Zelensky holds a press conference on negotiations with Russia

KYIV, Ukraine — Unshaven and wearing a military t-shirt, haggard President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine held his first press conference since the start of the war on Thursday, inviting reporters to his now fortified office building sandbags.

In a spirited briefing, Mr. Zelensky, whose defiance made him a symbol of Ukrainian resistance to Russian invasion, outlined the state of negotiations with Russia, expressed the pride of his people, pleaded for a zone air exclusion and spoke frankly for fear of dying.

Beyond the answers Mr. Zelensky provided to questions, bringing a chair closer to the reporters present, the press conference seemed intended to signal that his beaten government is still functioning at least a week after the start of the war, despite conditions of increasingly difficult in Kiev.

Mr Zelensky said he was particularly proud of the resistance of ordinary Ukrainians to the Russian attack, a furious and furious uprising by large parts of society even as Russian tanks bore down on major cities and the capital .

“That’s why I’m so strong and so decisive,” he said. “We have a special people, an extraordinary people.” He said no senior officials had fled the country and several senior officials showed up at the press conference.

Mr Zelensky said he had appealed to Western leaders for additional military support, including asking French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to impose a no-fly zone over the Ukraine, an unlikely proposition, while continuing negotiations with Russian leaders. . The second of two rounds of talks with Russia in recent days took place on Thursday.

“We are ready to talk about all subjects,” he said. Mr. Zelensky’s negotiator at the talks, Mykhailo Podolyak, said later Thursday that the negotiations concluded with an agreement on ceasefire corridors for civilians to escape heavy fighting, but no progress on a regulation.

“The Russian side has long formed the answers to their questions,” Zelensky said. “What’s the use of asking questions if you’ve had the answers for a long time?” For the moment, this is the difficulty of this dialogue.

He said he was ready to compromise on some points, but he did not specify which ones, and said he would not comply with conditions threatening Ukrainian sovereignty.

“There are issues where you have to compromise, so people don’t die, and there are issues where there can’t be compromise,” he said. “Well, we can’t just say, ‘this is your country now, Ukraine is part of Russia.’ It’s just not possible, so why suggest it?

Journalists arrived at the presidential office in minivans that squeezed through concrete barriers and cross-welded steel I-beams placed in the streets to slow tanks. In Kiev’s government district, usually a quiet, leafy neighborhood of offices and elegant 19th-century apartment buildings, armored cars blocked crossroads.

The vans passed through a maze of courtyards and entered a rear entrance to the presidential office building. Inside the building, security officials escorted reporters with flashlights through dark hallways filled with soldiers.

Sandbags had been piled along the windowsills. At the gates, firing positions were in place to fire from inside Mr Zelensky’s office onto the street outside, suggesting a willingness to hold out even if street fighting reached the site.

Mr. Zelensky thanked the journalists for coming.

“It’s better to see it with your own eyes,” he said of the city’s preparations for defence. Yet, he said, he was doing all he could to negotiate.

Mr. Zelensky said he slept about three hours a night. His cheeks sagged with fatigue. He was, however, lively and making energetic gestures to score points.

Although the briefing took place in a conference room to suggest a modicum of normality, soldiers armed with assault rifles stood in the room and the windows were blocked by piles of white sandbags.

He reiterated his demand for direct talks with President Vladimir V. Putin, which the Russian leader rebuffed before and after the outbreak of hostilities.

“It’s not that I want to talk to Putin,” he said. “I have to talk to Putin. The world must talk to Putin. There is no other way to stop this war.

On the conflict and what he described as reports that the Russian military had no plans to repatriate its war dead to avoid stoking anti-war sentiment at home, he said. said: “It’s a nightmare. I can’t even imagine the type of man who would plan such acts.

Many of the Russian soldiers were 18 and 19 years old, said Mr. Zelensky, who is 45. He noted that the soldiers were around the age of his own daughter and “could be my children”. He added: “They will die in uniform because of decisions made by men in suits.”

Mr. Zelensky said he asked Mr. Scholz and Mr. Macron to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine. The idea was widely rebuffed by Western governments as virtually impossible, to risk a direct conflict between NATO and Russian forces.

But he said Russian aggression would only spread if it was not stopped in Ukraine. Moscow’s leaders, he said, would at some point push towards other Eastern European countries and eventually build a new “Berlin Wall”.

He criticized German officials for working against Western efforts to pressure Russia to find a settlement in the long-simmering war in eastern Ukraine by building a new gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2, to Russia. The pipeline was intended to provide cheap energy to the German economy, although the project is now on hold.

Mr Zelensky, a former comedian who has always had a keen eye for image and storytelling in politics, said he was aware that his repeated televised calls for resistance and continued presence in the beleaguered capital had made of him a symbol in many countries. bravery and defense of democracy. It helped Ukraine, he said.

“I am very happy that the world is uniting” in support of Ukraine, said Mr Zelensky, who refused to flee the country, refusing a US evacuation offer. “I need ammunition, not a round,” he said at the time.

Mr Zelensky had caustic words for Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who balanced support for Ukraine with an effort to maintain ties with Russia and blocked some arms transfers to Ukraine that include Israeli-made parts. Mr. Zelensky, who is Jewish, noted that a Russian missile this week killed five civilians on the territory of a Holocaust memorial site in Kiev, Babyn Yar. The missile had targeted a broadcast tower.

Mr Zelensky said he was inspired to see images of people praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem wrapped in blue and yellow Ukrainian flags. He suggested it was time for the Israeli government to take a moral stance. “Everything is tested right now,” he said. “I don’t feel like he’s wrapped in the flag of Ukraine,” he said of Mr Bennett.

When asked if he was afraid of dying in war, he replied that everyone had such fears.

“I am a living person, like any human being,” he said. “And if a person is not afraid of losing their life or the life of their children, there is something wrong with that person.” He added, however, that as president, “I just don’t have the right” to be afraid.

If he weren’t president, he said, he likely would have joined the volunteers who accepted guns when the army started distributing them last week, and would therefore be at risk anyway. . He said he might also have chosen to help by distributing food to the soldiers instead. He joked, “I’m probably not as good a shooter as some other people.”

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