Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy invited his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to meet him in his country’s war-torn eastern Donbass region for peace talks, amid growing international concern over Russia’s massive buildup of troops at the border.
In a 13-minute speech late Tuesday, Zelenskiy began by addressing his fellow citizens in the Ukrainian language with an explanation of the current crisis, reassuring them that while an escalation wasn’t inevitable and Kyiv wouldn’t strike first, they should not be afraid because the Ukraine of 2021 was prepared for war.
Then, 10 minutes into his speech, Zelenskiy switched to the Russian language and addressed Putin directly: “Once, the president of the Russian Federation said ‘if a fight is inevitable, you need to strike first.’ But in my opinion, today every leader must understand that a fight cannot be inevitable when we’re not talking about back alleys and hooligans, but a real war and millions of human lives. And unlike in a fight, in a war, all sides lose.”
“Mr. Putin,” Zelenskiy said, “I propose we meet anywhere in the Ukrainian Donbass, where there is a war,” referring to the conflict between Ukrainian troops and Russia-backed separatists that has been ongoing since 2014.
Zelenskiy’s message came after his top diplomat warned earlier Tuesday that Russia is massing 120,000 troops along the Ukrainian border — and may not stop there. The situation has rattled Western allies, who fear an invasion could be afoot. Moscow annexed the Crimea region from Ukraine in 2014, drawing international condemnation and setting off a years-long, low-level skirmish along the border between the two countries.
In the Ukrainian portion of his address Tuesday, Zelenskiy said Kyiv is “not afraid, because we have the strong support of international partners.” He said he had spoken to the leaders of the U.S., France, Germany, the U.K. and Turkey, as well as the Council chief and the secretary-general of NATO, and that they were all “on our side.”
“They perfectly see the real motives of Russia,” Zelenskiy said, and are “ready to support us financially. They are ready to impose increasingly severe sanctions and adopt tough resolutions.” But he pointedly added: “At the same time, our citizens really need to understand what the world is ready for. How exactly and who will help us if someone again ignores the borders in the center of Europe?”
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Monday said the bloc’s foreign ministers found the Russian military mobilization “very concerning,” but they weren’t contemplating new sanctions against Moscow.
Zelenskiy also asked Ukrainians not to fall for unverified rumors, telling them to “think thrice” before believing what they read from “experts on the internet, ‘reliable’ media sources, and insiders on anonymous Telegram channels.”
And “most importantly,” the Ukrainian president added, people should question whether to trust the politicians calling for war on social media, “for whom it is not your interests that matter, but your votes.”