A Conversation With President Zelensky (2024)

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sabrina tavernise

From The New York times, I’m Sabrina Tavernise. And this is “The Daily.”

archived recording (volodymyr zelenskyy)

[SPEAKING UKRAINIAN]: [LAUGHS]:

sabrina tavernise

Five years ago, a TV personality and comedian, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, won the presidency in Ukraine in a landslide victory.

archived recording (volodymyr zelenskyy)

[SPEAKING UKRAINIAN]:

[CHEERING]

sabrina tavernise

And then — [ALARM BLARING]

— after three years in office, he faced the biggest challenge of his presidency and of his life.

archived recording (volodymyr zelenskyy)

This is only the beginning for Russia on the Ukrainian land. Russia is trying to defeat the freedom of all people in Europe.

sabrina tavernise

He rose to that challenge, beating back one of the world’s largest armies. But now —

archived recording (volodymyr zelenskyy)

We urgently need Patriot systems and missiles for them. And you can imagine what our soldiers feel when they simply have nothing to respond to enemy fire.

sabrina tavernise

The tide has turned against him.

archived recording (volodymyr zelenskyy)

Please do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself, why is Putin still able to continue it?

sabrina tavernise

Today, my colleague Andrew Kramer sat down with Zelenskyy to talk about the fight of his life and how it might end. It’s Tuesday, June 4. So, Andrew, you’ve been covering Ukraine for many years, and you first met President Zelenskyy back in 2020 before Russia invaded. Tell us what he was like back then.

andrew kramer

There’s just an incredible density of events that have filled Zelenskyy’s tenure as president. I had an opportunity to interview president Zelenskyy in 2020. And this was during COVID, so it was a Zoom interview. And it was really a different era for Zelenskyy. He had just come in as president. He was baby-faced. He was a fresh presence in Ukrainian politics. And at this moment, he was trying to reset relations with the United States. There had been tensions with the Trump administration, and he wanted to turn a new page in bilateral relations.

sabrina tavernise

And by tension with the Trump administration, you mean, of course, that Zelenskyy was in the middle of the first Trump impeachment. We may all forget, but Trump made a phone call to Zelenskyy, asking him to investigate not only Joe Biden, but also his son, Hunter Biden. And Trump hinted that the US would actually withhold military aid if Zelenskyy didn’t do that.

andrew kramer

That’s right. The perfect phone call. That’s what President Trump called it. And during this time, Zelenskyy became briefly a known figure in the United States. But in Ukraine, he was known as a charismatic leader. He was a television personality before becoming president, and he had campaigned on an idea of a new morning in Ukraine. He would crack down on corruption. And a central element of his campaign had been to make peace with Russia.

sabrina tavernise

It’s pretty interesting to remember, actually, that Zelenskyy started as someone who thought it was possible to make peace with Russia. That’s who he was as a politician when he started out.

andrew kramer

And he had wide support. He was elected with 73 percent of the vote. So a lot of Ukrainians believed that he would actually be able to achieve this. But this had really fallen apart. And by the time I talked to him late in 2020, the prospects for these negotiations were very unclear. And it was, for this reason, more important than ever for the Zelenskyy administration to shore up support from the United States.

sabrina tavernise

So that was 2020. A lot has changed. Clearly, at this point, Zelenskyy is not making peace with Russia anymore. You sat down with Zelenskyy a couple of weeks ago. Why did you want to talk to him again now?

andrew kramer

Well, it’s a very interesting and critical moment in the war. The tide has turned in the war. Russia is pressing all along the front and American aid had been stalled for six months. And it was passed recently in congress, but it hasn’t yet arrived. So it’s a moment where Zelenskyy has his back against the wall. And what Zelenskyy has really zeroed in on is that the NATO countries and the United States should allow Ukraine to use donated Western weaponry to hit targets inside of Russia.

Now, of course, firing American weapons into Russia has really been a red line for the United States through the more than two years of this conflict because Russia is a nuclear armed power. And there have always been fears in the background that this would be provocative, this would be escalatory, and would really raise the risk of a wider war. So we wanted to understand how Zelenskyy was making that argument for Biden to allow him to use American weapons to hit targets inside of Russia, despite the risks.

sabrina tavernise

So tell me about your interview. Start from the beginning.

andrew kramer

Are we — are we recording now?

speaker 1

I’m rolling, yeah.

andrew kramer

Well, we walked into the presidential administration through a very tight security. It’s always an interesting experience arriving at the presidential office in Kyiv. There are sandbags and anti-tank barriers around the building.

speaker 2

Andrew, you’ll set up on the right closest to the president.

speaker 1

Yeah, if we can get Andrew —

andrew kramer

We made our way through the compound to a ceremonial reception hall. This was in a 19th century building with exotic plaster moldings on the walls called the House of Chimaeras.

andrew kramer

OK.

speaker 2

OK? It’s OK for you.

andrew kramer

It’s good.

andrew kramer

And I went to interview Zelenskyy with my colleagues, Phil Pan, the international editor, and Bill Brink, the Ukraine editor.

speaker 1

You’re going to have to catch him later.

andrew kramer

We waited there for about an hour before the president showed up.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

volodymyr zelenskyy

Hi, I’m sorry I’m late.

andrew kramer

Hi. Mr. president, nice to meet you.

volodymyr zelenskyy

Welcome. How was trip?

andrew kramer

When he walks into a room, you immediately notice that he’s there, that he’s a presence.

speaker 1

Mr. President, I believe you know Andrew Kramer. He’s our bureau chief here.

andrew kramer

Well, we had an interview, but it was by Skype in 2020, I think.

volodymyr zelenskyy

Maybe. I’m sorry. It was in another life.

andrew kramer

And he is a little bit shorter in real life than he might appear on television. And war has changed Zelenskyy. He looks haggard. And for the last two years, he’s been bearded and wearing only military fatigues. In this case, it was a green t-shirt and green trousers. But he did seem to be holding up all right. He looked healthy and he was very energetic.

volodymyr zelenskyy

Thank you so much for coming. We can sit.

andrew kramer

After some small talk in English —

volodymyr zelenskyy

Can we check Ukrainian translation? Talk with us.

andrew kramer

He switched into Ukrainian, and we spoke with him through a translator.

andrew kramer

The Biden administration has prohibited Ukraine from using American made weapons to strike inside Russia out of concern for escalation, including the risk of nuclear war.

andrew kramer

And our very first question was about this red line.

andrew kramer

Your government has urged a change to this policy given the situation on the battlefield right now. Why?

volodymyr zelenskyy

[SPEAKING UKRAINIAN]:

interpreter

Thank you so much. Well, first of all, Biden administration was really against the use of the Western weapons. That’s important to mention.

andrew kramer

And he became quite animated. He was gesturing. He was using his skills as a public speaker to convey what he felt was a very important point.

interpreter

They are striking with the missiles from Russian territory. So how can we protect ourselves from these strikes?

andrew kramer

And he was saying that it’s really not possible for him to fight when the Russians can gather their forces and fly their airplanes in Russia and then attack Ukraine, when he is not allowed to strike back as they gather across the border.

interpreter

They are in the closest villages and settlements to the border from Russia, knowing that we will not respond.

andrew kramer

He was conveying this sense of fighting with one hand tied behind his back. And they have to endure the attacks from Russia, the bombings and the artillery strikes, and they’re not allowed to hit back.

interpreter

That is their big, big advantage.

andrew kramer

And then —

volodymyr zelenskyy

[SPEAKING UKRAINIAN]:

andrew kramer

He talked about the Northeastern part of Ukraine, near Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv. It’s been a target of Russian attack. It’s bombarded almost daily. And it’s now one of the focal points of the war.

volodymyr zelenskyy

[SPEAKING UKRAINIAN]:

andrew kramer

To defend Kharkiv, Ukraine has been forced to divert soldiers from elsewhere to fight this Russian incursion with the city at their backs.

interpreter

Russia is piling up the troops. They are —

andrew kramer

And Zelenskyy was telling us that his intelligence can see the Russians unloading from trains weaponry and equipment just across the border in Russia, but he’s not allowed to strike it because of the restriction on the use of Western weaponry. And so he said he has no choice but to watch them prepare to attack.

volodymyr zelenskyy

[SPEAKING UKRAINIAN]:

andrew kramer

And he had a very vivid image for this. He was saying that he sees the Russians gathering on that side of the border.

interpreter

That means that tomorrow, they will not give us flowers. They will give us death.

andrew kramer

And that he knows they aren’t coming with flowers, but they’re coming with death.

interpreter

If we know that tomorrow they are not celebrating with us, but they are killing us, why can’t we use our weapons to demolish them in the point of collection of the arms?

sabrina tavernise

In other words, what he was saying was that they’re basically sitting ducks. And if you could only use these big, powerful American weapons to shoot inside of Russia to take the war to Russians, then that could turn the tide of the war. But the Americans were just not letting him do that.

andrew kramer

That’s right. And he’s also asking for very specific weaponry to do this. And it really speaks to Zelenskyy’s life over the past 2 and 1/2 years. His country depends on an arsenal of weaponry from allies who have often been reluctant to provide it. And he finds himself often coming with what amounts to a shopping list to these Western nations, describing what his military needs in any particular circ*mstance.

interpreter

We can get, in the end of the day, from NATO countries.

andrew kramer

And what he told us —

interpreter

Seven —

volodymyr zelenskyy

[SPEAKING UKRAINIAN]:

interpreter

— Patriot systems. Seven.

andrew kramer

Was that he needed seven Patriot anti-aircraft missile systems.

interpreter

Our analysts told us we need 120, 130 F-16s.

andrew kramer

And 120 to 130 F-16 airplanes. And these kind of requests, well, understandable. His soldiers are engaged in combat, they’re suffering casualties, and civilians are being killed. So it’s of dire importance to Zelenskyy. But these type of requests have sometimes grated on Western politicians, so much so that last summer, the British minister of defense had said in response, and really in frustration, that, Zelenskyy, we’re not Amazon. Don’t come with a shopping list.

sabrina tavernise

And this, of course, has been the view of the US administration as well. Hey, guy, we just gave you $60 billion. Have some gratitude.

andrew kramer

Exactly.

sabrina tavernise

OK, so it’s clear why shooting American weapons into Russia would help Zelenskyy. But how is he viewing the risk of Russia retaliating and potentially setting off a nuclear war? Because, of course, that’s why the US drew this red line in the first place, right?

andrew kramer

Well, this is really the question of the hour on escalation.

andrew kramer

What do you say to the people who argue that it is too risky to allow Ukraine to use these weapons inside Russia because of the risk of escalation?

volodymyr zelenskyy

[SPEAKING UKRAINIAN]:

interpreter

There are no risks of escalation.

andrew kramer

And when we asked about this, Zelenskyy asked us, in a sense, to get inside Putin’s head a little bit and understand how he sees this playing out.

volodymyr zelenskyy

[SPEAKING UKRAINIAN]:

andrew kramer

He was saying that Putin is an irrational actor, so obviously somebody to be feared.

interpreter

That he could use the nuclear weapon then when he failed to conquer us during the first year of the war.

andrew kramer

But if he were to use nuclear weapons, he would have used them in the first year of the war when Russia was down and Ukraine was up. And he was also saying that —

interpreter

He did not use it because he really loves his own life.

andrew kramer

Putin, he’s irrational, but he would also fear for his own life.

interpreter

And he understands that that’s it. The door will be totally locked to Russia, fully locked if he uses nuclear weapons. It’s a fact. And no one will be able to do anything with that, even his fans among the politicians. They won’t be able to do anything because the use of the nuclear weapon is not the red line. This is a totally different level. That’s it. This is the World War III.

andrew kramer

Using a nuclear weapon would obviously be risking World War III, and Putin would understand the consequences of this. So these were Zelenskyy’s explanations of why he felt the Russians were bluffing on the nuclear question.

sabrina tavernise

So Zelenskyy’s conclusion was that the nuclear threat really isn’t real, that it’s not that much of a risk then for the West to let Ukraine cross that red line. Use those American weapons to shoot at Russians inside Russia.

andrew kramer

Yes. And then last week, apparently, Biden was convinced by Zelenskyy’s arguments. The Biden administration and administration officials announced that American weapons could be used to hit targets inside of Russia. The decision to shift was weighing the risk of losing Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv, or having it bombed into oblivion against a very small risk of a nuclear war. A large risk of losing a city and a small risk of nuclear war. But there were caveats.

The American permission only allowed the use of American weapons on the border and in response to Russian military attacks across the border on Ukraine. And it didn’t cover the most powerful rocket in the arsenal that the United States has provided, the attack-guided rocket. So we won’t see Ukrainian attacks on large Russian cities using American weapons, such as rocket attacks on Moscow. But it is evidence that the Biden administration has shifted a red line.

sabrina tavernise

And it seems significant, even if it’s limited. So the red line maybe isn’t actually so red. What do you think this tells us?

andrew kramer

It tells us that Zelenskyy has been persuasive with his style of public performance, with his style of reaching out directly to voters in the countries that are allies with Ukraine. He has pushed Western leaders to shift on red lines and to continually provide more military support for his military and change their policies on how they assist Ukraine.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

But Zelenskyy has another challenge. It’s something he doesn’t talk about nearly as much, but it’s just as important to winning the war. And this is a challenge inside Ukraine, in Ukrainian society.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

sabrina tavernise

We’ll be right back.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

So, Andrew, you said that there was another big potential problem for Zelenskyy, and that was a problem in Ukrainian society. Tell me about that.

andrew kramer

In short, it comes down to this. Not enough men want to fight, and Zelenskyy doesn’t know how to make them. He has been drafting men in relatively small batches throughout the country. And those who have signed up in the beginning, they are still serving at the front and have been fighting continuously for two years. So there’s fatigue of soldiers who are fighting and in the Army. And there’s also reluctance of those who have not yet been drafted to be drafted into the military.

sabrina tavernise

So, Andrew, I’m really thinking about this with you and remembering back to those early days when you and I were walking around the streets of Kyiv and going into draft offices, and seeing everybody who signed up, right? History professors. I think you even interviewed a male stripper at some point that we were remarking on. Everybody wanted to fight. But that is very different now. What happened? What changed?

andrew kramer

It’s now been two years, and there’s been a lot of dying. If you look at the number of men serving in the Ukrainian military now, including some units like the National Guard and border guards, it’s about 1 million men under arms. Out of that 1 million, about 10 percent have died so far. We don’t know the exact number of casualties in the Ukrainian army, but estimates are in the range of about 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers who have been killed over two years of war.

sabrina tavernise

Wow.

andrew kramer

One thing that I found really remarkable when you travel around in villages and towns is that there are almost always dry flowers all over the roads because there are funerals so often. And they put these flowers down, and then they have processions. So military vehicles will come very slowly carrying the body in a hearse. And people will get out of their cars and they’ll kneel on the side of the road while this procession goes by. And it’s these sort of scenes that are really frightening to men who are eligible for the draft and who know what it would mean to be called up and sent into the trench fighting.

sabrina tavernise

And how many men are eligible for the draft?

andrew kramer

In Ukraine, there are 3 to 4 million men who could be drafted and could be serving in the military. So they could be fighting a war of attrition with Russia with a larger army, where they’re able to mobilize and equip these additional soldiers. But they haven’t done this, and there’s been quite a bit of reluctance. So they’re at a moment now where they need soldiers, but the patriotic wave from earlier in the war has really washed over. And at this point, they’re going to have to use the power of calling up men against their will in order to continue fighting this war.

sabrina tavernise

What does that look like in Ukraine now?

andrew kramer

Well, the call-up of men from villages in some areas of Ukraine has been so great that there are villages without men. There are villages where women, when they see the draft officials coming into town, they have swarmed these vehicles and are protesting to protect the few remaining men in these areas. There have been roadblocks put up in Kyiv and other towns to stop cars and check draft registration documents on the street. And sometimes, men are asked to report to basic training within as little of a week after being stopped at one of these surprise checkpoints.

And this has been disruptive. And men are fearful of being caught in one of these roadblocks and approached by draft officials. And there are even social media apps that track where they’re moving around town. For example, in Kyiv, there’s an app called Weather in Kyiv. And it’ll say it’s raining on a certain intersection. And that would mean that the draft officials are there and men should avoid that area.

sabrina tavernise

Interesting. And is Zelenskyy acknowledging this challenge? The challenge of trying to get men to fight in the war.

andrew kramer

Politically, Zelenskyy has disassociated himself from the challenges of the draft. He’s said this is a problem for parliament or for the military. It’s politically very unpopular. And he hasn’t, for example, given major speeches calling on Ukrainians to sign up and explaining the draft policies.

volodymyr zelenskyy

[SPEAKING UKRAINIAN]:

andrew kramer

In our interview, he did, though, acknowledge the toll of the war on Ukrainian society. And he described this as divisions.

volodymyr zelenskyy

[SPEAKING UKRAINIAN]:

interpreter

Some people are at war. Some people are not.

andrew kramer

That there had been some rift in society between men who were fighting and men who were not fighting.

interpreter

It is really serious because the society begins to divide.

andrew kramer

And for somebody trying to steer a country in a war, this could be a problem.

interpreter

This separation in the society, this division, at this moment, the enemy can use it.

volodymyr zelenskyy

[SPEAKING UKRAINIAN]:

sabrina tavernise

So given that fewer and fewer people want to fight, and war is obviously fundamentally about fighting, where is Ukrainian society’s head right now on this war? And what is their appetite to stop it? Do people want to call it quits, agree to just, OK, lob off a third of their territory and give it to Russia and finally be done with this? Or is a full draft, mass mobilization finally going to be on the table?

andrew kramer

Well, this is what makes Zelenskyy’s situation now so interesting is he’s in a bind. He’s ruling a country that on the one hand, there’s massive support for continuing the war. There’s incredible anger at Russia. Still seething anger at Russia over this war, and no desire to negotiate. On the other hand, you have fewer and fewer people actually willing to fight. So Zelenskyy is caught between these two positions, and it’s a difficult moment.

sabrina tavernise

OK, to summarize here, Zelenskyy has been pushing on these red lines abroad. He’s getting stuff. He made some progress last week, but it seems like it’s not enough to dig himself out of the hole he’s in. And at home, there’s kind of a similar dynamic. He’s done these small batch drafts of men, but that also seems like it’s not enough to really win. And now he’s in this very hard place. And to put it very bluntly, it seems like a losing place.

andrew kramer

Well, this is probably the moment of most uncertainty for Zelenskyy and for Ukraine since the beginning of the war. There’s no popular decision for Zelenskyy. Drafting more soldiers is unpopular. If he doesn’t draft soldiers and settles in a ceasefire negotiation, that will also be unpopular. Zelenskyy is really squeezed between two fires. And this is all against the backdrop of Russia escalating an offensive that’s expected to continue through the summer.

sabrina tavernise

How is he coping with this? This is a lot on his shoulders.

andrew kramer

Well, this is something that we asked in the interview.

andrew kramer

I just wanted to ask if you could say a few words about your own life as a wartime president. And maybe —

andrew kramer

And we talked to him on what was the 817th day of the war.

volodymyr zelenskyy

[SPEAKING UKRAINIAN]:

interpreter

I’m not afraid of working for many hours and to do my work and many other works. But the hardest is the emotions. You understand that. Emotions.

andrew kramer

He doesn’t tell jokes like he used to. One aspect of the war is that his life as a comedian has really come to a close, and he’s become a much more serious public figure.

interpreter

And I wake up very early and —

andrew kramer

He said that he deals with some of the stresses of leadership by working out in the morning.

interpreter

I can see my wife more often. She’s in the office. But I see my children not that much.

andrew kramer

And he was most expressive and went on at some length about his family.

volodymyr zelenskyy

[SPEAKING UKRAINIAN]:

andrew kramer

He said that through the course of the war, his children have grown up. His daughter is now 19. His son is 11. And he said that he would spend time with his son working on Spanish homework.

interpreter

I don’t know Spanish, in fact. But I’m interested just in some time to spend with him, whatever he does.

volodymyr zelenskyy

[SPEAKING UKRAINIAN]:

interpreter

And these are the happiest moments. And here, I can relax.

sabrina tavernise

Andrew, how did you end the interview?

andrew kramer

I asked him what he would do after the war. And I thought his answer was telling.

andrew kramer

So what are your plans after the war?

volodymyr zelenskyy

[LAUGHS]: [SPEAKING UKRAINIAN]:

interpreter

I would like after the war — after the victory, because those are different things.

andrew kramer

He said there’s a distinction between the end of the war and victory.

interpreter

I think that my plans depend on that. So I would like —

andrew kramer

And then he described what would happen after victory. He would spend time with his family and his dogs. But what he left unsaid was what his life would look like if Ukraine lost the war.

sabrina tavernise

And what would it look like?

andrew kramer

Well, one scenario is that he could die at the end of this. [MUSIC PLAYING]

He’s been the target of 10 assassination attempts, according to his government. Another possible outcome would be that Ukraine could lose a large chunk of its territory in a settlement agreement. So it’s understandable why he didn’t go into the details, but it was still remarkable that he acknowledged just for a moment this vulnerability, this idea that there could be an outcome for Ukraine other than victory.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

sabrina tavernise

Andrew, thank you.

andrew kramer

Thank you, Sabrina. [MUSIC PLAYING]

sabrina tavernise

We’ll be right back.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Here’s what else you should know today.

[PEOPLE CHANTING]

On Sunday, Mexican voters elected the country’s first woman and first Jewish president, Claudia Sheinbaum.

archived recording (claudia sheinbaum)

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

[APPLAUSE]

sabrina tavernise

It was a landslide victory for the 61-year-old climate scientist and former mayor of Mexico City. Sheinbaum, a leftist, had campaigned on a promise to continue the legacy of Mexico’s current president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

archived recording (claudia sheinbaum)

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

sabrina tavernise

Under Obrador, millions of Mexicans were lifted out of poverty. But he was also criticized for failing to control rampant cartel violence. The election was the largest in Mexico’s history, with the highest number of voters taking part. And it puts a Jewish leader at the helm of one of the world’s largest predominantly Catholic countries.

And President Biden is expected to sign an executive order on Tuesday, allowing him to temporarily seal the US border with Mexico when the number of migrant crossings exceed a certain threshold. The order would suspend protections for asylum seekers in the US, and represents the most restrictive border policy instituted by Biden, who is under intense political pressure to address illegal migration. Polls suggest that there is growing support, even inside the president’s own party, for more aggressive border measures. The executive order is likely to be challenged in court.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Today’s episode was produced by Nina Feldman, Claire Toeniskoetter, Rob Szypko, and Diana Nguyen, with help from Michael Simon Johnson. It was edited by Lisa Chow. Contains original music by Marion Lozano and Elisheba Ittoop, and was engineered by Chris Wood. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly. Special thanks to Sashko Chubko.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Sabrina Tavernise. See you tomorrow.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

A Conversation With President Zelensky (2024)
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