Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Friday that he believes his country could win its war against Russia within the coming year if Ukraine’s Western partners maintain their level of support. But he also warned of a “third world war” if China sided with Russia and began supplying Moscow with weaponry.
Speaking at a news conference in Kyiv to mark the first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of his country, Mr. Zelensky said he welcomed China’s growing role after Beijing published a vaguely worded 12-point peace plan that was welcomed by Russia.
“I think it’s an important signal that China’s going to participate. … So far, I see it as a signal only,” Mr. Zelensky said, adding that it wasn’t yet clear if Beijing was offering itself as a genuine interlocutor. “I want to believe that China is going to side with the idea of a fair peace, that’s our side.
Mr. Zelensky said he was alarmed by reports that Beijing was considering whether to provide weapons to Russia, which is running low on precision-guided missiles and other armaments.
“This is priority number 1 for me and I’m doing my best to prevent that from happening because this is very important for us. It’s better for China where it is now than in Russia’s embrace. Because there’s this risk of a third world war.”
Peace talks are impossible as long as Russian troops remain on the territory of Ukraine, Mr. Zelensky said.
The distance between his position and that of Russian President Vladimir Putin was made plain on the anniversary of the invasion, as the Russian Foreign Ministry said any peace talks had to take into account what it called the “new territorial realities.” Russia controls about 15 per cent of Ukraine, and claims to have annexed swathes of the south and east of the country.
“If we fulfill our tasks, I’m confident we will have this victory. I hope it will happen this year. We have everything to have it this year,” Mr. Zelensky said. “Ukraine is facing this war not alone, we have friends … who clearly understand what Russia wants, what Putin wants.”
The anniversary passed quietly in Kyiv, despite warnings from Mr. Zelensky that he expected Russia to attempt “something symbolic” to mark the day. Fighting continued, however, in the east and south of the country. Two Ukrainian civilians were reportedly killed on the eastern Donbas front, while another died in the southern Kherson region.
A year ago, Mr. Zelensky was slow to accept that Mr. Putin really did intend to invade Ukraine, despite numerous warnings form Kyiv’s Western allies. As late as Feb. 22, 2022, his office said in a statement that “the Ukrainian side believes that a broad escalation on the part of Russia will not happen.” Two days later, Russian tanks, troops and warplanes entered Ukraine from three directions.
In his news conference, Mr. Zelensky called last Feb. 24 Ukraine’s “longest day,” but said the past year was proof that “every tomorrow is worth fighting for.”
The President has excelled after being thrust into the unexpected role of wartime leader. Twenty-four hours after the initial attack began, as rumours swirled that he had fled the country, Mr. Zelensky released a video to demonstrate that he and his staff remained in the Presidential Administration building in the centre of Kyiv. “We are all here. Our soldiers are here. The citizens of our country are here. We are all here protecting our independence,” he said.
Shortly afterward, Mr. Zelensky famously refused a U.S. offer to help him flee. “I need ammunition, not a ride,” he reportedly told an unnamed U.S. official.
The 45-year-old Mr. Zelensky – a TV comic before he ran for the presidency as a political outsider in 2019 – has come to personify his country’s resilience. Even his critics concede that the leadership he showed in the first days of the invasion helped convince a frightened country that Ukraine could resist and even triumph.
At the other end of the spectrum is the 70-year-old Mr. Putin. While Mr. Zelensky has repeatedly made daring trips to the front line to meet personally with Ukrainian soldiers, Mr. Putin has yet to set foot in any of the territories Russia has conquered over the past year, delivering only a few stage-managed addresses from the distance and safety of Moscow.
Mr. Putin was silent Friday. However, his long-time ally, former president Dmitry Medvedev, said Russia would continue what he described as a war to “protect” Russia by destroying the “neo-Nazis” that he falsely claimed rule Ukraine. “It is so important to achieve all the goals of a special military operation,” Mr. Medvedev wrote on his Telegram channel. “Push the borders of threats to our country as far away as possible, even if these are to the borders of Poland.”
A year of war has left tens of thousands of people dead, and driven millions more from their homes. Entire cities have been reduced to rubble, and the International Criminal Court has launched an investigation into multiple war crimes allegedly committed at sites around Ukraine.
Mr. Zelensky said the discovery that hundreds of civilians had been executed by the Russian military in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha – which was under occupation for more than a month before Russian troops withdrew from the area in April – was the worst day of the war for him. “What I saw, the moment that we de-occupied Bucha – it was horrible what we’ve seen. The devil is among us, somewhere on this land.”
Earlier on Friday, Mr. Zelensky marked the anniversary with a video call with leaders of the Group of Seven advanced economies. Afterward, the U.S. announced US$2-billion in new military aid, which will be delivered in the form of advanced drones, as well as rockets and other ammunition. The U.S. aid, however, does not include the F-16 fighter jets Ukraine says it needs to defend its skies.
Separately, Poland announced on Friday that it had delivered the first four Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine. Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have collectively promised dozens of the German-made Leopards to Ukraine. Canada on Friday announced that it would contribute four more, adding to the four already delivered to Poland, where Canadian Forces members are training Ukrainian tank crews to operate them. The U.S. and Britain have separately promised to deliver some of their own Abrams and Challenger tanks to Ukraine, though the timeline for such deliveries is unclear.
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Canada also added 122 names to its list of sanctioned Russians, including parliamentarians who last year voted in favour of Mr. Putin’s illegal annexation of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions. The U.S. sanctioned 22 more Russian officials, including cabinet minsters and regional politicians, while introducing additional restrictions on exports to Russia and raised tariffs on the import of Russian products, effectively banning Russian aluminum.
Britain also announced new sanctions on Friday, which Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said included “export bans on every item Russia has been found using on the battlefield to date,” as well as personal sanctions targeting two top executives at Russia’s state nuclear agency, Rosatom.
On Thursday, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal called for Western sanctions against Rosatom in an interview with The Globe and Mail and other foreign media.
Also sanctioned by the U.K. was Lyubov Kabaeva, the mother of former gymnast Alina Kabaeva, who is reputed to be Mr. Putin’s girlfriend.
The anniversary largely passed unmarked in Russia, with only scattered small anti-war demonstrations. The Russian human-rights group OVD-Info, which tracks political arrests, reported that at least 21 people were detained after acts of protest around the country.
At least eight people were arrested Friday in the central Russian city of Yekaterinburg after laying flowers at a monument to victims of political repression. Two others were detained in St. Petersburg after carrying flowers to a statue that honours 19th-century Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko.
In the Siberian city of Barnaul, five people were jailed, including a man who stood on the city’s central square carrying a sign that read, “Stop being silent.”