ON A TRAIN FROM SUMY TO KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned Tuesday that unless his nation wins a drawn-out battle in a key eastern city, Russia could begin building international support for a deal that could require Ukraine to make unacceptable compromises. He also invited the leader of China, long aligned with Russia, to visit.
If Bakhmut fell to Russian forces, their president, Vladimir Putin, would "sell this victory to the West, to his society, to China, to Iran," Zelenskyy said in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press.
"If he will feel some blood — smell that we are weak — he will push, push, push," Zelenskyy said in English, which he used for virtually all of the interview.
The leader spoke to the AP aboard a train shuttling him across Ukraine, to cities near some of the fiercest fighting and others where his country's forces successfully repelled Russia's invasion.
People are also reading…
Since then, Ukraine — backed by much of the West — has surprised the world with the strength of its resistance against the larger, better-equipped Russian military.
But as the war enters its second year, Zelenskyy finds himself focused on keeping motivation high in both his military and the general Ukrainian population — particularly the millions who fled abroad and those living in relative comfort and security far from the front lines.
Zelenskyy is also well aware that his country's success has been in great part due to waves of international military support, particularly from the United States and Western Europe. But some in the United States — including Republican Donald Trump, the former American president and current 2024 candidate — question whether Washington should continue to supply Ukraine with billions of dollars in military aid.
Ukraine's Zelenskyy: Any Russian victory could be perilous; Nashville shooter legally bought 7 guns; Reparations for Black Californians could top $800 billion; US tourist shot in leg at Mexican resort south of Cancun; Israeli PM, Biden exchange frosty words over legal overhaul; Two groups formally submit bids for NFL's Commanders | Hot Off The Wire, March 29, 2023
Trump's likely Republican rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, also suggested that defending Ukraine in a "territorial dispute" with Russia was not a significant U.S. national security priority. He later walked that statement back after facing criticism from other corners of the GOP.
Zelenskyy didn't mention the names of Trump or any other Republican politicians — figures he might have to deal with if they prevail in 2024 elections. But he said he worries the war could be impacted by shifting political forces in Washington.
"The United States really understands that if they stop helping us, we will not win," he said.
The president traveled with a small cadre of advisers and a large group of heavily armed security officials dressed in battlefield fatigues. His destinations included ceremonies marking the one-year anniversary of the liberation of towns in the Sumy region and visits with troops stationed at front-line positions near Zaporizhzhia. Each visit was kept under wraps until after he departed.
Zelenskyy recently made a similar visit near Bakhmut, where Ukrainian and Russian forces have been locked for months in a grinding and bloody battle. While some Western military analysts suggest that the city is not of significant strategic importance, Zelenskyy warned that a loss anywhere at this stage in the war could put Ukraine's hard-fought momentum at risk.
"We can't lose the steps because the war is a pie — pieces of victories. Small victories, small steps," he said.
Zelensky's comments were an acknowledgement that losing the 7-month-long battle for Bakhmut — the longest of the war thus far — would be more of a costly political defeat than a tactical one.
He predicted that the pressure from a defeat in Bakhmut would come quickly — both from the international community and within his own country. "Our society will feel tired," he said. "Our society will push me to have compromise with them."
So far, Zelenskyy says he hasn't felt that pressure. The international community has largely rallied around Ukraine following Russia's Feb. 24, 2022, invasion. In recent months, a parade of world leaders have visited Zelenskyy in Ukraine, most traveling in on trains similar to the ones the president uses to crisscross the country.
In his AP interview, Zelenskyy extended an invitation to Ukraine to one notable and strategically important leader who has not made the journey — Chinese President Xi Jinping.
"We are ready to see him here," he said. "I want to speak with him. I had contact with him before full-scale war. But during all this year, more than one year, I didn't have."
China, economically aligned and politically favorable toward Russia across many decades, has provided Putin diplomatic cover by staking out an official position of neutrality in the war.
Asked whether Xi would accept an invitation from Zelenskyy — or whether one had been officially extended — Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said she had no information to give.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, asked whether a meeting between Xi and Zelenskyy would be useful to resolve the conflict in Ukraine, said Russian authorities "highly appreciate" China's balanced position on the issue and "have no right to come up with any advice" on whether the two should meet.
"The Chinese leader himself decides the appropriateness of certain contacts," Peskov said Wednesday.