Ukraine's Zelenskyy urges faster aid, direct Western involvement to counter Russian advances

Western allies are taking too long to make key decisions on military support for Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told Reuters in an exclusive interview in Kyiv on Monday.

He also said he was pushing partners to get more directly involved in the war by helping to intercept Russian missiles over Ukraine and allowing Kyiv to use Western weapons against enemy military equipment amassing near the border.

The call to accelerate aid and push so-called “red lines” of engagement in the conflict reflect the growing pressure Zelenskyy’s forces are under along more than 1,000 km of front lines in the northeast, east and south of the country.

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An impassioned Zelenskyy, dressed in his familiar khaki T-shirt and trousers, said the situation on the battlefield was “one of the most difficult” he had known since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022.

In recent weeks Moscow’s troops have made incursions into northeastern Ukraine, further testing Kyiv’s already stretched defenses. At the same time, Russia has taken territory in the eastern Donbas region in sometimes fierce battles.

“A very powerful wave (of fighting) is going on in Donbas … No-one even notices that there are actually more battles in the east of the country, specifically in the Donbas direction: Kurakhove, Pokrovsk, Chasiv Yar.”

He added, however, that the situation north of Kharkiv was now “under control”.

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The 46-year-old was speaking on the fifth anniversary of his inauguration as president. He has not contested elections because of martial law imposed due to the invasion.

Zelenskyy called again for faster military aid from the United States and other partners. Weapons and ammunition from a recently passed U.S. package is now arriving in Ukraine, but it was delayed for months by internal political wrangling.

“Every decision to which we, then later everyone together, comes to is late by around one year,” said Zelenskyy.

“But it is what it is: one big step forward, but before that two steps back. So we need to change the paradigm a little bit.”

Zelenskyy said he wanted his partners to be more directly involved in the war, but understood they were wary of antagonizing Russia.

“It’s a question of will,” he said. “But everyone says a word that sounds the same in every language: everyone is scared of escalation. Everyone has gotten used to the fact that Ukrainians are dying – that’s not escalation for people.”

He proposed that the armed forces of neighboring NATO countries could intercept incoming Russian missiles over Ukrainian territory to help Kyiv protect itself.

Russia has fired thousands of missiles and drones at Ukraine since the start of the wider conflict, and air defenses are a priority for Kyiv.

“Russians are using 300 planes on the territory of Ukraine. We need at least 120, 130 planes to resist in the sky,” he said. Ukraine is waiting for the delivery of U.S.-designed F-16s which have yet to be used in anger.

He said that if countries could not supply the planes straight away, they could still fly them from neighboring NATO states and shoot down Russian missiles.

The Ukrainian leader also said Kyiv was negotiating with international partners to use their weapons to strike Russian military hardware at the border and further inside Russian territory.

“So far, there is nothing positive,” he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin would likely view such developments as escalatory.

He casts the war as part of an existential battle with a declining and decadent West which he says humiliated Russia after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 by encroaching on what he considers Moscow’s sphere of influence, including Ukraine.

Ukraine and the West reject such an interpretation, calling the invasion an unprovoked land grab.

Zelenskyy reiterated that he had not broken agreements with allies not to use their weapons inside Russia.

“We can’t put the whole volume of weapons at risk.”

Ukraine is gearing up for international talks in Switzerland next month that will exclude Russia and are aimed at trying to unify and harden opinion against Moscow.

Putin has said he believes the talks may convert Ukrainian demands for a Russian withdrawal into an ultimatum for Russia, a strategy he said would fail.

Zelenskyy said it was crucial to get as many countries around the table as possible.

“And then Russia will have to answer to the majority of the world, not Ukraine. … No-one says that tomorrow Russia will agree, but it is important that we have the initiative.”

Beijing has yet to say whether it will participate, although Chinese President Xi Jinping and Putin met last week in China and pledged a “new era” of partnership between the two most powerful rivals of the United States.

“It is very important that they (China) are there,” said Zelenskyy. “Because in principle, after this summit, it becomes clear who wants to end the war, and who wants to remain in strong relations with the Russian Federation.”

On U.S. politics, he sought to dampen concerns that any win for Republican candidate Donald Trump in November elections could spell trouble for Ukraine. Trump is a Ukraine aid skeptic who has stressed “America First” policies.

“I don’t believe that Republicans are against support for Ukraine, but some messages that are coming from their side raise concerns.”

Zelenskyy, a former comedian, said he would let others judge his performance as leader of a country at war, but he expressed his gratitude to the Ukrainian people for their stoicism in the face of adversity.

He also insisted that Ukraine could still win the war, despite setbacks in recent months.

“I think we need to walk this path to the end, preferably a victorious one,” he said. “Even though today people look somewhat skeptically at the word ‘victory’ – I understand it is difficult, because it is long.”

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