“There was no pressure or blackmail from the U.S.,” Zelensky said early into the talkfest. “I had no idea the military aid was held up. When I did find out, I raised it with [Vice President] Pence at a meeting in Warsaw.”
Zelensky faced grillings, too. About four hours into the session, Zelensky conceded that he would be open to a “joint investigation” of Ukraine’s role in the 2016 U.S. election and of the Burisma gas company, which had recruited former vice president Joe Biden’s son to its board. Maybe a committee could be appointed, he said.
But no one has presented Ukraine with any evidence of wrongdoing, he reminded the journalists, and it isn’t clear whom he would expect Ukraine to join in this potential — perhaps theoretical is a better word — investigation.
With that, the marathon — as his people called it, the same people who have argued that the popular actor-turned-politician doesn’t need the media — continued.
Every half-hour, Zelensky talked to a different group of seven to 10 journalists. Three hundred in all had signed up. No questions in advance, no picking and choosing which reporter got to ask a question.
“I wanted to have an informal meeting,” Zelensky said as things got underway at 10 a.m. in the Kyiv Food Market, a retro-modern development stocked with a couple of dozen different stalls. “I’ve never seen one like this.”
It’s safe to say no one else has, either.
In contrast to the White House, where briefings and news conferences have all but disappeared and officials resist dealing with Congress, Zelensky’s appearance was a freewheeling discussion that was as close to spontaneous as a national leader almost ever gets.
American reporters wanted to know about President Trump, of course.
He didn’t have much to add to what Ukrainian officials have already said. He is clearly trying to keep from getting ensnared in American politics.
He said he is confident of continuing American support for Ukraine, but if that changes, he expects to find out about it on Twitter.
As for an investigation of purported Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 election, he said: “I think that Ukrainians should investigate it themselves. However, I need evidence of Ukraine’s interference in the American elections. We need details, evidence.”
Ukrainians are more interested in Zelensky’s decision last week to back a mechanism that could, possibly, lead to peace talks that, could, just maybe, lead to a settlement of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. It was widely felt that his office botched that announcement — and he admitted it Thursday. It drew intense criticism from those who interpreted it as a capitulation to Russia. He has been trying to reassure the country ever since.
“I want to stop this war,” he said. “It’s my mission through these next five years.”
The plan to which he signed on, called the Steinmeier Formula, envisions eventual elections in the breakaway regions of Donbas and Luhansk. Ukrainian critics are wary about holding a vote in areas that have been subjected to intense Russian propaganda for the past five years.
In one of his early responses Thursday, Zelensky urged residents who live in the occupied areas of those two regions to stop watching Russian television.
He sat at the head of the table, on a balcony, in an open-collared white shirt and dark gray suit, sipping from a plastic cup, gesturing animatedly as he spoke. Between sessions, he walked around, posing for photos and calling down from the railing to people on the floor below.
He effortlessly slipped back and forth between Ukrainian and Russian, and spoke from time to time in English.
He sparred with some of the reporters, scolding one because he works for Novoe Vremya, which has a Czech owner and happens to be critical of the Ukrainian president.
When The Washington Post asked him about his hour-long conversation with Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, immediately following his now famous phone call with Trump on July 25, Zelensky brushed off the question.
He said he didn’t remember a thing about it.
Sondland had inserted himself as a go-between as Zelensky sought a White House meeting and Trump sought help investigating Joe and Hunter Biden.
That call with Trump led to the impeachment inquiry taking place in the United States.
Zelensky said impeachment is an internal American affair, and he has no position on it.
By 1:15 p.m., his voice was starting to sound a bit rough. In English, he said: “If you will involve Ukraine in this process, that will be a big, big mistake for USA and for Ukraine. We have our own country. That’s it.”
“I’m not very happy” that the July 25 conversation came out, he said, because it damages diplomatic relations and “reduces the space for tactical maneuvers to zero.”
But if this is an attempt to put all the Trump-Biden-Putin-Donetsk-Burisma-Giuliani controversies behind him once and for all, well, his occasionally testy exchanges suggest that it’snot too likely.
Englund reported from Moscow.