May 24, 2022 - Podcasts

Volodymyr Zelensky talks with Axios

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke yesterday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Axios’ Jonathan Swan interviewed President Zelensky via Zoom, in an Axios exclusive.

  • Plus, the U.S. is negotiating a deal among Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt.

Guests: Axios' Dave Lawler and Barak Ravid.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Alex Sugiura, and Lydia McMullen-Laird. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today! It’s Tuesday, May 24th. I’m Niala Boodhoo. Today: the U.S. is negotiating a deal among Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt – we have the scoop on what could be a big step in the region. But first, today’s One Big Thing: Voldymyr Zelensky talks with Axios.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke yesterday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland with an appeal to business leaders.

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY: It is necessary to set a precedent for the complete withdrawal of full foreign businesses from Russian market.

NIALA: Last night from Davos Axios’ Jonathan Swan interviewed President Zelensky via zoom in an Axios exclusive. World editor Dave Lawler was also there and joins me now from Switzerland to unpack what we learned. Hey Dave.


NIALA: Dave first, what was President Zelensky’s overall goal opening an appearance to the most powerful and elite folks in the world at this World Economic Forum.

DAVE: Yeah Zelensky’s not here in Davos but he is very much the star of the show nonetheless. He had a couple of big messages, one was he wants maximum sanctions on Russia. He said that includes an end to all trade with Russia. So really considerably beyond what's happened so far. Uh and he also said he wants it to stay on the minds of the people who have the power to help Ukrainians, both from a humanitarian perspective you know, either people in government who or who can put pressure on government to continue to take the stronger steps that he says are necessary to put pressure on Russia.

NIALA: And that's also was the topic of a conversation that President Zelensky had with our own Jonathan Swan in an interview that happened later in the evening. And President Zelensky spoke about the possibility of meeting with President Putin.

ZELENSKY: I think it will be more difficult to arrange any kind of meeting, uh, at the presidential level between the two countries, for the two countries. It is difficult because, um, uh, there is the line that can hardly be crossed after Bucha, Irpin, Mariupol and other towns and cities.

NIALA: President Zelensky speaking through a translator of course. Dave, what does this answer tell us about where we're at in this war?

DAVE: So President Zelensky has said consistently from the beginning of the war that he wants to meet with Vladimir Putin, it's been Putin who hasn't been willing to take that meeting. Uh Zelensky has also said that he thinks this war needs to end with the diplomatic solution. And so what Jonathan did and I think he did it quite well was to try to find you know what Zelensky’s actual position is here because he says it has to end with diplomacy but can he really sit down and compromise with Vladimir Putin after what's happened to his country? And he said it would be very difficult to sit down with this guy who ordered these attacks, um, that have killed so many of his civilians. He did say in the end that he would take a meeting with Putin, but only the two of them and only to sign a deal to end the war. He said he wouldn't meet with lower-level Russians and he wouldn't meet with Putin unless Putin was actually prepared to end this war.

NIALA: The other consistent message we've heard from the beginning is from President Biden, who's repeatedly said American troops will not get pulled into this conflict. But President Zelensky reminded Jonathan that if Russia were to win, the US may have no choice.

ZELENSKY: And the US military will have to go to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. According to the fifth article, and they will have to fight them and die there.

NIALA: So of course, that fifth article he's referring to is NATO. Could the idea of putting US lives on the line affect what comes next in this war?

DAVE: Yes of course and and I think there's two, at least two things going on here. One is Jonathan asked him about not just people like President Biden who want to support Ukraine with a lot of weaponry but aren't willing to send troops in. He was also asking about people who think this isn't our fight. We're sending $40 billion worth of weapons to Ukraine when we can't fund things at home. And so what Zelensky was saying, was that if Russia does succeed in Ukraine they won't stop there, they'll push on to NATO territory. That's of course speculation on his part. But Zelensky was saying that first of all we're fighting for things that you say you value, we're fighting for freedom and democracy so you should care about that. But you should also care because if Putin wins this war it's not good news for the United States and it could even bring NATO into a battle. So that's the way that he addressed that line of questioning from Jonathan.

NIALA: Dave, we know President Zelensky has survived a number of Russian assassination attempts, and he told Jonathan Swan it's almost become like the movie ‘Groundhog Day.’ He was scared at first and then it just keeps going and going. What was it like in the room when he was talking about that?

DAVE: Yeah, so picture a relatively small but absolutely packed room with a lot of Ukrainian nationals. It was uh an audience of people who were very much supporters of President Zelensky. And so when Jonathan asked the question, “how close did the Russians come to killin you,” there was basically a collective gasp in the room and Zelensky broke that tension by saying that, “yeah when they try to kill you the first, second, third, fourth time it's pretty scary, but eventually, you know it's just uh we know they're trying to kill me and they haven't been able to do it yet, so it's kind of repetitive.” It's difficult to necessarily get all the emotion of everything Zelensky’s saying when he's speaking through a translator, but if you watch him on the video, you know, he he's quite emphatic, he looks exhausted but also quite passionate about a lot of the things. Je's saying you know, you can see why he's such an effective communicator, but also there were places he did not want to go where Jonathan wanted to take him in the questioning and he's disciplined enough to not answer some questions that Jonathan put at him.

NIALA: Axios’ world editor Dave Lawler from Davos. Thanks Dave.

DAVE: Thanks Niala.

NIALA: In a moment, steps towards the biggest U.S. foreign policy achievement in the Middle East since the Abraham Accords.

Welcome back to Axios Today. I’m Niala Boodhoo. One more scoop for you today. Axios’ Barak Ravid reports that Biden administration has been quietly mediating among Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt on negotiations that if successful, could open the door to normalizing relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Barak Ravid joins me now from Tel Aviv. Hi Barak.


NIALA: Barak, tell me more about how important this is?

BARAK: The mere fact that Israel and Saudi Arabia are indirectly negotiating some sort of an arrangement in the region is already big news. Because Saudi Arabia for Israel, is always the crown jewel of the Israeli efforts to normalize relations with the Arab world. You know, Saudi Arabia is a very big Arab country. Uh, it has, Mecca and Medina, which are the holiest cities in Islam. So it's also the most important country in the Muslim world, not only in the Arab world. And some sort of an opening with Saudi Arabia, even if it's very little, will project to the entire Arab and Muslim world. This is why this thing is so important, even if the details are a bit hard to understand.

NIALA: Barak, as you said, it's in the details. And the details here involve the Straits of Tiran, which is a strategic sea passage. Can you explain why this is so important and how this could help open the door to negotiations?

BARAK: This is a major, major, major trade route. And the Israelis want to make sure that when the islands, uh, are transferred from Egyptian sovereignty to Saudi sovereignty, the freedom of navigation will be maintained so that they won't have any problem, you know, sending Israeli ships to Africa and Asia. There was no deal yet, but the Biden administration hopes that it will manage to get this deal ahead of Biden’s trip to the Middle East that is planned to be towards the end of June. And if this succeeds, then it will be also very likely that Biden will go to Israel, and from Israel he will also go to Saudi Arabia.

NIALA: You can read more—all of the details of this on Barak Ravid is a contributor to Axios from Tel Aviv. Thanks, Barak

BARAK: Thank you Niala.

NIALA: That’s all we’ve got for you today! Text me your feedback and story ideas: I’m at (202) 918-4893. I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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