Zelensky warns that a Russian victory anywhere in Ukraine is perilous

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, shown at a news conference this month, warned reporters on Tuesday against a Russian victory in Bakhmut.
(Efrem Lukatsky / Associated Press)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that unless his nation wins a drawn-out battle in a key eastern city, Russia could begin building international support for a deal that could require Ukraine to make unacceptable compromises. He also invited the leader of China, long aligned with Russia, to visit.

If Bakhmut fell to Russian forces, Russian President Vladimir Putin would “sell this victory to the West, to his society, to China, to Iran,” Zelensky said in an interview Tuesday with the Associated Press.

“If he will feel some blood — smell that we are weak — he will push, push, push,” Zelensky said in English, which he used for virtually all of the interview.


The Ukrainian leader spoke to the AP aboard a train shuttling him across Ukraine, to some cities near some of the fiercest fighting and others where his country’s forces have successfully repelled Russia’s invasion.

As the war enters its second year, Zelensky finds himself focused on keeping motivation high in both his military and the general Ukrainian population — particularly the millions who have fled abroad and those living in relative comfort and security far from the front lines.

Zelensky is also well-aware that his country’s success has been in great part due to waves of international military support, particularly from the U.S. and Western Europe. But some in the U.S. — including former President Trump, who is running again — have questioned whether Washington should continue to supply Ukraine with billions of dollars in military aid.

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Trump’s likely Republican rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, also suggested that defending Ukraine in a “territorial dispute” with Russia was not a significant U.S. national security priority. He later walked back that statement after facing criticism from other pockets of the GOP.

Zelensky didn’t mention the names of Trump or any other Republican politicians — figures he might have to deal with if they prevailed in the 2024 election. But he expressed concern that the war could be affected by shifting political forces in Washington.

“The United States really understands that if they stop helping us, we will not win,” he said, sipping tea during the interview.


His carefully planned railroad trip was a remarkable overland journey through a country at war. Zelensky, who has become a recognized face across the world as he doggedly tells his side of the story to nation after nation, used the morale-building journey to carry his considerable clout to regions close to the front lines.

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He traveled with a small cadre of advisors and a large group of heavily armed security officials dressed in battlefield fatigues. His destinations included ceremonies marking the one-year anniversary of the liberation of towns in the Sumy region and visits with troops stationed at front-line positions near Zaporizhzhia. Each visit was kept under wraps until after he departed.

Zelensky recently made a similar visit near Bakhmut, where Ukrainian and Russian forces have been locked for months in a grinding and bloody battle. While some Western military analysts have suggested that the city is not of significant strategic importance, Zelensky warned that a loss anywhere at this stage in the war could put Ukraine’s hard-fought momentum at risk.

“We can’t lose the steps because the war is a pie — pieces of victories. Small victories, small steps,” he said.

Zelensky’s comments were an acknowledgment that losing the seven-month-long battle for Bakhmut — the longest of the war thus far — would be more of a costly political defeat than a tactical one.

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He predicted that the pressure from a defeat in Bakhmut would come quickly — both from the international community and within his own country. “Our society will feel tired,” he said. “Our society will push me to have compromise” with Russia.


So far, Zelensky said he hadn’t felt that pressure. The international community has largely rallied around Ukraine following Russia’s Feb. 24, 2022, invasion. In recent months, a parade of world leaders, including President Biden, has visited Zelensky in Ukraine, most traveling in on trains similar to the ones he uses to crisscross the country.

In his AP interview, Zelensky extended an invitation to Ukraine to one notable and strategically important leader who has not made the journey: Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“We are ready to see him here,” he said. “I want to speak with him. I had contact with him before full-scale war. But during all this year, more than one year, I didn’t have.”

China, economically aligned and politically favorable toward Russia across many decades, has provided Putin diplomatic cover by staking out an official position of neutrality in the war.

Asked whether Xi would accept an invitation from Zelensky — or whether one had been officially extended — Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning told reporters she had no information to give. She did say that Beijing maintains “communication with all parties concerned, including Ukraine.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, asked whether a meeting between Xi and Zelensky would be useful to resolve the conflict in Ukraine, said Russian authorities “highly appreciate” China’s balanced position on the issue and “have no right to come up with any advice” on whether the two should meet.

“The Chinese leader himself decides the appropriateness of certain contacts,” Peskov said during his daily conference call with reporters Wednesday.

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Xi visited Putin in Russia last week, raising the prospect that Beijing might be ready to provide Moscow with the weapons and ammunition it needs to refill its depleted stockpile. But Xi’s trip ended without any such announcement. Days later, Putin announced that he would be deploying tactical nuclear weapons to neighboring Belarus, which would push the Kremlin’s nuclear stockpile closer to NATO territory.

Zelensky suggested that Putin’s move was intended to distract from the lack of guarantees he received from China.


“What does it mean? It means the visit was not good for Russia,” Zelensky speculated. He was unsparing in his assessment of Putin, calling him an “informationally isolated person” who had “lost everything” over the last year of war.

“He doesn’t have allies,” Zelensky said.

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He makes few predictions about the biggest question hanging over the war: how it will end. He expressed confidence, however, that his nation would prevail through a series of “small victories” and “small steps” against a “very big country, big enemy” — a “big army” with “small hearts.”

And Ukraine itself? While Zelensky acknowledged that the war has “changed us,” he said that, in the end, it has made his society stronger.

“It could’ve gone one way, to divide the country, or another way, to unite us,” he said. “I’m so thankful. I’m thankful to everybody — every single partner, our people, thank God, everybody — that we found this way in this critical moment for the nation. Finding this way was the thing that saved our nation, and we saved our land. We are together.”