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Fareed Zakaria GPS

Interview With Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky. Aired 1- 2p ET

Aired March 20, 2022 - 13:00   ET



FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: This is GPS, the GLOBAL PUBLIC SQUARE. Welcome to all of you in the United States and around the world. I'm Fareed Zakaria coming to you live.


ZAKARIA: On today's show, the man of the moment, Volodymyr Zelensky. I will ask the Ukrainian president how his country is defending itself from the Russian invasion and what he needs from Western powers to keep up the fight. We'll discuss the end game of this tragic conflict. Is compromise possible with Putin, a man President Biden has termed a war criminal? I will ask about the personal toll that this is taking on him, his family and his country.

Let's get started on this special edition of GPS.

It has been nearly a month since Russia invaded Ukraine and the Institute for the Study of War put out an assessment yesterday that said Ukrainian forces have defeated Russia's initial campaign in the war. The think tank declared that the fighting is now a stalemate. Nonetheless, the Russian assault on military bases and some key cities has been brutal.

In the eastern city of Mariupol, many hundreds of people are believed to be buried under a rubble of a bombed-out theater, despite the fact that children was written in huge letters outside the venue in Russian. And on Friday Russia raised the stakes by using a hypersonic weapon to destroy a Ukrainian ammunition depot. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military along with ordinary citizens and foreign fighters continues to put up a fierce fight against Putin's invaders.

My guest for this hour today is Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky.


ZAKARIA: President Zelensky, welcome to the show.

VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): Greetings. Greetings to you all. Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak with you.

ZAKARIA: President Biden has called Vladimir Putin a war criminal, and yet you have called for negotiations with him. Will it be hard, will it be painful for you to have to sit down with Putin were he to agree and negotiate with him?

ZELENSKY (through translator): I am ready for negotiations with him. I was ready over the last two years and I think that -- I think that without negotiations we cannot end this war. I think that all the people who think that this dialogue is shallow and that it is not going to resolve anything, they just don't understand that this is very valuable. If there is just 1 percent chance for us to stop this war, I think that we need to take this chance. We need to do that.

I can't tell you about the result of these negotiations. In any case, we are losing people on a daily basis, innocent people on the ground. Russian forces have come to exterminate us, to kill us, and we have demonstrated the dignity of our people and our army, that we are -- we are able to deal a powerful blow, we are able to strike back, but unfortunately our dignity is not going to preserve the lives, so I think that we have to use any format, any chance in order to have the possibility of negotiating, the possibility of talking to Putin, but if these attempts fail, that would mean that this is a third world war.

ZAKARIA: You know the Russian demands, they want you to recognize that Crimea is part of Russia, that the two republics in the Donbas are independent republics. They want a guarantee, perhaps in the Ukrainian constitution, that Ukraine will never be a member of NATO. Are you willing to make those compromises?


ZELENSKY (through translator): There are compromises for which we cannot be ready as an independent state. Any compromises related to our territorial integrity and our sovereignty and the Ukrainian people have spoken about it, they have not greeted Russian soldiers with a bunch of flowers, they have greeted them with bravery, they have greeted them with weapons in their hands.

So forcibly you cannot make yourself a friend, you cannot curry favor with the citizens of another country forcibly. You cannot just make a president of another country to recognize anything by the use of force. So everything that they are doing is not just about politics, it's about -- it's about reality. They have made their way to Kherson region but people are feeling hatred towards them, animosity, and people will continue to kill Russians because Russians have killed their children.

You cannot reverse this situation anymore. You cannot just demand from Ukraine to recognize some territories as independent republics. These compromises are simply wrong. I cannot recognize personally as a president and secondly as a citizen and thirdly you cannot force people to love the enemy. That's impossible. What you can do is to make a pause and just decide on how we are going to live further on.

What has to be done in order to put an end to the war, to prevent further wars, and how to find and approach these territories which are temporarily occupied. This is a very difficult matter because part of these territories were occupied eight years ago and during entire period of eight years they have been brainwashing people and children on whom they are. They've been telling them that they have preserved their lives.

They have been telling lies that Ukrainians are fascists. They have been filling their heads with lies for many years and it's very difficult because of that to find understanding. You definitely understand what information policies mean. Therefore, we have to come up with a model where Ukraine will not lost its sovereignty, its territorial integrity. We cannot concede to it. But still we have to find a model of understanding to prevent further wars between our territories that we control and temporary occupied territories.

So whatever the discussions that we have in our negotiating allegations, I think that it's just -- the two of us, me and Putin, who can make an agreement on this. The second story is related to ultimatums that cannot be there emanating from one country to another country. I mean, in general and concretely in terms of Russia's ultimatums to Ukraine and there can be not be any ultimatums from any country whatsoever to another country, regardless of the army that it has, regardless of the finance, regardless of the size of the economy because it's international law.

It's about respect the sovereignty of each country. Therefore dialogue is the only way out. It is through dialogue that we have to resolve the matter of security guarantees for Ukraine. We do not want to give any country a possibility to attack us. Today it's the Russian Federation, hopefully any other country will not be willing to attack Ukraine's independence, but still you can see that Belarus launched rockets against Ukraine at the very beginning.

Therefore, that's a matter on the table right now. Therefore, NATO could be a source of guarantees for Ukraine, but we are not accepted as a member of NATO, so Ukraine has to seek for other security guarantees from individual countries, that could be NATO members. That is what we are proposing, a number of leaders of world countries could be the source of guarantees for Ukraine. They could be part of this circle of powerful countries. That is what we can talk about, security guarantees for Ukraine.


ZAKARIA: Next on GPS, I'll ask Zelensky about his quest for NATO membership and, frankly, whether giving it up sooner could have averted war. Back in a moment.



ZAKARIA: Back now with more of my exclusive interview with Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelensky.


ZAKARIA: You know, you have said recently that Ukraine perhaps will not be a member of NATO. You have admitted that. Could that -- there are people who ask, could that concession, had you made it clearly and loudly earlier, could that have prevented this war?

ZELENSKY (through translator): Well, Fareed, here is the deal, I spoke about what NATO members told me, so if we do not have leaders of the countries to put them in a position where they have to answer questions from citizens of their countries, that has to be a very long-term matter.


I made a point that the war in Ukraine has been lasting for eight years. It's not just some special military operation. So if Russia continues to make soundings, testing the crowd and if they do not see any kind of response from the West, they will continue to advance. I have been talking about this from the very first day of my presidency. I did not talk about this in public because I didn't want to give them possibility to reinforce their position.

Now the whole world is seeing that our army is strong, but the leaders of world's countries, all leaders, most leaders of NATO and the European Union were well aware of my position. I told them that we are running out of time. You have to admit Ukraine into NATO right now. We do not have much time. You have to accept Ukraine as a member of E.U. We deserve these alliances. We are just reinforcing you.

We're strengthening you and you will see it. You will see the attitude of Belarusian people who have a very favorable attitude to me. I have been telling about this from the very first day of my presidency. You have to come up with a concrete program for Ukraine, take concrete steps. We will strengthen your position, not you will strengthen yours, and that will be a very clear and very correct message to the Russian leadership and to the Russian people that we are a unitary state and that they cannot exert any kind of military pressure on us.

But everyone in the West told me that we do not have any chance of NATO or E.U. membership. I asked them not to drive the Ukrainian people into a corner because our people are brave and the West should also be brave in telling directly to the Ukrainian people that, well, you are not going to be a NATO-E.U. member. They do not have a consolidated position and I requested that personally.

I requested them personally to say directly that we are going to accept you into NATO in a year or two or five. Just say it directly and clearly or just say no, and the response was very clear, you are not going to be a NATO or E.U. member, but publicly the doors will remain open. I asked them about preemptive sanctions, I talked about Nord Stream 2, we were discussing all of it, and simultaneously we were strengthening our army because with neighbors like this, like we have, this is the only way out.

That's what we were doing. We did not mention expressly of how many people are ready to go to war and how much equipment we have, and I think that that was a very -- a very good position. It was the right position. We did not warn the enemy that we were going to be ferociously resisting and that worked, and we are continue to ward off this aggression and everyone is seeing this. So NATO cannot just tell to Ukraine that -- so Ukraine cannot say that it is not going to join NATO.

NATO is saying that it is not going to admit Ukraine. That is true. Many countries have supported Ukraine, I mean, among members of the alliance, but quite a considerable share of NATO members unfortunately for various reasons have not done that. Some of them were afraid of a neighbor like Russia and that was for a reason, because we are just witnessing Russia doing these horrendous things in Ukraine.

Perhaps some of these NATO members had some business arrangements with Russia. They are not helping due to energy links and trade links to Russia, so business also has a role to play. I mean, big money. But actually Ukraine is paying a much steeper price than big money. We are paying with our people. So my rhetoric is absolutely true and I'm just -- I'm not mentioning explicitly what countries said that Ukraine is not going to be a NATO member. I think that this is a very righteous position. It has to remain behind the scenes, but that is true.


The fact that NATO members are supporting us economically or militarily, yes, that is true and we are very grateful for it. Indeed very grateful, because without this help it would be much, much more difficult for us, that is true, but if we were a NATO member, a war wouldn't have started. So now I'd like to receive security guarantees for my country, for my people.

If NATO members are ready to see us in the alliance, then do it immediately because people are dying on a daily basis, but if you are not ready to preserve the lives of our people, if you just want to see us straddle two worlds, if you want to see us in this dubious position where we do not understand whether you can accept us or not, you cannot place us in this situation. You cannot force us to be in this limbo.


ZAKARIA: Next on GPS, top Russian officials from Putin on down have claimed that a prime reason for the invasion was to de-Nazify Ukraine. How does Zelensky who is Jewish react to this outrageous lie? I'll ask him that when we come back.



ZAKARIA: President Putin has repeatedly referred to the Ukrainian government as neo-Nazis and says one of his reasons for invading was to de-Nazify the country. It is all lies, of course. And for President Zelensky it's personal. More of my exclusive interview with him.


ZAKARIA: When you hear Vladimir Putin talk about the Ukrainian government as being full of neo-Nazis, as somebody who is of Jewish descent, how do you react to those statements?

ZELENSKY (through translator): Well, there are rare occasions when I smile and when I laugh, and for me to hear it, it's as if something similar to a joke. I cannot take this statement seriously. Upon hearing the situation -- hearing the statements at first, you just think to yourself that this person has been in a leadership position for so many years and this person is supposed to have a very clear understanding of what Ukrainian people are because of the Soviet legacy, but I think that currently Putin is in an information bubble.

I think this is information bunker and it is so -- it is so powerful, this bunker of information, that he really thinks that Ukrainians are neo-Nazis. So this is a laughable statement for me, and a strike of fear resurfaces. I'm not afraid of anything except for people, but the fact -- the fact is that if he is serious about this statement he might be capable of very horrendous steps because that would mean that this is not a game for him.

If he really believes in this, if it's not a game, then we will just continue fighting against it. If it's a game. But if it's not a game, if he's serious about it, if he thinks that this is his mission to conquer our territory and if he sees signs of neo-Nazis in our country then many questions emerge about what else he is capable of doing for the sake of his ambitions, for the same of his mission.

So this what gives rise to a feeling which is not very pleasant and which is very frightening, very hazardous. That it can't be an information bubble which will continue to exert pressure and it will pressurize Putin to further escalation.

ZAKARIA: Can I ask you something about your family history? Your grandfather Simon, Semyon, is the only survivor out of the Holocaust in World War II. Tell us a little bit about that and what was the lesson, what are the values you drew from it when you would hear those stories in your family?

ZELENSKY (through translator): Well, my grandfather and his four brothers were living in an ordinary village and then the Second World War started. My grandfather was graduating from military college at that time and all of his brothers went to war because their father said that they had to protect the country. They had to fight fascists so they went to war and all the brothers died. And my grandfather survived the entire war.


His father and his mother were killed in a terrible fire. The Nazis set ablaze the entire village where they lived and where my grandfather was born. All the brothers perished in the front line. He was alone to be left standing. He returned home. He ended up in the city of Kryvyi Rih where I was born. He was a captain of an infantry unit. He was awarded with a number of military orders like a Red Cross, like a Red Star for his heroism and his bravery.

He was wounded at war and after the war he started working as an investigator, catching criminals and eventually he became a colonel in independent Ukraine. So that is his -- basically his life story. So when Russians are telling about neo-Nazis and they turn to me, I just replied that I have lost my entire family in the war because all of them were exterminated during World War II.

A number of my distant relatives are still -- are still living, some of them are in the United States and Poland or in Israel. That is what I know. So basically that is all. So Naziism in our family evokes a huge amount of misunderstanding. So we do not understand what they are talking about, what kind of Nazis in the country? We fought a war with these people, Nazis. So I have a question to those who are raising this topic of Nazism in the Russian federation.

I'd like to hear from there -- from them and what front lines that their grandfathers fought, what countries their grandfathers liberated, how their grandfathers fought in Nazi Germany. I have this question to them. When some politicians in the Russian Federation are raising this topic of neo-Naziism and fascism related to me I have a question that, well, my biography is open and everything -- everyone is well aware about my biography.

You can find facts about my family in open sources, but what about the relatives of Russians? I do not know about anything about their relatives or Russians who fought in the Second World War who are talking about neo-Nazis. The entire territory of Ukraine was occupied. The Nazi regime occupied the entire territory of Ukraine and Ukraine fought against Nazis. By the way, if I'm not mistaken, more than 70 days we resisted the offensive of Nazis. We fought the way it is fighting now. It has always been fighting.

For many days -- for many days it was repelling the attacks, it was a great battle. Many people were dead, but still they continued their resistance and I know many people in Russia who are occupied and who struggled against Hitler's regime, but Kyiv was occupied and Moscow was not. You cannot say -- you cannot just -- they cannot just say about their feelings that Ukraine is a betrayer or that we are neo- Nazis because Russians are acting in the same matter as neo-Nazis at the moment.

If you take a look at the history and scientific materials you can just look at what Nazis did, they blockaded Kyiv, they blockaded other cities to prevent the supplies of water and food, and this is exactly what Russians are doing now. This is what they are doing in Mariupol. They are -- they are just going to the city saying that everything is going to be all right and that this is Russian territory, they're just claiming it. So their methods have remained unchanged.


And the fact is that they are betraying the history of their own homeland because what we are having now in Mariupol, in Kyiv, they had the same in Leningrad which is now St. Petersburg, formerly known as Leningrad. Everyone knows how many people died during the blockade of Leningrad. These people did not have any food and water. And this is exactly what is happening in Ukraine. So who is the Nazi?

(END VIDEOTAPE) ZAKARIA: Next on GPS, I will ask Volodymyr Zelensky about the toll the war is taking on him, on his family.


ZAKARIA: President Zelensky has said he believes that he is Russia's number one target and their number two target, Zelensky says, is his wife and two young children.


I wanted to understand how this war was affecting all of them.


ZAKARIA: Just personally, how are you holding up? Nothing in your professional life has prepared you for this extraordinary ordeal you're going through. How are you handling it, just personally?

ZELENSKY (through translator): Well, you know, I'm doing just everything that everyone else in Ukraine is doing. We have made up our team to defend our country, so it seems to me that a person does not need to turn into anyone else. That is important, when you can be just yourself. When you have just real feeling and when you have this real very sincere attitude to your people in spite of -- regardless of whether you are president or not.

It's supreme importance that you like your people, your country, your neighbors. And in peaceful times where you feel the pleasure from work and from results that you get from your work, it seems to me that this is the most important thing. So I'm holding up quite well. As of now my weakest point is losing people, losing children in these numbers, and this huge amount of casualties.

I go to sleep with this information about children who were killed and we are continuing to pray in order to prevent new losses of people, but so far we haven't attained these results. This is the most important moment. We are trying to defend our sovereignty, defend our country. For me this is a core honor so it's not that hard for me.

ZAKARIA: You're a young man, you have a young family, and I have to -- I keep wondering, how do you explain to your children what is going on?

ZELENSKY (through translator): My children know for sure what is happening and I don't know whether it's good or bad. I have not explained anything to my children. They have said to me that war is raging in Ukraine and at our home we have the same freedom of speech as we have in our country and they know what we are fighting for. They understand all of that. The first two days we did not talk about it at all, and my family and they did not ask questions.

They were thinking about it themselves of what is happening. They are proud of Ukraine, very proud, and they entertain a sincere hope in our victory. Children believe in victory, but they do not believe in it in terms of a score and some sort of a game, like in football, like we have killed 10 people of Russia and they have killed five people from Ukraine. They simply believe that the good shall prevail.

It may seem banal, but this is it, and in order to prevail the good people have to sacrifice themselves. Fortunately we do not have to explain anything to our children, fortunately they have access to any kinds of videos and news, and I see to it that their access to these videos is open, that they have access to it. I think that my -- that my children should not be prohibited from seeing any kinds of videos of what Russia has made.

My son -- my son has to be aware of it because while my son is alive that means that some Ukrainian army member is giving up his own life for this.


ZAKARIA: Next on GPS, a final video message from President Zelensky as his country prepares to mark a month of war. You'll be amazed at the optimism of this special video that will be released on GPS.



ZAKARIA: I'm going to play you a video that President Zelensky wanted to release right here on GPS. A warning to viewers, the video contains graphic content. Here it is, produced by the Ukrainian government and narrated by Zelensky himself.


ZELENSKY: "Was," a simple word, merely a part of speech used in everyday life, but it's not that simple for us because now the everyday Ukrainians simply cannot say "was" without bursting into tears.


This was my home. This was my friend. This was my dog. This was my car. This was my car. This was my job. And this was my father. And this was my daughter. The millions and millions of fresh wounds are bleeding with that "was."

Russia has drowned Ukraine in tears and blood and children corpses. But there is one thing Russia doesn't get. "Was" is the word that describes its life and we Ukrainians already know what will come next.

We will win. And there will be new houses. There will be new cities. There will be new dreams. There will be a new story. There will be this (INAUDIBLE). And those we've lost will be remembered. And we will sing again and we will celebrate anew.

Yes, Ukraine was beautiful, but now it will become great. Great Ukraine.

(END OF VIDEO CLIP) ZAKARIA: You made this video, and what is the message that you really want to convey to the West, to the world, with it because it's a very optimistic video, but we are still living in a very tragic, difficult time. And you in particular are living in a very difficult moment.

ZELENSKY (through translator): This is the video, why it is so optimistic is that we have a very profound faith in ourselves. In the very profound faith in the West. Profound faith in people. I have seen people in squares who are taking to the streets. These people in Western countries have different positions from those held by their leaders. And I implore the Western leaders to match the aspirations of their people.

I've seen people in various continents throughout the United States and Europe, and there is tremendous support from them coming to Ukraine. We can see that our values are alike. Our languages are different. But they did not matter. Our religions, our faiths are different and every person has a choice in terms of religions and faith, but our values are common, are shared.

There are a lot of positive moments in this video. There's reality. There's also positive attitude and faith. My personal faith in the fact that people are -- the people throughout the planet have shared values. It's not simply about give us help or save our souls. But about the fact that we have to be united. We are fighting for our freedom, for our lives. Unfortunately, we have to fight for our lives at the expense of another lives.

We have to earn the life for the entire civilization. And in order to make this happen, we are giving up our own lives. This is not right. So we have to unite. We have to unite in our energy. We have to be united because that means that -- it means that salvation is there.

ZAKARIA: Mr. President, it's a pleasure to talk to you. It's an honor to have had you on this program. Please stay safe. Thank you, sir.

ZELENSKY (through translator): Thank you. Thank you very much, Fareed.


ZAKARIA: A final thought from me. I have met President Zelensky several times. He struck me as bright, nimble, engaging and obviously with a great sense of humor. He even once took part in a brief comedy sketch after a dinner.

Listening to him now, I see a man, a leader transformed who has risen to the occasion and met his moment. As he spoke, I thought of the eloquent words that adorn the first page of Winston Churchill's magnificent World War II memoirs.


"In war, resolution. In defeat, defiance. In victory, magnanimity. In peace, good will."

President Zelensky has shown the world his resolution and his defiance. Let us hope that one day soon he gets to demonstrate more of his magnanimity and good will.

Thanks to all of you for being part of this special program this week. I will see you next week.