President points to ties between Kremlin and Iran and also thanks ‘brave men and women’ putting themselves in danger to report the war at a meeting with Lachlan Murdoch
November 20, 2023
Russia has led the world to the brink of World War Three, President Zelensky has said. The Ukrainian president accused Moscow of “lighting fires” around the world, exporting conflicts everywhere from the Balkans to the Middle East. In an interview with The Sun, Zelensky accused President Putin of supporting the murderous assault launched by Hamas against Israel on October 7 and said that the outbreak of war in the Middle East “doesn’t help” Ukraine. He pointed to the strengthening ties between Russia and Iran — which has been supplying Moscow with kamikaze drones while simultaneously supporting Hamas — as evidence of the Kremlin’s involvement in the conflict.
Zelensky also warned of Russian attempts to meddle in the Balkans after Nato was forced to send troops to Kosovo this year following clashes between ethnic Albanians and Serbs. “We think that they are preparing now in the Balkans; they are doing new steps,” he said. “And we think that they are trying to train or even training some people.”
In a downbeat assessment of the situation in Ukraine, Zelensky said that Kyiv would not be able to defend itself if Western support slackened as he predicted that the war could still escalate nearly two years after Putin first ordered the invasion. “Ukraine today [is] in the centre of these global risks of this Third World War,” he said. “And I really think that Russia will push until the United States and China together will tell them very, very seriously to go out of [our] territory.”
After the summer counteroffensive failed to recapture significant territory, there is growing concern in Kyiv that Western apathy could lead to a drop-off in military aid.
The Ukrainian armed forces have made minor advances, including the recent establishment of a bridgehead on the east side of the Dnipro river, but the sweeping assault down to the Black Sea hoped-for in the West failed to materialise. After the disappointing summer, President Biden is struggling to secure Congress’ backing for a $60 billion package of US military aid. In Europe a new government in Slovakia has blocked a $43 million aid package after elections beset with allegations of Russian interference.
Zelensky has previously warned that the war in Israel has complicated efforts to procure 155mm artillery shells and in his latest interview he asked Western countries to consider loaning weapons to Ukraine, insisting previous support was “not enough”. “If the Western countries will not give us this support, this is their decision,” Zelensky said. “Our military and financial [resources] will not be enough to stay and defend Ukraine.”
Zelensky specifically pleaded for further air defences as Ukraine braces for another winter of Russian drone and missile barrages. This week, Kyiv was hit by consecutive nights of drone attacks in tactics reminiscent of the Kremlin’s targeting of Ukrainian energy infrastructure last year.
Proposing an alternative arrangement of support to maintain the supply of air defences, Zelensky said: “Give us [weapons] and we will rent. If you don’t want [to] or you can’t, [OK] co-production. Just give us licences. We will find the money. We just need air defence on the front line.”
Zelensky said that Ukraine was defending the West from Russian aggression at a significant cost in lives. “We are losing our people, not losing Europeans and Americans. I don’t wish you, of course, to lose your soldiers,” he said. “If they kill us, if they destroy us, they will occupy Nato countries very quickly.”
Zelensky also thanked journalists for their coverage of the war in Ukraine as he awarded the Order of Merit, third class, to a British reporter who lost his leg during a Russian attack.
Benjamin Hall, 41, was reporting for Fox News during the first weeks of the war when his car was shelled by Russian artillery. Pierre Zakrzewski, 55, a cameraman, and Oleksandra Kuvyshnova, 24, a fixer, were killed in the attack. In a meeting in Kyiv with Lachlan Murdoch, the chief executive of Fox Corp and chairman of News Corp, the parent company of The Times, Zelensky thanked journalists for continuing to put themselves in danger in Ukraine. At the request of Murdoch, Hall of Fox News and Jerome Starkey, defence editor of The Sun, also attended the meeting with Zelensky.
The Ukrainian president commended Hall for his “outstanding” bravery. It was the first time Hall had returned to Ukraine since he lost both his feet, a leg and an eye in an attack outside Kyiv last year.
During the meeting Zelensky dismissed critics questioning the grinding pace of the counteroffensive “For some reason, people treat it like a movie and expect that there will be no long pauses in the events, that the picture before their eyes will always change, that there will be some surprises every day,” he said. “But for us, for our warriors, this is not a movie. These are our lives. This is daily hard work. And it will not be over as quickly as we would like, but we have no right to give up and we will not.”
While in Kyiv, Murdoch also met Andriy Yermak, the head of Zelensky’s office, and laid flowers at the Wall of Remembrance, a site commemorating Ukrainian soldiers who have lost their lives in the conflict.
George Grylls covers defence and politics for The Times. He won the Anthony Howard Award for Young Journalists in 2019.