Zelensky invites Chinese Xi Jinping to Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned on Tuesday that unless his country wins a long battle in a key eastern city, Russia could start garnering international support for a deal that could force Ukraine to make unacceptable compromises. He also invited the Chinese leader, long aligned with Russia, to visit.

If Bakhmut fell to Russian forces, their president, Vladimir Putin, “would sell this victory to the West, to his company, to China, to Iran,” Zelenskyy said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“If he smells blood – feels we’re weak – he’ll push, push, push,” Zelenskyy said in English, which he used for virtually the entire interview.

The Ukrainian leader spoke to the PA aboard a train that carried him across Ukraine, to towns near some of the fiercest fighting and others where his country’s forces have managed to repel the Russian invasion. The AP is the first news organization to have traveled extensively with Zelenskyy since the start of the war just over a year ago.

Since then, Ukraine – backed by much of the West – has surprised the world with the strength of its resistance against the larger and better equipped Russian military. Ukrainian forces held their capital, Kyiv, and pushed Russia back from other strategically important areas.

Zelenskyy walks down a hallway as he arrives for an interview on a train traveling from the Sumy region to Kyiv, Ukraine on Tuesday. (Efrem Lukatsky/Associated Press)

But as the war enters its second year, Zelenskyy is focused on keeping motivation high both in his army and in the wider Ukrainian population – especially the millions who have fled abroad and those who live in relative comfort and safety away from the front lines.

Zelenskyy is also well aware that his country’s success is largely due to waves of international military support, particularly from the United States and Western Europe. But some in the United States – including Republican Donald Trump, the former US president and current 2024 nominee – have questioned whether Washington should continue to provide Ukraine with billions of dollars in military aid.

Trump’s likely Republican rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, also suggested that defending Ukraine in a “territorial dispute” with Russia was not a significant US national security priority. He later echoed that statement after being criticized by other corners of the GOP.

Zelenskyy did not mention the names of Trump or other Republican politicians – numbers he could face if they win the 2024 election. But he said he fears the war will be affected by changing political forces in Washington.

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“The United States really understands that if they stop helping us, we’re not going to win,” he said in the interview. He was sipping tea as he sat on a narrow bed in the cramped, unadorned sleeper cabin of a National Railway train.

The president’s carefully calibrated train journey was a remarkable journey through a country at war. Zelenskyy, who has become a recognizable face around the world as he stubbornly tells his side of the story to nation after nation, has used the morale-boosting trip to bring his considerable influence to regions near the front lines. .

He traveled with a small group of advisers and a large group of heavily armed security officials dressed in battlefield fatigues. His destinations included ceremonies marking the first anniversary of the liberation of towns in the Sumy region and visits with troops stationed at frontline positions near Zaporizhzhia. Each visit was kept secret until he left.

Bricks and rubble surround a destroyed building in a war zone.
This photograph taken on February 27, 2023 shows a destroyed and burned residential building as shelling continues in Bakhmut, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

I can’t lose my momentum

Zelenskyy recently made a similar visit near Bakhmut, where Ukrainian and Russian forces have been locked in a fierce and bloody battle for months. While some Western military analysts suggested the city was not of significant strategic importance, Zelenskyy warned that a loss anywhere at this stage of the war could jeopardize the hard-fought momentum of the ‘Ukraine.

“We can’t lose steps because war is a cake — pieces of victories. Small wins, small steps,” he said.

Zelensky’s comments were an acknowledgment that losing the seven-month battle for Bakhmut – the longest in the war so far – would be more of a costly political defeat than a tactical defeat.

He predicted that the pressure of a defeat in Bakhmut would come quickly – both from the international community and from his own country. “Our society will feel tired,” he said. “Our society will push me to compromise with them.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin walk together in the Kremlin in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21. (Pavel Byrkin/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images)

So far, Zelenskyy says he hasn’t felt that pressure. The international community largely rallied behind Ukraine after the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022.

“I want to talk to him”

In his AP interview, Zelenskyy extended an invitation to Ukraine to a notable and strategically important leader who did not make the trip: Chinese President Xi Jinping. “We are ready to see it here,” he said. “I want to speak with him. I had contact with him before the large-scale war. But all this year, more than a year, I haven’t had one.

China, economically aligned and politically sympathetic to Russia for many decades, provided Putin with diplomatic cover by asserting an official position of neutrality in the war.

Xi visited Putin in Russia last week, raising the possibility that Beijing is ready to supply Moscow with the arms and ammunition it needs to replenish its depleted stockpile. But Xi’s trip ended without such an announcement. Days later, Putin announced he would deploy tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus, which neighbors Russia and brings the Kremlin’s nuclear stockpile closer to NATO territory.

Zelenskyy suggested Putin’s move was meant to distract from the lack of guarantees he had received from China.

“What does that mean? It means the visit was not good for Russia,” Zelenskyy speculated.

The president makes few predictions about the biggest question hanging over the war: how it will end. He, however, said he was confident that his nation would prevail through a series of “small victories” and “small steps” against a “very big country, a big enemy, a big army” – but an army, a- he said, with “little hearts”. ”

And Ukraine itself? While Zelenskyy acknowledged that the war had “changed” us, he said it ultimately made his society stronger.

“It could have gone one way, dividing the country, or another way – uniting us,” he said. “I am so grateful. I am grateful to everyone – every partner, our people, thank God, everyone – that we have found this path at this critical time for the nation. Finding that path was the thing that saved our nation, and we saved our land. We are together.”


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