Ukraine's president criticizes West's "panic" over Russia
In a hour+ press conference with foreign reporters on Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky repeatedly pushed back on Western warnings and media coverage of an imminent Russian invasion, warning that the "panic" is destabilizing Ukraine's economy.
Why it matters: Zelensky's rhetoric in recent weeks has stood in stark contrast to that of U.S., European and even Russian officials, who have all warned in one form or another that a crisis is looming.
Driving the news: Zelensky made his views known in a contentious phone call with President Biden on Thursday evening, during which he questioned just how "imminent" the threat of a Russian invasion might be, according to three sources briefed on the call.
What they're saying: "I'm the president of Ukraine, I'm based here and I think I know the details deeper than any other president," Zelensky told reporters when asked about the phone call, while stressing that he appreciates the U.S. support for Ukraine.
- Zelensky contended that the current Russian troop buildup on Ukraine's border is not a significant escalation from the large military exercises Moscow carried out in April 2021, but that the media coverage is far more intense.
- "The image that mass media creates is that we have troops on the roads, we have mobilization, people are leaving for places. That's not the case. We don't need this panic," he argued.
- Zelensky also called it a "mistake" for Western countries — beginning with the U.S. — to evacuate diplomats' families and non-essential staff from their embassies in Kyiv.
The big picture: Ukraine has been the victim of ongoing Russian aggression since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and began backing a separatist insurgency in the eastern Donbas region.
- Zelensky told reporters that he's not ruling out that a "horrible war" could break out, but said that the escalation "has happened already" and that Ukraine has been under occupation for eight years.
- But even as he downplayed expectations of an invasion, Zelensky appealed to the West to continue sending security and economic assistance and to sanction Russia immediately, asking: "If there's a full-scale war tomorrow, why do we need sanctions afterwards? I don't think it's fair."
Between the lines: Zelensky was candid about the power dynamics at play and the fact that the U.S. and Russia have tremendous influence over the current situation.
- He called for a trilateral summit, saying: "I don't want Ukraine to be a result between President Biden and President Putin. President Biden assured me that nothing will be decided behind Ukraine’s back about the destiny and future about our country."
- Zelensky was also blunt about NATO's role in the crisis, declaring (in a line that Vladimir Putin would also agree with): "Tell us openly we will never get into NATO."
- "We understand right now perfectly well that if we are not part of NATO, then we are on our own in terms of protecting ourselves," he said.