Simon Shuster was a TIME senior reporter and spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, April 19, 2022 in Kyiv’s Presidential compound. The following is an edited transcript.
TIME: Yesterday night in your address to nation, you declared the beginning of the fight for Donbas for eastern Ukraine. Why did you do this?
These people have been building this army for years. …Now we see that it’s complete, in terms of their readiness, in terms of their plans, in terms of the way we understand their military intentions.
Is this the battle that will decide your fate?
Yes, it is in many aspects. This period of war I’d describe as follows. The threat is complex and comes from many directions. A substantial portion of our military is located to the east, and today it’s the east as well.
It will be an all-out battle that is larger than anything we’ve seen in Ukraine. They are capable of occupying our entire territory to the point of encirclement. They want to do it.
However, they’ll be in constant pursuit of inflicting as much destruction as possible. This is because they know that it is our core. They will be influenced by it. This will have an impact on how the figures are placed in the game. It will impact, I believe, both the cohesion and cohesion our army as well as their army. If we hold out – as I honestly believe we will, as a citizen, a patriot and the President of this country – it will be a decisive moment for us. It is now the tipping point.
What about the next steps? Diplomacy is included. It is home to a significant part of our military, as well as many civilians. This has always had an effect. The impact of this war on Russian Federation’s military leadership seems to be minimal. It does have an effect on us though, as I am concerned about the potential deaths from this large-scale conflict.
I want to ask you about one aspect of the battle. There are hundreds of you troops and civilians trapped in Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant. Are you able to speak with them?
We’re in pretty much daily contact. They can be reached by one of us via the telephone. They spoke to me yesterday and the day before. Sometimes it’s on the phone, sometimes they write messages.
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You can. They send me their text messages. Sometimes, they may ask questions. Some questions can be very difficult. It is very difficult for them. They are very strong. Many of these boys died. They have many wounded victims to transport.
We talk about many things. First of all, it’s about them holding out and really knowing what they are holding. It’s not just about some piece of this factory, Azovstal, or even Mariupol. It’s the symbolism of this situation. It’s the [enemy’s]We want to break one bone in our back.
For the Russians – it’s a symbol. That’s why they keep playing these little games, these bloody little games, in which they say they’re ready to make a trade, but don’t end up trading anyone.
As I see it, their actions are meant to degrade a person as much as possible, to make them starve… Yes, we wanted to make a trade for our wounded. We’re working on that and, I think, it could even work out. Civilians are there. They are being besieged and wounded.
What can you tell us about the communication that you have with these people?
The 36th [Separate Marine]Brigade found it very difficult. The whole thing was a complete disaster. No food, no water, no weapons. Nothing. Everything was gone. We supported each other. [Their commander]I was able to understand the situation. They could not flee. Because they couldn’t leave behind their friends, the guys could not defend or attack themselves. This was how it turned out. This was an issue of humanity. It was also emotional. This was an instance where people needed support.
Continue reading: ‘Hope Gives You the Strength to Act.’ Portraits of Russians Risking Everything to Support Ukraine
Let’s talk about the start of the invasion. From your staff, I have learned that this first night (February 24, 2004) saw attempts at storming the compound. The street was filled with gunfights. Can you recall that evening for me?
I do remember some details, but only in fragmented form. At some point, each day started to remind me of the previous. It was difficult for us all to get through the first few days. We were probably all in the exact same situation. Each person in Ukraine is responsible for different things. Your responsibility places pressure on how you think, prioritize, and put everything to one side. You understand that this is war, and you don’t think about its symptoms. It all is obvious to you. It is obvious that you are being watched. Your symbolism is you. It is important to behave in the exact same manner as heads of states. I will always remember those moments. The explosions. The explosions.
Which children should you have?
Mine. They were woken up by us. It was very loud. It was loud. You understand. You understand why I went to work. We all gathered and began to move very quickly.
You were surrounded by your loved ones at the moment.
Yes. Yes. We’re human beings. It was necessary to quickly make decisions. It seems that the decisions made by us, whether they were intentional or accidental, have been right as of now.
Yes, we’re still sitting here.
Do you remember driving at speed?
The same thing happened to me at the wheel. And at that moment, at high speed, in the dark – it’s a question of focus. If you get distracted with someone running in front of the windshield, flashing lights, screaming, waving their hands…if you let any of that distract you, your chances of reaching your destination are low. Not quite zero, but very low.
It was almost the same here. It was essential to concentrate on the most important things. How can we organize and stay together? Before the invasion our society was divided in many ways. Our society was not divided. We were. I think that’s very important. We are outnumbered by them quite a bit. It was necessary to unite. This is the only way to succeed.
What date was it that you were able to leave the presidential compound after the invasion?
In the initial days, we went out. We went out in the first few days without taking any photographs or writing any news articles. The guards told me: Look, if you want to drive out, then we can’t make it public anywhere. The press was not involved. To see the checkpoints and our soldiers as well as how they’re doing, we drove outside. The ride was pleasant.
The bodyguards had to have lost their heads.
They were losing it. We couldn’t go any further, because beyond that is already the blown-up bridge, the big crater, and going further is impossible. It would have gone beyond the control points.
What made you decide to go there?
I wanted to have a look, see what it’s like. Then I wanted to talk to the people there, to see how they’re feeling at the checkpoints.
Then there was the Borsch Trip?
It was amazing! I still remember it.
When you got to the counter, they started making borsch.
There was this man at the checkpoint. It was fate’s irony. This guy is always there to help our guys and defend us. The guy lives in the nearby village. He doesn’t even ask questions and just makes borsch. He spoke about his hatred of the Russians. Then he said that he had served in the USSR. We were shown these medals that he kept in his trunk. His medals were his companion as he drove about with them. A wonderful man, because that man definitely knows what he’s doing. People who live every day with purpose are the best. … This man wakes up every day, makes borsch and comes to the guys at the checkpoint just to feed them. I was grateful that he gave it to me. We had good borsch and bread. It was a great time shared by all of us. That moment will be cherished by all of us.
On April 8, after the Russian missile attack at Kramatorsk train station, we met again. Let me know about the day. What did you do to learn of the attack?
One terrible picture was all that made me aware of it. The photograph showed a woman being beheaded. This was not one of the photos we shared to tell people about this tragedy. I inquired about who was nearby and if there were any children. The bright clothes she was wearing were memorable. And I said, it’s not possible. If children see this… if they see this from official sources. This is what anyone can see.
After that meeting, you went to Ursula von der Leyen’s appointment as President of the European Commission. It was obvious you struggled to contain your emotions. I don’t know how you did it.
Yes. This was one of those moments when your legs and arms are doing something, but your brain is not listening. Your head is at the station and your presence here is essential. But I think you just don’t have a choice. These circumstances require you to put yourself out there to find the answer.
Comment have your views changed after the invasion
I’ve gotten older.
Are you losing your sense of humor
It’s impossible! That’s impossible. It’s impossible to let that happen. It’s a way of survival. Everyone around you would be depressed otherwise. Feeling depressed is not the best way to win. It is important to feel victorious. No matter how hard it is, that’s the goal. It’s impossible to lose. So you can’t be in a mood of weakness or panic. You have to keep it together, and that togetherness has to be in everything – in your mood, your method, your words.
SoIn what sense are you old?
Mentally, morally. Well, in a moral sense I’m absolutely firm. But I’ve aged from all this wisdom that I never wanted. It’s the wisdom tied to the number of people who have died, and the torture the Russian soldiers perpetrated. That kind of wisdom… To be honest, I never had the goal of attaining knowledge like that.
It brings back memories of our first meeting, which was three years ago when we were at the debut of your comedy act here in Kyiv. You looked very happy. All your friends and the entire troupe were there. You asked me: “Why would I want to become a politician?”
It was a great conversation.
Of course we didn’t know that there would be a full-scale war. However, looking back on it now do you question that decision? Is it something you regret?
Of course I don’t regret it. I don’t regret it at all. It was not for a second. I don’t even thing about it. It was, however, something I believe sometimes. You were absolutely right.
How difficult has it been for you since the invasion?
Of course it’s when I lay down to sleep.
Well, because I don’t fully understand whether it’s time or not. I don’t know if I have the right. Did I have to do something more? It’s all in my calendar. It’s pointless to look at it. It’s the same agenda. I see it’s over for today. It’s over for today. I keep looking at it and feel something is not right. It’s my conscience bothering me. I’ve allowed myself to sleep. Now what? But now what?
Since the beginning, I was honest and woke everyone up. Between 4:50 to 5:20. That was the beginning days. That was the difficult period I told you about, when I didn’t have the right to go to sleep before I knew how many [bombs]You landed there.
How did you hear about the war for the east from your generals during the last time that you met with them?
This is a process that we understand has begun. It is now up to us to determine if it has begun with full force. … At certain points in the east, it’s just insane. There is an ongoing, full-scale civil war. It’s horrible. The losses, heavy artillery fire and frequency of strikes are all terrible. In those places it’s already begun.
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