KYIV, Ukraine — (AP) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Saturday he was determined to push for peace despite Russian attacks on civilians that have stunned the world, and he renewed his call for more weapons ahead of an expected increase in fighting in the east of the country.
He made the comments in an interview with The Associated Press a day after at least 52 people were killed in a strike at a train station in the eastern city of Kramatorsk, and evidence of civilian killings emerged. revealed after Russian troops failed to seize the capital where he took refuge, kyiv.
“Nobody wants to negotiate with a person or people who have tortured this nation. Everything is understandable. And as a man, as a father, I understand that very well,” Zelenskyy said. But “we don’t want to lose opportunities, if we have any, for a diplomatic solution.”
Wearing the dull olive that marked his transformation into a warlord, he looked visibly exhausted but driven by a will to persevere. He spoke to the AP inside the presidential office complex, where windows and hallways are protected by sandbag towers and heavily armed soldiers.
“We have to fight, but fight for life. You can’t fight for dust when there’s nothing and nobody. That is why it is important to stop this war,” Zelenskyy said.
Russian troops who withdrew from northern Ukraine are now regrouping in what is expected to be an intensified push to retake the eastern Donbass region, including the beleaguered port city of Mariupol which Ukrainian fighters are scrambling to defend.
The president said these defenders were tying down “a large part of the enemy forces”, calling the battle to hold Mariupol “the heart of the war” at the moment.
“It beats. Were fighting. We are strong. And if it stops beating, we will be in a weaker position,” he said.
Zelenskyy said he was confident Ukrainians would accept peace despite the horrors they witnessed during the more than six-week war.
These included gruesome images of civilian bodies found in courtyards, parks and city squares and buried in mass graves in the kyiv suburb of Bucha after Russian troops withdrew. Ukrainian and Western leaders have accused Moscow of war crimes.
Russia falsely claimed that Bucha’s scenes were staged. He also blamed Ukraine for the Kramatorsk train station attack as thousands rushed to flee ahead of an expected Russian offensive.
Despite hopes for peace, Zelenskyy acknowledged he needed to be ‘realistic’ about the prospects for a quick resolution given negotiations have so far been limited to low-level talks that don’t include the president. Russian Vladimir Putin.
Zelenskyy displayed a palpable sense of resignation and frustration when asked if the supplies of arms and other equipment his country had received from the United States and other Western countries were sufficient to overthrow the course of the war.
“Not yet,” he said, switching to English for emphasis. “Of course, that’s not enough.”
Still, he noted there had been increased support from Europe and said US arms shipments had accelerated.
Just this week, neighboring European Union member Slovakia donated its Soviet-era S-300 air defense system to Ukraine in response to Zelenskyy’s appeal to help “close the sky” to Russian fighter jets and missiles.
Part of this support has taken the form of visits by European leaders.
After meeting Zelenskyy in Kyiv earlier on Saturday, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said he expected more EU sanctions against Russia even as he defended his country’s shutdown opposition deliveries of Russian natural gas.
The US, EU and UK have responded to Bucha’s images with more sanctions, including those targeting Putin’s adult daughters. While the EU first took on Russia’s energy sector by banning coal, it has so far failed to agree on scrapping the much more lucrative oil and natural gas that funds Putin’s war chest. Europe relies on these supplies to generate electricity, fill fuel tanks and run industry.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also made an unannounced visit to meet Zelenskyy, with his office saying he had discussed “long-term support” from Britain.
On Friday in kyiv, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, gave the Ukrainian leader a questionnaire marking the first stage of an application for membership of the EU. The head of the bloc’s executive branch said the process of filling out the questionnaire could take weeks – an unusually fast turnaround – although obtaining membership would take much longer.
Zelenskyy grew introspective when asked what impact the pace of arms deliveries had had on his people and whether more lives could have been saved if help had arrived sooner.
“Very often we look for answers in someone else, but I often look for answers in myself. Have we done enough to get them? Do these leaders believe in us? Have we done enough?
He stopped and shook his head.
“Are we the best for this place and this time? Who knows? I do not know. You wonder,” he said.
AP photographer Evgeniy Maloletka contributed to this story.
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