Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he was concerned about recent “mixed messages” from Republican lawmakers on aid for Kyiv and told CNN that his top priority was preserving bipartisan support from the United States after the midterm elections, as Russia’s war on his country nears the nine-month mark.
The Ukrainian leader, who has the task of keeping morale high in a grueling conflict marked by strikes on energy infrastructure, relentless civilian deaths and human rights violations, said support from the US “sends a very significant, powerful signal.”
Zelensky and his wife, Olena Zelenska, spoke to CNN’s Chief International Anchor Christiane Amanpour in an exclusive interview Wednesday, a day after the US midterm elections, the outcome of which could shift the steady stream of military aid sent by the Biden administration to Kyiv.
“We are grateful for bipartisan support. We would really like to have this bipartisan support remain after the elections,” Zelensky said. “There have been these mixed messages that were in the US mass media, particularly from the Republican side … that we need to be more careful about supporting Ukraine – and maybe that at a certain point, the support could be reduced. For us this is a very concerning signal.”
Zelensky’s comments come after a warning in October from Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy that Kyiv could not “expect a blank check” if his party won back control of the House following this week’s vote. But Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed to continue to aid Ukraine in its war against Russia.
Zelensky said that strong US support was vital to maintaining Western unity with Kyiv as the war grinds into the winter.
“Whenever the United States support us financially, then Europe joins this support as well. And we feel it very strongly, because winning this war over Russian terror is only possible through united support,” he told CNN.
From attending virtual summits to hosting closed-door discussions, Zelensky has tried to keep world leaders engaged with the conflict partly to combat so-called “donor fatigue,” as Western allies weigh up the cost of sending financial aid to Ukraine while handling economic and political pressures at home.
“This word ‘fatigue,’ it’s a big word. You can’t get fatigued,” he said. “It’s too early for all of us to get fatigued … When Russia truly wants peace, we will definitely feel it and see that. But you know, you can’t wish for peace with words alone.”
‘Unpleasant surprise for the enemy’
The Ukrainian president spoke to CNN before Russia announced that its troops were preparing a stunning retreat from a large part of occupied Kherson.
That withdrawal would relinquish huge swathes of Ukrainian territory that Moscow has occupied since the early days of the war.
The order is a significant setback for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who in September formally declared Kherson one of four Ukrainian regions that would be illegally annexed by Moscow following a series of referendums dismissed as “a sham” by Western governments.
It also marks a step forward for Kyiv, as both sides have been caught in a long and taxing battle for control of the key southern region.
Zelensky was reluctant to offer details on his administration’s plans to retake Kherson, but said: “These planned military actions, they are discussed in a small circle, but then they’re executed in silence. And I really want to have an unpleasant surprise for the enemy, and not something they are prepared for.”
In the past month, Putin has dealt with decreasing military supplies, plummeting morale among Russian troops and increased isolation from world leaders, while Zelensky has worked to counter an onslaught of deadly strikes wiping out large parts of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.
With no end to the conflict in sight, Zelensky told Amanpour he has not ruled out peace negotiations with his counterpart in Moscow.
“Other than ultimatums, I’ve not heard anything from the current president of the Russian Federation,” he said.
“But I haven’t closed the door. I said we would be ready to talk to Russia – but with a different Russia. One that is truly ready for peace. One that is ready to recognize that they are occupiers … They need to return everything. Land, rights, freedom, money. And most importantly, justice.
“And so far, I haven’t heard statements like that from the Russian Federation – either from Putin or from anyone else.”
‘Bravery has no gender’
When the Kremlin launched its brutal assault on Ukraine in February, Zelensky perhaps did not envision being at the center of Europe’s biggest conflict in decades nearly nine months later.
“You asked whether I thought this war would last so long. No, because I didn’t start this war. And I’m sure there isn’t a single Ukrainian who knew what this will be – and what tragedy this would bring to every home in our country,” he said.
“But Ukrainian society united, and showed that it was ready for what unfortunately was such a tragedy.”
The conflict in Ukraine has shaken global economies, exacerbated world hunger and inflamed a refugee crisis in Europe, but for the Ukrainian president and the first lady the reality of war at home is ever present.
There have been nearly 6,500 civilians killed since the war began, including 403 children, according to recent figures from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
Meanwhile, humanitarian bodies have accused Moscow of human rights violations amid mass relocations of civilians, including children, from Ukraine and allegations of sexual violence against women in occupied regions.
“It’s a big tragedy that our children are being taken away to Russia. There’s a large number of children who our social services lost connection with, and we can’t find them,” Zelenska said.
“As regards helping those children who suffered psychologically from the horrors of war. Now there’s hundreds of these children already. And we can’t even imagine what those children suffered, who had to bury their own mother in the yards of their homes, who saw their relatives murdered, who stayed in the basements of Mariupol. We can only observe them and try to help.”
Zelenska said that she is working on a national mental health program in order to provide psychological support for children. She also nodded to the role women have played in the war, adding that almost 40,000 women have volunteered to join the armed forces.
“These are the women who chose the path of the military in wartime – not in peacetime.”
“This whole war, it continues our path towards gender equality. And we’ve already made great strides in this.
“This war is as equal as Ukrainian society. I’m certain that after the war, women’s rights will be even stronger. We’ve already made strides, and we already have women generals.”
Zelensky added: “Bravery has no gender.”
‘It’s enough when you can no longer hear explosions’
Looking forward, Zelensky said Kyiv needs “security guarantees” from the global community in order to maintain momentum in the war and uphold Ukrainian independence from Russia, as well as repeating his desire for Ukraine to join NATO.
“There is only one goal (from Russia): to destroy our independence. There’s no other goal in place. That’s why we need security guarantees. … And we believe we have already demonstrated our forces’ capability to the world.”
Zelensky portrayed the conflict in contrast to the first days of the Covid-19 pandemic, “when people didn’t know what to do about it, when we needed to create a vaccine and it didn’t exist. There is a vaccine against Russian strikes, and we know it.”
When asked how many weapons Ukraine needed, he responded: “The answer is fairly simple. It’s enough when you can no longer hear explosions. It’s enough when the air defense systems ensure no missiles hit the ground or buildings.”
The president was echoing his wife, who said that Ukraine will need support from Western allies until the missiles “stop coming.”
“When they stop coming, when our people stop dying in their beds in the morning, I will feel, okay, maybe that’s enough,” Zelenska said. “But we can’t wait for Russians to run out of their supplies.
“It’s hard to live under this burden every day, when you don’t know what will happen tomorrow, when missiles hit the crossroads while people are driving to work, and get killed on the way,” she added.
CNN’s Tim Lister, Darya Tarasova, Rob Picheta and Niamh Kennedy contributed reporting.