Zelensky gives hard-hitting interview to Russian media, Kremlin tries to ban it

29 March, 01:46 PM
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (Photo:Ukraine's President's Office)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (Photo:Ukraine's President's Office)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gave interviews on March 27 to several Russian journalists – "those who can afford to tell the truth," as the president of Ukraine himself later said.

However, the Russian authorities, via state censor Roskomnadzor (the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media) and the Prosecutor General's Office effectively banned its publication in Russia, threatening "checks" and "legal assessments" of those media outlets that dared to publish Zelensky's one-and-a-half-hour conversation with journalists.

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As a result, the interview only received even more publicity – both on YouTube and in the international media.

Here, NV highlights the main points of this story.

Zelensky's interview with Russian journalists: Who the president spoke to, and how Russia reacted

After the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Zelensky repeatedly gave interviews to Western media, both with groups of journalists and individually (for example, to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica). However, up until March 27, the Ukrainian president had not communicated with the journalists from the aggressor country.

On March 27, he made an exception for four Russian correspondents. Some of them were from media that Moscow had declared to by "foreign agents."

Zelensky was asked questions by the editor-in-chief of the Latvian-based Meduza news website, Ivan Kolpakov (the main office of the website is based in Riga), the editor of the Dozhd television channel Tikhon Dzyadko (the TV channel has suspended work after the invasion of Ukraine due to severe censorship in Russia), special correspondent of the Russian Kommersant daily newspaper Vladimir Solovyov (the namesake of a Russian TV propagandist), journalist Mikhail Zygar (former editor-in-chief of Dozhd, author of the "All the Kremlin's Men" book, columnist in several Western publications).

Zygar also gave Zelensky one question from the editor-in-chief of the Russian Novaya Gazeta newspaper, Nobel laureate Dmitry Muratov (the publication had refused to report on the events of the war in Ukraine due to a new wave of censorship in Russia, but continues to cover the internal context of the war in terms of its impact on Russia, although it calls the war "special operation". On March 28 it announced it was suspending publication until the end of the so-called “special operation”).

The Office of the President of Ukraine published the full video version of this one-and-a-half-hour online conversation. Zelensky answered questions in Russian, sometimes searching for the right words instead of the Ukrainian ones he remembered first.

Meduza was the only media outlet that had published the text of the interview by late March 27 – "in its entirety and with minimal editing," as the editorial staff said. It never appeared in either Kommersant or Novaya Gazeta.

The probable reason is an instruction from Roskomnadzor, which even on March 27 published a threatening demand to media not to publish the interview with Zelensky.

"Roskomnadzor warns Russian media about the need to refuse to publish this interview. The interviewed media outlets have been reviewed to determine their degree of responsibility, and to take action (against them)."

At the same time, the video version of the interview was published not only on Meduza (where the text was also released), but also on the YouTube channel of Mikhail Zygar, the YouTube channel of Tikhon Dzyadko and his wife Ekaterina Kotrikadze, and the German Russian-language television channel OstWest.

After that, Russian Prosecutor General's Office published its own threat to journalists, announcing the decision to give "a fundamental legal assessment of the content of the statements published (in the interview) and the fact of their posting." The agency also complained about the allegedly "massive anti-Russian propaganda and regular posting of false information" about Russia's actions during the war with Ukraine, which the Kremlin misleadingly calls a "special operation."

What frightened the Kremlin so much: The main theses from Zelensky's interview with Russian journalists

Here are some of the main theses voiced by the president of Ukraine in his interview with Russian journalists.

The main reason for the whole tragedy of the war is that the Kremlin does not see Ukraine as independent. "This tragedy has happened (due to) the non-acceptance of us as an independent state. The acceptance (by the Kremlin) of us is as some kind of product, as part of some big organism headed by the incumbent president of Russia. We do not consider ourselves an atavism. We consider ourselves an independent state with a long, deep history and morality. There is nothing to say about morality and unification... I think that we are showing today how it really is."

"Denazification" and "demilitarization" of Ukraine are not discussed at all in negotiations with Russia. "I said that we won't sit down at the negotiating table at all if we talk about some kind of demilitarization, some kind of 'denazification.' These are completely unacceptable things for me," Zelensky said.

At the same time, the issues of security guarantees, neutrality, and a nuclear-free status remain the most important topics in the negotiations for Ukraine.

The Russian language is discussed at the negotiations only in the context of respect for the languages of neighboring peoples. "I am interested in such an agreement, I want to sign it with all neighboring countries. I am interested in Russia, Hungary, Poland, Romania. We have many different issues, we have many minorities, nationalities, and this agreement will be sufficient to respect certain languages within our country. I'm sure that the issue of language will go off the agenda as it will be resolved by such an agreement."

"If you want a Russian school (in Ukraine), someone wants to study in Russian – open a private one, please, but on condition: you open at our place, we open at your place. If we publish something in your country, then we publish it here too."

Any agreements must be made personally with Putin, the withdrawal of troops is the main condition. "(UK Prime Minister Boris) Johnson, (U.S. President Joe) Biden, (Polish President Andrzej) Duda, (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan? The guarantors (of Ukraine's security) won't sign anything if we have (Russian) troops (in Ukraine)," Zelensky said.

"Therefore, when the Russian side says let's first change the law, and then withdraw the tanks... In order to reach an agreement, the Russian president must get on his own feet from where he is now and come to meet me anywhere in the world, except for Belarus, Russia and Ukraine – these are the three conflicting parties today, one way or another."

No more paperwork: compromise security guarantees must be approved by the parliaments of the guarantor countries, and a referendum must be held in Ukraine. Condition: "A referendum is impossible when there is the presence of (Russian) troops. This is what happened in Crimea. What kind of referendum is this? Time frame: "The referendum will take place within a few months (after the withdrawal of Russian troops), and changes to the Constitution (on a possible non-bloc status) will take place for at least a year in accordance with the current legislation."

Sending peacekeeping forces to Ukraine is Poland's idea, we don't need a frozen conflict. "I explained this at our meeting with Polish colleagues. As long as this is our country, and I'm the president, we will decide whether there are certain forces here."

Ukraine is ready to swap POWs (prisoners of war) without waiting for the end of the war, but the Russian side is hardly interested in this. "I know that our military compiled lists (of Russian prisoners). I'm just not sure that the Russian side needs these lists … It's not necessary to act according to some generally accepted canons: they say, let's wait until the end of the war. To date, there's such a number of POWs – let's swap like this: 10 for 10, 11 for 11."

The Russian invasion provoked a historical split between Ukrainians and Russians. "A global historical and cultural split has occurred over this month. This is not just a war, I think that everything is much worse."

The fact that many Russians support the current regime is "the worst disappointment that has happened."

"Disappointment that turned into hatred between peoples. I have no answer how (friendship) can be returned, no answer whether it will ever return."

Putin did the worst for the Russian language. "Hatred toward everything Russian will definitely grow. Irreparable harm. People outside of Russia will sometimes be embarrassed to speak Russian in any society. So it was after the war, after which the world recognized a specific aggressor."

Zelensky proposed that the Ukrainian military leave Mariupol, but they are not ready to leave the city, the wounded and the dead.

On control over the city. "Where Russian troops could enter, they entered. They have not entered some parts of the city. Because our guys were there, (those) who had refused to respond to our calls."

On the possibility of Ukrainian forces retreating. "Once every two days I get in touch (with the defenders of Mariupol and their families). I tell them that I understand everything – if you feel that you need to get out, and you feel that it is right and you can survive – do that. I understand how it looks for the military, but do that. I gave them the right to choose. But they said: we cannot, the wounded are here, we will not leave the wounded. Moreover, they said that they would not leave the dead."

Over 2,000 children were forcibly taken from Mariupol to Russia. "It means stolen. Because we do not know the exact locations of all these children. They were there both with and without their parents. It's a disaster, it's scary."

If the occupiers steal children, "we will leave everywhere, we will not negotiate anything with them." "I saw this bestiality (violation of agreements) in the Minsk process. I called it bestiality (even) then. We agreed with Putin in 2019 that we would swap everyone for everyone in the next two months … It's all over. They didn't swap anyone, the 'all-for-all' formula didn't work."

Russia does not want to show what is happening with the corpses. "We don't want to keep corpses, you understand that very well. We want them to be taken away. At first they (Russians) refused, later they offered us some bags. … Look, even when a dog or a cat dies, that's not the way to do it. These are trash bags. … Honestly, I don't understand what people think (in Russia). And especially what do the parents of these children think. I would (being the Russian) just set fire to everything I could."

When they have such an attitude toward their own, then what is their attitude toward all others? "And we are definitely not their own for the Russian government. That's scary."

The first aftermath of the war for Ukraine is that there are simply no cities. "Mariupol, Volnovakha simply do not exist. Cities near Kyiv in Kyiv Oblast. They drive and burn everything. I don't even know who the Russian army has ever treated like this. I have never seen. Maybe I was a very young man then and I don't remember the war in Chechnya so deeply, all the shots. It was scary there, but there, sorry… It's just impossible to compare the scale."

Even the occupation is tougher, because it is more intense. "I don't even want to compare with fascism. We understand that occupations are different. … But previously, it was unprofitable to wipe cities off the face of the earth, because when you occupy, someone needs to live and work there. Your underpants will be washed there, you, military man, soldier. You are standing there – who should do that? Wash, clean, cook, live somewhere. Movie theaters worked in France, etc., do you understand? It's not like that here. Here they invade: if the local authorities or someone do not want (to see the occupiers), the local authorities are removed; if people start shouting something, everything is burned out."

It was our Russian-speaking families who had to flee twice because of Russia. "It is these cities that have been wiped off the face of the earth. And it is these families. They ran twice. In 2014, when it all started, the country relocated Donetsk State University, higher educational institutions, educational colleges, sports clubs to Mariupol, people were moving. Where? People believed, as I told you, that it was about to end, and we would return. People were in different cities, close to those temporarily occupied ones… So tell me, how can we relate now to history associated with Russian culture or, in principle, with Russians? I'm afraid it's going to take a long time."

The international boycott of Russian athletes is the right decision. "Because, unfortunately, they are related. … (The athletes) must understand this, that they are an instrument of the country's international image."

It is not true to say that all Russians are innocent.  Just support (the protest against the war), just to say that I can't do that, I don't want to do that. Even if one person hears me, it will still be a plus, not a minus. Therefore, the boycott is precisely for you to understand that when people die in Ukraine, you should at least be uncomfortable."

The Ukrainian soldiers from Zmiinyi (Snake) Island: Some died, some were taken prisoner by Russia, but they have already been swapped. "There was an exchange for Russian prisoners. Russia came out with this proposal. We exchanged them without hesitation. That's all. Those who died are heroes."

There are no nuclear weapons, chemical biolaboratories and chemical weapons in Ukraine. "These doesn't exist."

Ukraine's current goal is to minimize the number of victims, shorten the duration of the war, and achieve the withdrawal of Russian troops. "(To where they were) before Feb. 24, before the invasion. Let's go back there. I understand that it's impossible to force Russia to completely liberate the territory, this will lead to a third world war. I understand everything very well and I'm aware of this. That's why I say: it's a compromise. Go back to where it all started, and we will try to solve the difficult issue of the Donbas there."

I'm not 70 years old (Putin is 69), I definitely have time. "But I want to end this war, I don't want us to have hundreds of thousands of dead. I did not consider a military attack, neither on the Donbas, nor on the Crimea. Because I deeply understand how many thousands of our people would die. And what would be the price of these territories, even if they were recaptured."

Nothing to say about assassination attempts. "Our security is dealing with these issues and eliminating problematic elements that come here to hunt (me). There's nothing more to say."

A reminder to the Russians: Devastation is in their heads. "Therefore, the war will end when everyone (in Russia) wants to accept that it was a big mistake of the Russian authorities, which led to a catastrophe for the Russian people. And to the tragedy between the relations of the Ukrainian and Russian peoples. And when this becomes clear, only then it will be possible to conclude how long this war will drag on. You need to think about children and grandchildren, there is nothing to think about yourself. Today, adults will not forgive each other for anything. I don't believe in it anymore. I just saw how the Russians react, I saw the percentage of Putin's support."

Ukraine definitely wants peace, not war. "Our people have so much strength, not because they are special. But because we have a tragedy, and I'm trying to explain it. One of our soldiers beats 10 Russians, because the latter do not understand what they are doing here. But these (Ukrainian defenders) know for sure that his wife is now in Poland somewhere, with a child. Or in Volnovakha, it was attacked yesterday."

"The brainless bureaucrats of Roskomnadzor." Why the interview received even more splash after the ban

Zelensky's interview with Russian journalists turned out to be hard-hitting not only because of the messages that the Ukrainian president was trying to convey, but also because of the hasty attempts of the Russian authorities to ban its publication in Russia.

"Honestly, I want to say thanks to Roskomnadzor – if it wasn't for their 'promotion,' I would never have known about this interview, but I had to watch it. Thank you," this is the most popular comment (more than 500 likes) among those viewers who watched the interview with Zelensky on Mikhail Zygar's YouTube channel.

Due to the wide publicity, Kremlin speaker Dmitry Peskov was forced to comment on the ban on this interview in Russia.

On March 28, he said: "As far as I understand, Roskomnadzor will assess the content of this interview for compliance with our legislation. Actually, the (warning) is probably related to the need for this assessment." At the same time, Peskov said that Russia was "not afraid" of the interview with the Ukrainian president. "We have existing laws, and it's very important not to publish any information that would be equated with a violation of these laws. Whether it's an interview, whether it's media information, (such "banned" information) can be contained in a variety of sources," Peskov said.

However, Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to the chief-of-staff of the Office of the President of Ukraine, said that Roskomnadzor's decision only testifies to the desire of the Russian Federation to "be an outcast everywhere."

"Otherwise, it's impossible to assess the absurdity of the decision of the main Russian censor, which demands in an ultimatum that several Russian media not publish a two-hour interview with Volodymyr Zelensky."

Podolyak emphasized that "the reasons for the barbaric war" of the Russian Federation against Ukraine "are studied in detail" in the interview "and it is stated what kind of catastrophic consequences Russia will face." He also called Roskomnadzor's decision "enchantingly cowardly and shameful."

"Firstly, the Russian Federation considers itself to be a 'stronghold of a struggle for a just cause.' But at the same time, they (Russians) cowardly tuck in their tails when there is direct talking from the other side. Secondly, why do they spend so much money on internal murderous propaganda, on all these plump propagandists from evening talk shows, if their lies can be easily nullified with one interview of the president of Ukraine?" Podolyak asked.

"In short, 'the strongest country.' The strongest Roskomnadzor. Exactly the same as 'the strongest Russian army.' The guys are not afraid of anything at all (irony), except perhaps of Ukraine, its president and their own journalists from Meduza, Dozhd, Kommersant or just Mikhail Zygar," the advisor said.

U.S.-based Kevin Rothrock, editor-in-chief of the English version of Medusa and a specialist in monitoring Russian media, was also surprised at the paradoxical nature of the ban by the Russian authorities.

"How stupid are the bureaucrats at Roskomnadzor to ban an interview with Zelensky just before it's released? Better PR is simply unimaginable. The people running the Russian police state are idiots," he tweeted.

Western media also drew attention to the Kremlin's attempt to prevent Russian society from hearing or reading the president of Ukraine.

U.S.-based The New York Times daily newspaper called Volodymyr Zelensky's interview a "remarkable moment in the war." The newspaper says that "this episode avoids the extraordinary and partially successful efforts of Russia's censorship as President Vladimir Putin's bloody invasion of Ukraine enters a second month. He revealed Mr. Zelensky's attempt to reach the general public. Directly."

The NYT points out that "the interview video was watched more than a million times within hours of its release, providing Russians with pictures of the war that were very different from what they see every day on television screens."

The newspaper reiterates that Zelensky "repeatedly switches to Russian with video addresses posted on social media, trying to encourage Putin's critics in Russia. But the Sunday interview was the first time Zelensky had spoken with Russian journalists in their language for a long time since the beginning of the war."

The NYT said that "even by the standards of arbitrary law enforcement in modern Russia, the statement (by Roskomnadzor) was noteworthy and did not provide a legal excuse to justify the order not to publish the interview. However, government directives have had an impact following a law signed by Mr. Putin earlier this month, which could punish news coverage of the Ukrainian invasion that deviated from the Kremlin story with 15 years in prison."

The NYT managed to contact the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, Dmitry Muratov, who said that he had decided not to publish the interview.

"We were forced not to publish this interview," Muratov said in a telephone interview, saying his newspaper was based in Russia and under the jurisdiction of Russian law. "This is just censorship during 'special operations.'"

The newspaper added that (Kommersant correspondent) Solovyov did not respond to requests for comment. "It was unclear whether he or his newspaper would face legal consequences for conducting the interview."

At the same time, another interviewer for Zelensky, journalist Mikhail Zygar, answered NYT’s questions by phone from Berlin. "It was very important for us to speak, so that he could speak to the Russian audience," Zygar said."

The NYT stressed that Zelensky's account of the violence of Russia's aggression was directly contrary to the Kremlin's propaganda about Ukrainians firing on their own cities.

The newspaper also retells in detail the main theses of the interview, drawing additional attention to them from Western readers.

Finally, the NYT drew attention to how Zelensky himself on the night of March 28 commented on the "feverish attempts" of the Russian authorities to censor his interview. The president of Ukraine mentioned this topic in his new address to the Ukrainians, saying: "Today is the day when we see again and again how far we are from the Russian Federation. Imagine, they were frightened there in Moscow because of my interview with Russian journalists. To those of them who can afford to tell the truth. … It would be ridiculous if it wasn't so tragic."

"They have destroyed freedom of speech in their state, they are trying to destroy a neighboring state. They portray themselves as global players. And they themselves are afraid of a relatively short conversation with several journalists."

"Well, if there is such a reaction, then we are doing everything right, then they are nervous. Apparently, they have seen that their citizens have more and more questions about the state of affairs in their country," Zelensky said.

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