In an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has addressed the Russian invasion, a train station attack in Kramatorsk, the killings in Bucha and outlined the necessary steps needed to end the war.
The Ukrainian president also addressed the allegations that he was preventing civilians from using humanitarian corridors leading to Russia.
Below is a transcript of Zelenskyy’s wide-ranging interview with Al Jazeera’s Osman Ayfarah that was filmed on Friday, April 8, 2022. It has slightly been edited for brevity and clarity.
Al Jazeera: What is your reaction to the deadly attack on the train station in Kramatorsk?
Volodymyr Zelenskyy: The Russian soldiers who shelled the railway station clearly understood that there were civilians. We know there were no soldiers over there. They could not say that there were any soldiers there, or any military units close to there, and we clearly understood that they know what they are doing.
Who are they killing? They are killing ordinary citizens, adults and children. You’ve seen photos and there’s a video already.
This is yet another piece of evidence and support for the fact that Russia is shooting and destroying civilians. It’s not about intimidation.
They’ve shelled Kramatorsk. This is one of the heroic cities since 2014. We fought for Kramatorsk and the citizens of Kramatorsk, and the whole country fought for Kramatorsk. We remember what was the defence of the Kramatorsk airport since the beginning of the war, and that happened before the large-scale invasion.
That was a peaceful city and since my election as president, I’ve been there many times. And what I can tell you is that something like 40 people were already identified as killed and a couple of hundred wounded. Still, the search and rescue operation continues, and unfortunately, what we can say is that Russia is destroying the civilian population of Ukraine.
Al Jazeera: How difficult is it to evacuate civilians when such things are happening now?
Zelenskyy: The air raid warning was received from the governor and the local authorities. So they were signalling and saying that Russia is preparing for rockets and missile launches. There were also preparing for a large-scale invasion on that part of the Donbas which is under control of the Ukrainian authorities and is not under temporary occupation.
So the local authorities have said that they will be helping people to evacuate, and they have also called upon the citizens of Ukraine saying that if they have their own transport, they can evacuate because there are significant risks such as shelling and bombing and we know that Russia is counting on a large-scale invasion, despite the fact that they’re saying that they’re not shooting at the civilian population.
Usually, whenever any political leader of Russia is saying that they are not shooting at civilians – when they are telling that to different mass media – I think that at that moment, the population should be preparing themselves.
The [Russian] Minister of Foreign Affairs, [Sergey] Lavrov said while addressing Ukrainian authorities and the Ukrainian population that there were constant falsifications, that Russia is not fighting and not shelling the civilian population, that they continued their special military operation, as he called it. And I’d say that we started to respond to that in a fairly professional way. We’ve offered the people of Donbas [support if they don’t want to stay there]. We’ve seen what happened. There was some shelling and the Russian authorities just told additional lies.
Al Jazeera: Have you been able to evacuate people from Mariupol, where the humanitarian situation is very bad?
Zelenskyy: Since the very beginning of the war, there were a lot of risks to a number of cities – and Mariupol was one of them. And since the beginning of the war, the whole city was blocked and then all the escape routes were blocked as well. And as you perfectly know, they did not allow anyone – I’m not talking about the military – just anyone from the civilian population to receive food, water and medicine.
I’m not talking about any human support and assistance. I’m not talking about not allowing members of the International Committee of the Red Cross to go to the Mariupol nurses or doctors. We would send the representatives of Ukrainian churches to Mariupol, and they were not allowed to enter, so everything was blocked. We’ve sent convoys which were absolutely empty without any civilians, they’ve shelled all those convoys.
They allowed civilians to leave the city using any transport they had. Now our military, they’re not ready and willing to leave behind those wounded comrades they have or the civilians. We are all living people. We all understand that if your fellow soldier has died, I mean, you cannot simply abandon his body like a bag of potatoes somewhere by the road and let him rot.
Al Jazeera: They say the fighting in the middle of the city is finished, and now that has moved to the port, they have asked the Ukrainian soldiers to surrender. Do you think they are close to controlling the whole of Mariupol?
Zelenskyy: Out of the 500,000 population of Mariupol, something like 400,000 have either been evacuated or killed.
Now the population is about 100,000 and there are bodies of people all around the streets. So speaking about capturing, I mean, they were killing, they entered apartments. They’ve occupied this city. They want to capture this city. But for them, capturing the city would mean our forces surrendering the weapons. But today, we are where we are. Our soldiers are fighting until the very end, and they’re not willing to surrender. So that’s the situation as it is for now.
Al Jazeera: They accuse you of preventing civilians from using humanitarian corridors leading to Russia. How do you respond?
Zelenskyy: This is not true. This is just another lie. This is the choice of the ordinary citizens. Just like a choice that is made by the military. You can evacuate. I mean, this is the choice made by our military. I’m not God to tell them what to do with their lives. They’re just not willing to leave all their fellow soldiers and I personally perfectly understand them if they are willing to withdraw, to retreat; they have this right and they can do that.
And these corridors are open for that, but they’re not willing to go both as military or civilians to the territory of Russia. Thousands of people went there. Part of the citizens went to Russia but where are those people? Some are asking, where are those children? Some would say that over 2,000 children are missing. We don’t know where they are.
Then we got some information that some of the people were captured by Russians and some had their Ukrainian passport taken and instead, they were given Russian passports. So that is what is happening. The people are simply not willing to go towards the Russian Federation. They are forced to go. It’s either they’re going there or Russians will kill them. So I understand when someone is going in the direction of Russia, but what is happening to them afterwards?
Al Jazeera: What is your assessment of the war situation at the moment?
Zelenskyy: I think we can see that this is not the end of the war. A lot of people’s mood has been raised, they are happy because some of the Ukrainian regions are being liberated. But I don’t think it’s high time for saying things like that because a lot of settlements and regions are being occupied and a lot of people are being killed by the Russian soldiers.
And I can see that we’ve repelled some of their attacks. They failed to take the capital city of Kyiv and some other important cities like Dnipro, Odesa and Kharkiv. In Kharkiv, the situation is far more complicated, the situation is very complicated in the south and of course, the most complicated is in the east.
For them [Russians], it’s important to control Mariupol, they are willing to destroy all of the soldiers in Mariupol then they would proceed to the east in order to try and surround a significant number of Ukrainian soldiers in order to destroy all of that.
Al Jazeera: The Russian troops did withdraw from Kyiv and around Kyiv. Do you think the capital city is still under threat?
Zelenskyy: It’s hard to say. If our forces in Donbas won’t be able to hold their positions, then the risk of a repeated offensive against Kyiv is probable.
Al Jazeera: Would you say the negotiations are moving forward?
Zelenskyy: It’s not a standstill and the negotiations are continuing, but at the same time, they are slowing down and I don’t see any actual results of the negotiations, as of now.
Al Jazeera: Has your position changed after what we’ve seen in Bucha?
Zelenskyy: As the leader of the nation, I need to do everything possible to stop the war. Negotiations are the way to stop the bloodshed, if not the only way, and it’s the diplomatic path for stopping the war.
Al Jazeera: A video has emerged in which Ukrainian soldiers seem to be executing Russian soldiers in the woods. So the Russians are saying Ukrainians are also committing war crimes. What do you have to say about this particular video and are you investigating this?
Zelenskyy: Look, it’s hard for me to comment on any specific video. We are all adequate people.
First of all, any videos, any cases like that, it’s either we can hear something or it’s either something has been demonstrated to us since the beginning of 2014, and on a time-to-time basis, Russia was committing those informational attacks against Ukraine in order to justify their reactions to the Russian population. I’m not going to talk specifically on this or that occasion.
Our soldiers, particularly the armed forces of Ukraine, don’t have any reason or any sense to behave in that manner towards Russian soldiers.
Al Jazeera: Russia wants the Security Council to meet and discuss this, something that the UK has refused. Do you support such meetings?
Zelenskyy: I’m not afraid of any sessions of the UN Security Council, I just believe that Russia has no right to dictate anything to anyone and organise anything. They might start discussing, but without the ultimatums, without conditions, without accusations. Only in that case, when Russia will withdraw their forces from our territory, then, like any other person in the civilised world, they can go to the UN Security Council or the International Criminal Court or to other international institutions with requests, with appeals, with proposals.
You can’t just stand there and occupy the land of another territory and then dictate conditions. This is impossible. That’s why they were refused. They were not refused because of this or that condition. The UK was absolutely right to reject them, not because they’re friends, they would support any country who would be facing a similar situation because they understand what the law is, what sovereignty is.
Al Jazeera: Russia wants Ukraine to be a neutral state. You agree with that. But what is your understanding of that neutrality? What are you willing to accept as a solution for this whole conflict and war?
Zelenskyy: First of all, we always wanted to have security guarantees, some specific agreements, and some specific security guarantors. These are the countries that would be able to guarantee some specific cases under specific conditions and circumstances. All the citizens of Ukraine would like to have those security guarantees.
Russia has imposed an ultimatum. Then it withdrew from an ultimatum when it failed to capture Kyiv in three days. Well, if Russia would be able to occupy Kyiv, we wouldn’t be talking about neutrality or non-block status. We would be talking about different things.
But we want some specific security guarantees – who would assist us and how, if there would be an invasion – and there could be even another approach, specific agreements that will make sure that Russia will clearly not want to violate our sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Al Jazeera: Do you regret that Ukraine gave up its nuclear capabilities when it signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994?
Zelenskyy: Yes. All those countries with nuclear weapons now, they’re not being captured. So if Ukraine gave up these weapons, they should have specific guarantees from a specific country – that should be a very specific legal agreement with very specific provisions on liability for violating this or that agreement.
In our case, that was the Budapest Memorandum. How could you give up the weapons in such a way, without signing any serious document, just making a big present for what?
What did we receive? We received war. And this is one of the reasons we have become weaker. We have weakened our status, our defence, our population. This is what we have given away. We have given away the lives of those people who died.
Al Jazeera: Will you seek to have such weapons in the future?
Zelenskyy: No, I’m confident we’re not going to be able to seek these weapons. That’s not our method. That’s not something on our mind.
Al Jazeera: You said you needed guarantees. Now, is there any country that has agreed to act as a guarantor? And if the answer is yes, then what sort of guarantees?
Zelenskyy: There are many countries who are willing to support Ukraine and become security guarantees both today and in the future. I cannot give you any more details until we have reached an agreement, but I can give you the list of the potential security guarantors. These are the UK, Poland, the United States. Then Turkey, Italy, then I think that this agreement would be impossible without the Russian Federation but that’s another story.
I know that Ireland and some other countries wanted to consider becoming security guarantors. We will also ask for China. France and Germany also are aware of this situation, and so far they are showing some sort of respect and support. But in addition to support and assistance, we need to have very detailed negotiations in order to understand which country is ready to provide which specific support and assistance and guarantees.
Al Jazeera: You’ve always said that you wanted to meet Vladimir Putin. If he was listening to you, what would you like to say to the Russian president?
Zelenskyy: I’m ready to have this meeting. As for the possible topics for our conversation, well, definitely not about the weather.
We don’t have a positive climate in our negotiations. The situation in Bucha and in many other cities has put an end in that there should be a pragmatic discussion with some resolve that should be reached.
What Ukraine really wants, Russia is not willing to give, and all that Russia wants, we have already proven that we are not ready to give up.
So we would be discussing the war, when we would put an end to this war, under which conditions, when they will withdraw their forces from our territory, the issue of Crimea, and the issue of Donbas. We would like to return our territories and they’re not considering these territories as part of Ukraine. They believe these are independent territories or Russian territories so in these negotiations, this is what we are going to discuss.
Al Jazeera: If you allow me to end with this personal question. You are an artist and actor. You’re not a military general. Now this is a war and you have seen so many difficult things, like bodies in the streets of Bucha. You are the leader of this country. It’s tough for everybody. How do you as a human being, emotionally deal with all of this?
Zelenskyy: As a living person, I feel pain. In certain cases, you just get used to that and to a certain degree, it’s a pity that I’m getting used to things like that. That I look at certain things that I think not a single person would have been imagining that they would be looking at. I think it’s a question of who you are and it’s not related to the profession that you’ve done or what you’ll be doing in the future.
It’s whether you feel yourself as a citizen of this country, whether you feel yourself as a person with dignity, whether you are able to let yourself run away when somebody is left behind, whether you have to defend your own land, despite how big it is or whether you should assist when a child is asking for help, even if there is a threat. So it’s a question of who you are.
A profession is about different things. It’s a profession to be a citizen of our country. That’s the most important profession and today, I’m thankful to this profession, to the fact that many people in Ukraine are true citizens of Ukraine, and many people are feeling themselves as the true citizens of Ukraine.