News from the front lines was “generally positive, but it’s very difficult,” the Ukrainian president said in an interview Thursday.
Russia is putting up a desperate fight in the face of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told NBC News on Thursday, saying he believes that if the Kremlin loses this battle, it will ultimately lose the war.
“Our heroic people, our troops on the front of the front line are facing very tough resistance,” he said in an interview in his presidential office in Kyiv. “Because for Russia to lose this campaign to Ukraine, I would say, actually means losing the war.”
Zelenskyy said the news from the front lines was “generally positive, but it’s very difficult,” adding that the slow supply of new Western weapons such as fighter jets was helping Russia’s defensive effort.
He also responded to former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Republican presidential candidates who have questioned continued American military support for Kyiv. Zelenskyy invited them to come to Ukraine, warning that his country’s defeat would only mean a wider conflict with Moscow later.
Kyiv has claimed incremental gains in the opening stages of its campaign, but no breakthrough yet against tough Russian defenses in Ukraine’s south and east.
The destruction of the Kakhovka dam last week added a stunning new dimension to the conflict, more than 15 months after the Kremlin’s invasion began. In the interview, Zelenskyy repeated his assertion that Russia blew up the dam, saying he was “not 99%, I’m sure 100%.”
The Kremlin has said Ukraine was to blame.
In Zelenskyy, Russia has found a dauntless opponent whose refusal to leave the capital has boosted his international image and helped secure billions of dollars of military aid, most of it from the Biden administration.
The counteroffensive could prove crucial not just to Zelenskyy’s hopes of retaking seized land, but also to maintaining allied support, which could be strained by the complexities of the battlefield and domestic politics.
Training for Ukrainian pilots to fly American-made F-16 fighter jets has already begun, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday, a potentially powerful tool in defending the country’s skies that has long been desired by Zelenskyy. But this will be no quick fix, with any training likely to take many months and come too late to blunt Russian dominance of the skies in the counteroffensive.
“I understand that there is bureaucracy,” Zelenskyy said. “But we are losing time, we are losing people, and, the most important thing, we are losing our advantage” and “Russia is controlling the air.” Analysts have said that Russia’s aerial dominance is a significant factor in the battles being waged across the front lines.
“Ukraine wants to be able to compete in the air — let us do it today,” Zelenskyy said. And drip feeding F-16s and other weapons “means the war will last longer,” he added. “It’s not Ukraine against Russia, Russia is fighting against the civilized world.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with NATO defense ministers in Brussels on Thursday, for the first meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group since the counteroffensive began. A key question for NATO is Ukraine’s strong desire to join the alliance, something that has divided its members and drawn fierce opposition from the Kremlin.
“We understand that tomorrow we will not be members of NATO,” Zelenskyy said. “But we need an invitation, and it needs to be clear that after this war, if we are ready, and if the Ukraine army is ready to NATO standards, then after the war we will be invited to join.”
He added, “It’s very important to hear the truth and not tell us lies.”
The issue of Ukrainian military aid itself is also likely to become a divisive campaign issue in the U.S. presidential election next year.
Zelenskyy acknowledged that American politicians considering reduction of military aid to Ukraine was “a big risk for Ukraine” but said he believed that wouldn’t happen.
Trump has said he would end the war immediately but has not explained how, while complaining about the cost of the aid. DeSantis, his main rival, walked back comments in which he downplayed the war as a “territorial dispute” that the U.S. did not need to get “further entangled in.”
The Ukrainian president said that if Russia overwhelms Ukraine, it could move on to a neighboring country that’s an ally of NATO, risking a wider world war because of the alliance’s mutual defense clause.
“Are they ready to start a war to send their children? Are they ready to die?” he said when asked about Trump and DeSantis. “If Russia occupies Ukraine, they will move on to the Baltic countries, to Poland, to any NATO country, and in that particular case the U.S. will have to choose between dismantling NATO or fighting.”
He also questioned Trump’s claim that he could end the war in 24 hours.
“Why didn’t he do that earlier? He was president when the war was going on here,” Zelenskyy said, apparently referring to the annexation of Crimea and fighting in eastern Ukraine against pro-Russia forces since 2014. “I think he couldn’t do that. I think there are no people today in the world who could just have a word with Putin and end the war.”