An interview with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, seen at his office in Kyiv this month, said Ukraine was "as strong as we could be" when the Russian invasion began.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, seen at his office in Kyiv this month, said Ukraine was "as strong as we could be" when the Russian invasion began. (Emily Sabens/The Washington Post; Heidi Levine for The Washington Post; iStock)

KYIV, Ukraine — Over the past six months, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has become an inspiring wartime leader and champion of his country. During an hour-long, wide-ranging interview with The Washington Post at the presidential office, where hallways are kept dark and are lined with sandbags to protect against Russian attack, Zelensky discussed U.S. warnings about Russia preparing to launch a full-scale invasion — and if he believed them.

The following is a translated and lightly edited transcript of the interview.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke to The Washington Post in Kyiv on Aug. 8, about the fear felt by Ukrainians before Russia invaded. (Video: Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

Q: Can you describe to us the moment when you found out a full-scale invasion had begun? Who informed you and what were your first moves that morning?

A: First of all, the war began in 2014. But I do not want to look like some deep, great historian right now and say that the war began long before 2014. The war of the Russian Federation in one form or another against Ukraine or against the sovereignty of our state or against statehood or against the general existence of Ukraine — this war is old and it has been going on for many decades, even hundreds of years. But if we rely on the date that appears everywhere as the date of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, of course, this is Feb. 24, 2022.

They began this war of occupation where they chipped away from us little by little in 2014, although I believe that they have been encroaching on Crimea since 1991 through [providing Russian passports to Ukrainians] and various other steps. These are hybrid, heavy, cynical measures — albeit professionally implemented ones. They have been trying to devour our country through their information policy, all of their television — I worked in [television], and I understood perfectly how this functions. They have been devouring Ukraine as they had big assets, the petrodollars and revenue from gas, so of course, they bought up our industries and so on. They acted through informational [policy], humanitarian [means], passportization and then bought up the deputies of the Verkhovna Rada [parliament] of Ukraine, financed various parties. And by the way, their party was the second party in the country by the time I became president. The second party in the country was the party of the Russian Federation. If I hadn’t — not specifically because of me — but if I hadn’t run for president, this party would have been the first.

This is also very important to understand. I am not saying that this is my personal merit; this is the merit of the people of Ukraine, who believed [in us]. I am not trying to break this down into right or wrong, but this is a fact. The influence is so strong that this party would have been the first party. Today, we see that this party does not enjoy trust anymore. And this suggests that starting from Feb. 24, there has been a complete reboot, a complete reset of consciousness in Ukraine. That’s what I think.

To understand that they would invade — well, look, we lived in different worlds, I and our Western partners. From the moment when I had the opportunity to communicate closely with the leaders of various countries, be it at the Munich Security Conference or through my speech at the U.N. General Assembly, we’ve been saying that Russia had already begun a full-scale invasion, it was only a matter of time. What will happen next? What is “time” here? That is the moment when they will feel they are capable and when they’ll see that the Western countries are weakened. So what did they do? They created the energy deficit — chaos made out of an artificial shortage of energy resources so, accordingly, people thought about their domestic policy and Ukraine was on the back burner.

The topic of Ukraine moved further and further down [on the agenda]. And over the years, the topic of Crimea has also moved further and further down on the agenda because of various challenges. We raised the topic of Crimea … we began to take steps to update some things. And then we immediately saw a tough reaction from the Russians. We understood what was going on. So the question was only when will this happen. And I believe the problem is that Ukraine has not been given certainty. And I think that only recently, when Ukraine was given a candidate status for the European Union, the country was only then given more or less clear certainty. So it was very recent. Everything else was just words. I do not want to reproach anyone for anything, but the most important thing for Ukraine and the Ukrainian society is certainty. Where do we stand now and [where] we do we stand in the future? Will you be there, will they find you a place among equals?

And from the point of view of security guarantees, which we constantly appealed for, we said that the [Membership Action Plan] in NATO is not NATO membership. What are you afraid of? But that would have also been a signal of certainty. And, of course, we did not receive anything from the point of view of security guarantees. Security guarantees are provided not only by Ukraine’s membership in NATO. It’s not just about safety, although I believe that the [Membership Action Plan] in NATO would have been [one of] those exact preventive sanctions that I constantly talked about at all meetings. Preventive sanctions mean to do something to make the Russians afraid to attack — because they will attack, so do something about it. But this did not happen, unfortunately.

I’m not complaining. We’ve already passed the stage of complaints in our lives. This is not necessary. We’re stronger now than we were before the invasion. We are just stronger. Our position is more correct, and I believe that this is the most important thing, because only an internally strong country can somehow resist. Partners can only help us de-occupy territories, but only the people of Ukraine can stand up and persevere.

These security guarantees, which I constantly mentioned to all leaders, they provide you with access. I am grateful to the partners for the weapons we are receiving now, but if you’re not a NATO member, you can’t get them. Let’s be honest. You can say a million times, “Listen, there may be an invasion.” Okay, there may be an invasion — will you give us planes? Will you give us air defenses? “Well, you’re not a member of NATO.” Oh, okay, then what are we talking about?

Now I am really grateful to many partners who, despite the fact that we are not NATO members, understood what is happening and that Ukraine is the first step on Russia’s bloody path, and that this is not going to end just like that. The fact that we are being given these weapons, let’s be honest, this is not only for us, it is also for them. After all, they have already understood that the Russian troops will not stop, they will move on. Therefore, here on our territory, Europe and the West are protecting themselves, too. I speak quite diplomatically as in it’s not just about them but they are protecting themselves, too. Although everyone has their own price. And so access to these weapons, NATO’s [Membership Action Plan], these NATO programs, the accession of Ukraine to NATO, all this would make it possible for us to upgrade ourselves.

Q: But for you personally, what was Feb. 24 like? What memory of that day stuck with you the most?

A: Well, we understood that this day would happen. The missile strikes were terrible. The cruise missile strikes on Ukraine from the territory of Belarus were a massive mistake. And then [the strikes] from Russia’s side. Historically, this is a point of no return for the Russian Federation. This is an irreversible process, and [Putin] has crossed this line himself. He wiped all the lines, he wiped away the opportunity for this war to end in dialogue.

What I understood in that moment when I was getting dressed, I thought about the rockets flying over my children, over all of our children. This means that there will be a huge number of deaths. It was clear. But he and the Russian military brought this hopelessness through these missiles. This suggests that they were looking for a way to abandon a diplomatic solution to the issue. All they are saying now is just chatter. It’s just chatter, it’s not even interesting to me. It’s not even, as they say, grandmothers and pensioners talking on the bench near their house to discuss something. This is just below any level of dignity, what they have done.

The most important fact is they wanted to cut off the possibility of negotiations. The most important fact is that they waited for a vulnerability, that spot where the energy crisis and the coronavirus overlapped. They understood how blocking our ports would exacerbate the food shortages and so on. That is, they seized the moment and they were sure that the West would not unite around Ukraine. They were absolutely sure of that. Therefore, we heard the three-day plan.

Why did even some European leaders say “three days”? Because some Europeans did not plan to rally around Ukraine. Everyone wanted to just [wipe their hands of this]. Like, okay, this is Ukraine’s problem. Let’s just turn a blind eye to this for a few days. In a few days, the Russians, whatever they may be like, will occupy Ukraine. And then we’ll come to an agreement with them somehow. I am sure that such thoughts have arisen, because this war in Europe, in the center of it, does not benefit anyone.

For the Russian Federation, we were like an appendix that needed to be removed, but they didn’t understand. They thought we were an appendix, but we turned out to be the heart of Europe. And we made this heart beat. These countries have united around us — thanks not only to us but also because the society in these countries was not ready to give up the concept of freedom simply because it is Putin, who is feared and has been demonized in the West. The West itself demonized him, they painted him to be so very terrible, with a nuclear weapon in his hands. Do you remember these posters with Saddam Hussein? Sometimes we too are afraid, but Ukraine showed the devil isn’t as scary as he is made out to be.

Q: On Feb. 25 — Day 2 of the war — you addressed European leaders and told them, “This might be the last time you see me alive.” Did you really believe that at the time?

A: They’re the ones who called me and told me I needed to evacuate and this is the guarantee of your safety . “You must go somewhere, at least to the west of Ukraine, and then, perhaps, to another country. If you are not alive, this means there is no president, and if there is no president, then the system itself, the state of Ukraine, will collapse.”

I told them that I thought the opposite would happen. That means we will hand over power without a fight, and I said that this is impossible. I said that I’m not trying to hold on to power. I don’t cling to power at all. If the issue lies in me, then let’s do it. If the question is that I leave, and that will stop the bloodshed, then I am all for it. I will go right now. I didn’t get into politics for that — and I will go whenever you say, if it will stop the war. But no, there was a manual written by the Russians — who will get which position, how to manage the processes, all of that.

The Western partners wanted to — I’m sure someone was really worried about what would happen to me and my family. But someone probably wanted to just end things faster. Of all those who called me, there was no one who believed we would survive. Not because they didn’t believe in Ukraine, but because of this demonization of the leader of the Russian Federation — his power, his philosophy, the way he advertised the might of the Russian army. And so [they thought], with all due respect to the Ukrainians: They won’t bring it, they’ll be finished off in two or three days, maybe five, and then it will all end.”

Q: Have you been told any scenarios about the threat to your life and your family?

A: I was told before the Russian invasion. I’ve met with leaders of various levels within various intelligence services who told me that I was the number-one target and we need to be thinking about this already. Look, when it comes to these things, I can approach it that someone already knew that would happen and had more information than I did. Or you can approach it differently, thinking that people were really worried about me, my life and really wanted to help. I don’t know where the truth is, maybe one or the other but maybe in the middle. That’s why I don’t like to theorize about such things. I can only share facts with you that I know. I’ve been told about this threat, but I’m a stubborn ram.

Q: What scenarios did they tell you?

A: Well, the scenario is clear: A state, when there is no president of any kind — no matter how that president is viewed — any state without the president falters. This is understandable. It was clear a few months prior. There were things like that. Then I saw some information, I listened, they were looking for allies both within the state, to act through them, and also for external actors they ordered, who would infiltrate and fulfill their tasks of liquidating or discrediting. Listen, I am a living person. I don’t want to die, like any other person. But I definitely know that if I think about that, then I’m already dead. If I think about how, where, why — there are specially trained people that the state paid money to so that these guards could repel these attacks. I can’t tell them how to do their job. If I lock myself in here, well, you can see how the rockets are coming in. This won’t save you. So you have to treat this philosophically. And at some point, you can even enjoy it.

Q: We heard you reacted quite negatively to the offer from American and European officials to evacuate you. Why?

A: I was on the phone every 10 to 20 minutes, discussing various things that we needed first. The first question from them was how to get me out. So I, like any other person, was just bored with it. I was tired of this. These proposals were flying in from all sides. On the one hand, this is nice. But on the other hand, what do they think of you? And it was just getting boring. Look, I love classic movies, like “The Taming of the Shrew” and so on. But I can’t watch it every two hours. And here is the same thing. I love and respect the support shown to us very much, but if it starts every 20 minutes with the same words, excuse me, it’s just poor manners.

Q: When CIA Director William J. Burns met with you here in Kyiv in January, one of the things he told you was that the Russians would attempt a landing at the airport in Hostomel. What was your reaction when that actually happened on Feb. 24? Should there have been more Ukrainian forces already there?

A: Regarding the airport, some six months prior to all of this, and perhaps even earlier, if you remember, there was a gathering of troops on the territory of Belarus and so on. We appealed to all our partners, telling them that we believed this is how they would act. They were training there — and it was well known — to capture or bomb key infrastructure points. They had been training, they had plans to capture Boryspil airport and so on. I don’t know how old these plans are.

They used maps, and the way they were capturing things, some of their paths were the same as those of the Nazis during World War II. So to say they had something unique planned here, it is impossible. Everything we had, it was there.

I’m not ready to talk about everything Burns talked about, but his main signals were about threats to my life. And those were not the first signals — they came from everywhere, from our intelligence services, from foreign colleagues and so on.

Look, as soon as the full-scale invasion began, from that moment on, our economy was losing $5 billion to $7 billion a month. This is wages. And you know the money our partners give us, we cannot spend the money on military salaries. There is some kind of global paradox in all this. I need money so I don’t lose my country. But I can’t spend this money on military salaries. Therefore, simultaneously with the explosions and the shelling, I had a very problematic story. I have to pay salaries to people who go there and die. And you’re hopeless. I don’t have time for reasoning, warnings, commitments — I just have a task to do. I must not allow them to occupy our land, and I have to pay people who die. That’s exactly what it sounds like. There are no sentiments. You have to do this every month.

When it comes to all warnings or signals from certain partners, here is what I explained to them: If we don’t have enough weapons, it will be difficult for us to fight. We will fight them, that’s for sure. And they don’t want to talk. [Russian President Vladimir Putin] hasn’t been willing to communicate for three years. So I don’t want to listen to this nonsense that Russians are ready to talk, this is nonsense. I clearly explained that. Everything we need is weapons, and if you have the opportunity, force him to sit down at the negotiating table with me. I’d been talking about this specifically, because we believed there will be an invasion.

You can’t simply say to me, “Listen, you should start to prepare people now and tell them they need to put away money, they need to store up food.” If we had communicated that — and that is what some people wanted, who I will not name — then I would have been losing $7 billion a month since last October, and at the moment when the Russians did attack, they would have taken us in three days. I’m not saying whose idea it was, but generally, our inner sense was right: If we sow chaos among people before the invasion, the Russians will devour us. Because during chaos, people flee the country.

And that’s what happened when the invasion started — we were as strong as we could be. Some of our people left, but most of them stayed here, they fought for their homes. And as cynical as it may sound, those are the people who stopped everything. If that were to happen, in October — God forbid, during the heating season — there would be nothing left. Our government wouldn’t exist, that’s 100 percent sure. Well, forget about us. There would be a political war inside the country, because we would not have held on to $5 billion to $7 billion per month. We did not have serious financial programs. There was a shortage of energy resources in the market created by the Russians. We did not have enough energy resources. We would not have been able to get out of this situation and there would be chaos in the country.

But it is one thing when chaos is controlled and it is during a military time — you run the state in a different way. You can open the border, close the border, attack, retreat, defend. You can take control of your infrastructure. And it’s another situation when you do not have a military situation or emergency regime in place, and you have a state that is ruled by a huge number of different officials and institutions. And minus $7 billion a month, even without weapons, is already a big war for our country.

Q: So did you personally believe full-scale war was coming?

A: Look, how can you believe this? That they will torture people and that this is their goal? No one believed it would be like this. And no one knew it. And now everyone says we warned you, but you warned through general phrases. When we said give us specifics — where will they come from, how many people and so on — they all had as much information as we did. And when I said, “Okay, if they’re coming from here and it’s going to be heavy fighting here, can we get weapons to stop them?” We didn’t get it. Why do I need all these warnings? Why do I need to make our society go crazy? Since February, even from January as there was a lot going on in the media, Ukrainians transferred out more money than Ukrainians abroad received in assistance. Tens of billions of dollars in deposits have been withdrawn, so Ukrainians spent much more money in Europe compared with the amount Ukrainians had been given there, with all due respect.

Therefore, you must understand that this is a hybrid war against our state. There was an energy blow, there was a political blow — they stirred the pot here, they wanted a change of power from inside the country, thanks to this party. The third blow was during autumn and a financial one. They needed the exchange rate of our currency to be a wartime one so that we did not have gasoline. So they did all this: There was no fuel, we did not have gas, they were cutting us out to ensure that the heating season would lead to destabilization within the country, and for the people to know there are the risks of currency devaluation so they would withdraw money. In general, they did this so we would stop being a country, and by the time of their invasion, we would have been a rag, not a country. That’s what they were betting on. We did not go for it. Let people discuss in the future whether it was right or not right. But I definitely know and intuitively — we discussed this every day at the National Security and Defense Council, et cetera — I had the feeling that [the Russians] wanted to prepare us for a soft surrender of the country. And that’s scary.

Q: I understand concerns about sowing panic and tanking the economy, but what would you say to those Ukrainians who now say, “I would’ve wanted to evacuate my family or just be better prepared”?

A: For all of December, January and February, Ukrainians were withdrawing money out of our economy. We could have been strict about that, but we weren’t letting either the National Bank or anyone else limit the people’s ability to take their money. Although we knew perfectly well that this will affect the country’s economy. The freedom people have in a democratic country is the freedom our people had. They had access to all the information that was available. Sorry, the fact that I wasn’t telling them about the Russians’ plot to do something to me and everything the intelligence services had been reporting to me: “You have to take your family away.” I told them, “How do you imagine that? I’ll be taking my family away, I’ll be doing something, and people will be just staying here? I can’t do that.” Our land is the only thing we have; we’ll stay here together. And then what happened, happened.

Q: If the United States knew for sure that a full-scale invasion was coming, did it give you enough weapons to defend yourself before Feb. 24?

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke to The Washington Post on Aug. 8 in Kyiv about getting high-tech, modern weapons from Europe and the United States. (Video: Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

A: Today, I can only be grateful to the U.S. for what we’ve got. But we need to have a clear understanding of the fact that we have always had weapons from the Soviet times. We never had the NATO weapons. The minimum we had from 2014 was, in my view, insufficient. The serious forces we needed, like the HIMARS we can all see now, or, let’s say, the 155-millimeter artillery — I’m not even mentioning tanks and aircraft — we had none of that and we didn’t have a possibility to buy it. The only thing we had agreed on was military drones, Bayraktars, et cetera. But with all due respect, one can’t wage war with drones.

And so, as you probably remember, since the full-scale invasion started and until now, all I’ve been asking is to close the sky, because if the sky was closed, we wouldn’t have all these deaths. And we were offering an alternative to the closed sky: a number of aircraft.

And there was no problem or shortage with that, I think, because we supplied addresses where all those aircraft were. But we never got that opportunity to close the sky. Even now, we are talking about what had been before the war, what had been in 2014, but what’s the point if even today, when this war is on, we haven’t got a chance to close and secure the sky.

Q: Did you ever get an explanation for why you weren’t supplied with more weaponry before Feb. 24 if Washington knew what was coming?

A: I have no complaints — up to the point when someone starts telling me, “But we were sending you signals.” Up to that point, I have no complaints. But when one is claiming they were sending us some signals, I tell them, “Send us weapons.” I was absolutely right, and I’m sure about it even now.

So as soon as we received serious weapons — I had told them, “Our country is not going to run anywhere, we are ready to fight, give us weapons.” And as soon as we got them, we would fight.

Everyone was afraid of the war. No one wants to wage war with Russia. Look, no one wants to wage war with Russia. Everyone wants Ukraine to win, but no one wants to wage war with Russia. And that’s it. That’s a full stop. And that’s why we had to decide how to stay strong. If no one wants to wage war with them, everyone is scared to fight them — excuse me, then we’ll be deciding how to do that, whether it’s right or wrong. But the war will go farther, deeper into Europe, so please send us weapons, because we are also defending you. And they started sending it.

But is it possible to close the sky now? Just wondering. It’s a rhetorical question.

Q: During the Battle for Kyiv, what do you remember most about your interactions with your top military commanders?

A: We talked all of the time. I talked to them starting from 5 a.m. I spoke to [Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces Valery] Zaluzhny, [Commander of the Ukrainian Ground Forces Oleksandr] Syrsky, I talked to the Security Service of Ukraine and to the Defense Ministry. I had regular meetings about what was coming from where. But this was not the most important question then. The question was where and in what area are they breaking through and what can we do? How can we load Kamaz trucks full of weapons and give them out? We raked up everything from everywhere. We even made it possible that the military can just come in some hunting shops and take weapons. We acted quickly, and we did everything. We made it possible to rent regular cars, we took armored cars from banks just so people can move.

What was it like? I haven’t revisited my previous life in a while. I guess it is like when you are under constant pressure. It’s like you are constantly being tested and this is one perpetual exam, so you feel like you did when you were young, when your palms are sweating and you have to think constantly because after a while you won’t have time to take this test and you’ve missed it and you can’t go back. Therefore, it was a state of constant tension at a very high speed. The day would start at 5 a.m. during these first days and end deep at night. We slept for a couple of hours in clothes, because honestly, we had to always be ready. Not because it’s something heroic — it was a psychological state. You just can’t afford to relax. And when you do not relax, your brain works and can shoot out some quick decisions. Here you have military, here you have civilians, there you have territorial defense, and you also need to plan this and that. …

The decisions weren’t like, “Okay, it is 6 a.m., let’s write down what we are going to do today.” It was a constant barrage of problems and decisions — bam, bam, bam. Suddenly they seized a nuclear power plant, suddenly they are shooting, so we need to get this on air fast. We did everything, including the information policy. I asked the military to explain what is going where, and they would tell me such and such unit captured this. So I said, “Take out the cameras and show it.” I called the leaders, asked them to post this video so the world sees it. Well, frankly speaking, this is called crisis management.

Q: What was your lowest moment or the one that moved you the most?

A: We had people lying in the corridors — there were people everywhere, snipers, different people. We basically lived here. We had no electricity, we walked with flashlights. And with these flashlights, we worked. You can get used to it all. But what you can’t get used to is when after this storm [of events], when the shots are all fired and all that is left is the destruction. [Bucha] was one of the first trips we made. We saw these corpses left on the roads, bombed houses. And you’re just looking at it and only in that moment, the realization comes. Before that it was all a battle, but only then that moment of consciousness comes of what is happening, what they have done, that irreversibility, that it isn’t possible to go back. All the talk about a peaceful settlement from the Russian side, that all this is a lie. And, of course, as a civilized person and an adequate person, you can understand that, well, of course, in the future these countries will someday agree on something. But you understand that this is the abyss. And corpses of Ukrainians have fallen into this abyss. And every time you will want to walk across or jump over this abyss and agree on something, you’ll be seeing these people who were killed. This is the scary part behind all this. That one man has made the status of the Russian state in the history of the world absolutely null and void. It is their choice. I don’t have to worry about this — I’m only talking about this because they’re our neighbors and they’re not moving out, so we and our next generations will have to live with this. I am also talking about this because a huge number of our people died because of them. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be talking about this at all. All people all make their own choices and live with it. This is their future, but their future is the past. That’s what it’s all about.

Q: Do you remember when this was and where you were?

A: Yes, I ventured out several times without any photos and cameras — we couldn’t allow it, our security did not give me the opportunity to. And of course, we did not take pictures at these checkpoints, because something could have immediately flown there and people would die. So we were very careful about it. It was Hostomel and Vyshhorod, that was the first city. There was this pit, an abyss, that was left after a bridge was bombed. The fighting was still ongoing. I wanted to go and support the guys. And the fighting was ongoing, and I wanted to see how they were but didn’t want them to know I was coming. This war is also terrible from the information point of view. There were a lot of things in the press, that our guys do not have enough bulletproof vests, that our guys use some kind of stoves at checkpoints. So I came and there were bulletproof vests and so on. There were weapons, assault rifles. Of course, there is always something that they are short of — everywhere they said, “Mr. President, give us some RPGs, we will fight here.” But all heavy weapons were sent to the front lines.

Q: But that worst moment that you mentioned before?

A: That’s when we went to Bucha, later. Bucha, Irpin, Borodyanka. Those were the scariest moments. That feeling that this is death — when there is silence and silence, and there is nothing left living.

Q: And can you describe your emotions there? Was it fear?

A: I wasn’t scared. By that time, there were no emotions. I understood how many people were dying, how were they dying, and that you could die tomorrow and someone could come for you. So by that time, I would say that there already weren’t any special emotions or sentiments. But that feeling — you’re used to the sounds, screams, shots, but that was a scary moment because it was quiet. There were corpses on the street, there were bombed houses. This feeling is scary. Everything is destroyed and now what? This could be the way it is everywhere. This is how they work. People, their corpses have been found in basements, with their hands tied, they were tortured and blindfolded. I saw all of this in the photos, audios and videos that were given to me — I already understood what was happening here. It’s just scary that people can do this.

Q: When was the moment when you were sure the defense of Kyiv would hold?

A: We didn’t know. We knew we would fight. Why? It was logical. A city of millions is just a city of millions. If we rally and unite, if people believe me as president, if the military unites with the people, then it is logical that they can’t take a city of many millions. They don’t have enough forces, they won’t be able to take it. Because if 1 million people walk out just with a molotov cocktail in their hand, it’s unstoppable. I understood that a city like Kyiv — simply to take it, it’s impossible. How? It’s very difficult, very difficult, if they come into the middle of the city. Everyone understands that the minute they come into the middle, and go into the center of the city onto the Maidan [Independence Square], and start a war within the government quarter — from that moment, we are going to burn them. Because a battle inside the city — it is very difficult, it is very difficult. They needed way more equipment and people. So they had a chance either to shoot us, as they did in Mariupol, where they simply destroyed everything, or they can come into the city — but they would need tons of forces. Or they can get rid of me so they could come in and say there’s no one here and let’s undertake a transition.

Q: Regarding Kherson, what can be done to prevent Russia from holding a referendum there? What are you asking from your Western partners right now to help you stop it?

A: They can only take strong and specific steps using sanctions. Because the illegal referendum and the annexation of Kherson, what the Russians are planning to do, is a violation of any — well, I don’t want to talk about international law, they violated it a long time ago. It makes no sense. But countries can do the same thing because it’s a violation of borders. That is, they can definitely impose restricting sanctions. For example, a ban on the entry of all citizens of the Russian Federation to the European Union countries. Good sanctions. I think they are very good and peaceful.

There is nothing in these sanctions that takes away property or human life. I said from the very beginning that I believe that the most important sanctions are to close the borders, because they are taking away someone else’s territory. Well, let them live in their own world until they change their philosophy. So, countries close the borders and put an embargo on energy resources. My personal opinion is that everything else is weaker. There is no complete embargo on the energy supplies, and the borders are not shut.

It’s very simple: Whatever the citizens of the Russian Federation may be — there are those who support and do not support it — their children are there, studying abroad, in schools, universities and so on. Let them go to Russia. There’s nothing scary about that, let them go there. Not forever, please, let them come back. They’ll just understand then. They say, “Oh, we have nothing to do with this and all people can’t bear the responsibility.” They can. They elected these people and now they are not fighting them, they do not argue with them and don’t shout at them. The Russians who publicly oppose the war are just isolated cases and these people are in prisons. But let Russians go home, let everyone go to Russia. You want this isolation, don’t you? You’re telling the whole world that the whole world will live by your rules. Okay, then go there and live there.

What does this give us? This is the only way to influence Putin. Because this person has no other fear but the fear for his life. And his life depends on whether he is threatened by his internal population or not. Nothing else is threatening to him. That’s the way it is. Therefore, when its population puts pressure on his decisions, then there will be results. And the war will end. These are very understandable sanctions, they are very simple. It’s not about money, it’s not about gas or pipes, or that Germans won’t have heat in the winter. Just close the borders for a year and you’ll see the result.

Q: In the first days of the war, how serious was the problem with traitors in your ranks and government? And how much of a problem does that continue to be today?

A: I think our security service is catching all the traitors, as much as they can. The question of traitors is very simple. On Feb. 24, the streets of Kyiv and many political institutions suddenly became empty. It was quite easy to work on Feb. 24, to tell you the truth, in spite of the war — everything was clear. And it turned out that all those who had been called traitors — the politicians I mean — they all stayed. And on Feb. 24, they were fighting. They were fighting in both senses of the word.

Some of the “traitors” were fighting with machine guns, some of them stayed to work. And some ran away.

And most of those who ran away were the ones who had been screaming: “There are some horrible traitors near me.” This is how life dots the i’s. The main thing is for people to remember — unfortunately, we don’t have a long memory — is who was here on Feb. 24. Who has been staying here since Feb. 24 and who has been working for the state.

They could have quit their jobs, they could have left — those who have been here all these days, who have been completing a variety of tasks, carrying out complex operations, operations where they entered occupied units, with militants in there, risking their lives, and neutralized the occupant commanders. All of them. Many of them. They would blow them up. Some hit mines themselves. A great number of such operations were completed. A huge number, hundreds of such operations. How were these people acting? They were doing very important things.

And some ran away. Some ran away and then came back, saying, “There’s something going on. We haven’t been here for a while and it looks like here at the president’s office there’s something going on again.” See, politics is like that. Even the war that destroys everything, for some reason, doesn’t destroy such people. Such is life. But, oh well, that’s fine.

David L. Stern in Kyiv and Mary Ilyushina in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.

The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can help support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.

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