scale Ukrainian counter-offensive ?
You'll understand that I'm not prepared to talk about it today, but I can tell you that we're very much counting on this possibility. It will depend on many factors, such as the assistance of Western partners or the supply of adequate weapons. But I'm absolutely convinced of the strength of our fellow citizens. Everywhere, I see the motivation of our military and our civilians, and I wouldn't want to allow time to be on Russia's side by dragging out this process. Especially since Russia has a lot of equipment and makes no effort to spare its weapons or its men. Sure, we have fewer weapons, but we love our people more. And that's our greatest potential, our greatest treasure. So we won't compare ourselves to Russia ! We definitely have the home field advantage. We're fighting for our land, and we're motivated! We need this military and armed help, and I'm convinced that victory will be at the end of the road.
How would you define a Ukrainian victory in this war ? Do your objectives include taking back the Crimea ?
For us, the objective is to restore our borders. And Crimea is Ukrainian: I would like to remind the whole world that it's our peninsula. Of course, we hope to take back all of our territories: that's what ultimate victory is for me. Some people believe that the war started six months ago. Others say that it began in 2014. From my point of view, as a Ukrainian citizen, the war started when the first Russian soldier put his armed foot on the Crimean peninsula and occupied it. That's the truth. At the time, it wasn't a bloody war like it is now, but it was a creeping occupation. We're aware of what Crimea now represents for Russian political and military leaders, but they'll have to live for the rest of their lives with this one thought in mind: one day Ukraine will recover Crimea, and whatever the means used, we'll get back to that land.
I would like this to happen peacefully. I hope that it happens now, that it happens yesterday, as they say, but given the neighbour that we have to contend with, nothing will be simple.
We've already had several victories: we didn't let the Russians take our capital. When we cleared the occupiers from the Kiev region, it was a small victory, but a victory nonetheless. Same thing when we recovered the Chernihiv region [Editor's note: north of Kiev]. And we didn't let the Russians invade us in three days... All of these are small victories. The big and definitive victory will come when we recover all of our territories.
You speak of the strength of the Ukrainian people. How do you explain this spirit of resistance, that emerged at the start of the Russian offensive and that has surprised the whole world ?
The citizens of Ukraine are all heroes. They rebuild their homes, they help their neighbours, they defend every bit of our territory... There are also those who fled to the border while taking their children with them, and who helped other families: they're heroes as well. It's fantastic to see the unity among civilians, the military and authorities that Ukraine has shown in this war... Whatever their profession, whether they live inside or outside of the country, whether they've collected money abroad, volunteered or provided humanitarian aid in Ukraine, they're all part of the Ukrainian army.
But I'm also thinking of those people who've given everything that they can, whether in the form of money, aid or hospitality. French people, Italians, Germans, Poles, people from the Baltics... These citizens of the European Union who, by the will of their hearts, have come together to help Ukraine. These people share that strength that I believe was passed on to them by our people. Ukrainians have shown them that we're all fighting for common values. That was a very positive signal !
Faced with a Russian enemy imposing its terror, this war has an existential dimension for Ukraine : can a ceasefire put an end to it ?
Let's be clear : no one believes in a ceasefire that would freeze the situation, because it would remind us of what happened in the east of the country under the name of the Minsk agreements [Editor's note: signed in September 2014]. Everyone saw the result of these agreements: they stopped the conflict for a while, but then Russia launched a large-scale aggression. Today, if the situation were to be frozen with Russian troops in their locations across Ukrainian territory, no one would accept this scenario. I wouldn't, and nor would Ukrainian society. As President, I won't allow duplication of the Minsk agreements ! No one would accept it, since no one has any faith in the word of Russia.
But is an agreement with Russia possible as long as Vladimir Putin is in power ?
Let's ask the question differently. We're talking about an agreement with Russia: what would we get out of it ? I think that in order to consider this hypothesis, the Russians must first find a solution to get off the path to nowhere on which their leaders have led their own history and their own people. By acting in this way, they've behaved like terrorists. It's just a matter of time before the world officially recognises it! We all agree that the Russians are the aggressors. They're not only a party in the conflict, but a State that has violated all international agreements, that has entered the territory of a sovereign country, that has occupied, tortured, financed the Wagner group and other mercenaries: today, Russia is a State sponsor of terrorism. The situation has completely changed compared to 2014-2015, when the international community was making concessions to Russia in an effort to reach a peaceful solution with Moscow. Russia is aware of this, and must think about how to end this war.
How exactly can this be achieved ?
Russia wanted to take the country in three days, but couldn't do it. The Russian leadership is well aware that this is a trap that they've closed around their own people. Now they have to find a solution. Right now, their proposal is to use force. We're gradually occupying Ukraine, and when it's fully occupied, we can then sit at the negotiating table with the whole world and dictate our conditions. But this scenario won't happen, because Ukrainians no longer want to talk to them. And without us, the world won't be able to negotiate with Russia, especially after the torture that we've uncovered. The people aren't going to surrender, and there are millions of us: I think that, deep down inside, the Russians know this. In their hearts, they understand that this is a bad solution and that they won't manage to break us. In truth, they're the ones who need to get out of this situation. It's up to them to propose to Ukraine and the rest of the world how to achieve this. We haven't received any proposals so far, except a continuation of the shooting...
In economic terms, what are the consequences of six months of war ?
The striking thing is that our economy is still running, even during the war. Many Ukrainians want to go home, work there, send their children to school, send them to universities... But for that, we need a powerful anti-aircraft defence, a subject with which our partners can help us. This is what I'm saying to them now: I'm convinced that it would be cheaper for the world to help us with this anti-aircraft defence than to give us money each day to make up for our trade deficit! Because protecting our skies would be a powerful means of controlling Russian missiles, including over our country's nuclear power plants and strategic or logistical centres. Therefore, yes, controlling our skies will enable us to ensure the safety of our citizens, of their lives, and thus give them the certainty that life goes on the next day, even as the war continues. It's in this area that we need help.
Your farmers are suffering terribly from the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports. Is the departure of the first ships loaded with cereals a sign of slightly more optimistic prospects ?
Absolutely, the maritime corridor that has been restored thanks to our agreements [Editor's note: 22 July 2022] and the UN initiative is beginning to produce results: it's giving us a breath of hope for our exports! Dozens of ships have already left our ports and we're doing everything we can to speed things up. But it doesn't solve everything, far from it! What are we going to do in the next few years if Ukraine can't sow, and therefore if there is no harvest? We'll be threatened! Russia's blockade of the Black Sea represents a challenge over several years, the impact of which we do not yet know. Look at what they've done in the field of electrical energy: Russia is constantly creating artificial obstacles, and now Europe is being affected.
An economic crisis is indeed threatening the West, with rising energy prices, rising inflation and the spectre of recession... How will you keep your allies united ?
We can have a long discussion about whether or not to implement an embargo on Russian gas and petroleum products. Some countries are ready to do that, others refuse, fearing that they'll be too cold during the winter. Bills will also increase. It's like Covid, really: we won't resolve these issues until there's a vaccine against Russian blackmail! In particular a vaccine against the energy dependence to which Russia has reduced the whole world, including Ukraine. Because this dependency exists. Russia has confronted us all with a fait accompli, threatening to close the gas tap. What they're doing is clear to see: against the backdrop of economic difficulties, Russia is busy lobbying in business circles, while simultaneously exerting influence in political and media organisations and circles within the European Union. Russia wants to influence the policies of other countries. To realise this, one has only to look at what happened in Ukraine. The war started not with gunfire but with political and mental occupation, when the Russians entered our Parliament: the second political party in Ukraine was under Russian influence! [Editor's note: the Opposition Platform - For Life party, banned in June 2022]. The same goes for television, through which Russia spread information propaganda. It prevented our country from moving towards the European Union and NATO, trying to persuade our citizens that it was a bad option, without reducing our energy dependence, since we couldn't live without their gas. That's what they were playing on, and they reminded us of it all the time. So what did we do? We reduced gas extraction in Ukraine, curbed the development of our own technologies and let them establish their businesses, preventing our own development. It started, I repeat, not with weapons, but with a war of influence.
Do you think that this scenario can be replicated elsewhere in Europe ?
Politically, the Russians have already begun to occupy the European Union, where they have many lobbyists. The next step is what they did in our country. Gas is only a first step: Europe must understand that it must become independent of Russian energy sources! This has to be done as quickly as possible. These agreements must be obtained by your leaders: conditions must be put to Russia! Even if it takes a year or maybe two years during which you may well suffer. But you'll be able to survive without their energy and it's essential to impose harsh conditions on Russia. Your leaders must talk to their constituents and explain to them that it's Russia that declared war, that this isn't just a war against Ukraine, but against us all. The whole world must learn from Ukrainian mistakes.
After six months of war, aren't you afraid that weariness will win over international public opinion ?
If no information gets out about what's happening in Ukraine, if there is no dialogue with society, then this weariness may well win out. Without overcoming this risk and thinking about how to continue the attacks every day, we won't achieve victory. We'll lose, and the European Union will lose: it will no longer be united. War wears you down, I'm aware of that. But it's especially wearying for people who aren't stakeholders in this war. With the temptation to forget it, not to see the blood, not to pay attention to the difficulties...
Don't forget that this attack on our land is a cancer, a tumour. If we fail to remove this tumour, it will grow. There will no longer be a united European Union. However, this isn't a legal or institutional issue, it's a matter of values. In a world of every man for himself, we won't be able to fight against the great empires and they'll crush us, either in a bloodthirsty way like Russia, or economically, or by increasing their presence. That is why defending ourselves together for Europe is simpler than defending ourselves individually. And therefore, it's important today to defend Ukraine, because otherwise, other countries will be attacked.
It was during the preparation of this special issue that L'Express requested an interview with Volodymyr Zelensky. The one-hour interview by videoconference between Kiev and Paris was conducted on 17 August 2022. The following text is the result of a simultaneous translation, edited by the editorial staff.