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From the New York Times, I'm Sabrina Tavernisi, and this is The Daily.




Five years ago, a TV personality and comedian, Vladimir Zelensky, won the presidency in Ukraine in a landslide victory.




Then, after three years in office, he faced the biggest challenge of his presidency and of his life.


This is only the beginning for Russia on the Ukrainian land. Russia is trying to defeat the freedom of all people in Europe.


He rose to that challenge, beating back one of the world's largest armies. But now-We urgently need path route systems and missiles for them.


You can imagine what our soldiers feel when they simply have nothing to respond enemy fire.


The tide has turned against him.


Please do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself, why is Putin still able to continue it?


Today, my colleague, Andrew Kramer, sat down with Zelensky to talk about the fight of his life and how it might end. It's Tuesday, June fourth. Andrew, you've been covering Ukraine for many years, and you first met President Zelenskyy back in 2020, before Russia invaded. Tell us what he was like back then.


There's just an incredible density of events that have filled Zelenskyy's tenure as President. I had an opportunity to interview President Zelenskyy in 2020, and this was during COVID. It was a Zoom interview, and it was really a different era for Zelensky. He had just come in as President. He was baby-face. He was a fresh presence in Ukrainian politics. At this moment, he was trying to reset relations with the United States. There had been tensions with the Trump administration, and he wanted to turn a new page in bilateral relations.


And by tension with the Trump administration, you mean, of course, that Zelensky was in the middle of the first Trump impeachment. We may all forget, but Trump made a phone call to Zelensky asking him to investigate not only Joe Biden, but also his son, Hunter Biden. And Trump hinted that the US would actually withhold military aid if Zelensky didn't do that.


That's right. The perfect phone call. That's what President Trump called it. And during this time, Zelensky became briefly a known figure in the United States. But in Ukraine, he was known as a charismatic leader. He was a television personality before becoming President, and he had campaigned on an idea of a new morning in Ukraine. He would crack down on corruption, and a central element of his campaign had been to make peace with Russia.


It's pretty interesting to remember, actually, that Zelensky started as someone who thought it was possible to make peace with Russia. That's who he was as a politician when he started out.


He had wide support. He was elected with 73% of the votes, so a lot of Ukrainians believe that he would actually be able to achieve this. But this had really fallen apart. And by the time I talked to him late in 2020, the prospects for these negotiations were very unclear. And it was, for this reason, more than ever for the Zelensky administration to shore up support from the United States.


So that was 2020. A lot has changed. Clearly, at this point, Zelensky is not making peace with Russia anymore. You sat down with Zelensky a couple of weeks ago. Why did you want to talk to him again now?


Well, it's a very interesting and critical moment in the war. The tide has turned in the war. Russia is pressing all along the front. And American aid had been stalled for six months, and it was passed recently in Congress, but it hasn't yet arrived. So it's a moment where Zelenskyy has his back against the wall. And what Zelenskyy has really zeroed in on is that the NATO countries in the United States should allow Ukraine to use donated Western weaponry to hit targets inside of Russia. Now, of course, firing American weapons into Russia has really been a red line for the United States through the more than two years of this conflict because Russia is a new arm power, and there have always been fears in the background that this would be provocative, this would be escalatory, and would really raise the risk of a wider war. So we wanted to understand how Zelensky was making that argument for Biden to allow him to use American weapons to hit targets inside of Russia despite the risks.


Tell me about your interview. Start from the beginning.


Are we recording now? I'm rolling. Well, we walked into the presidential administration through a very tight security. It's always an interesting experience arriving at the presidential office in Kyiv. There are sandbags and anti-tank barriers around the building. Andrew, you'll sit up on the right closest to the President. We made our way through the compound to a ceremonial reception hall. This was in a 19th-century building with exotic plaster moldings on the walls called the House of Chimera. Okay. It's okay for you. It's good. I went to interview Zolinski with my colleagues Phil Pan, the international editor, and Bill Brink, the Ukraine editor. We waited there for about an hour before the President showed up.


Hi.yeah, I'm sorry.


I'm really good. Hi, President, nice to meet you.




When he walks into a room, you immediately notice that he's there, that he's a presence. I believe you know Andrew Kramer? He's our beer chief here. Well, we We had an interview, but it was by Skype in 2020, I think.


Maybe. I'm sorry. It was in another life.


And he is a little bit shorter in real life than he might appear on television. And war has changed, Zelensky. He looks haggard. For the last two years, he's been beareded and wearing only military fatigues. In this case, it was a green T-shirt and green trousers.


But he did seem to be holding up all right.


He looked healthy, and he was very energetic.Thank.


You so much for coming. We can sit?Yes.


After some small talk in English-Can we check Ukrainian translation?




He switched into Ukrainian, and we spoke with him through a translator.


The Biden administration has prohibited Ukraine from using American-made weapons to strike inside Russia out of concern for escalation, including the risk of nuclear war.


Our very first question was about this red line.


Your government has urge to change to this policy given the situation on the battlefield right now.




Thank you so much. Well, first of all, Biden administration was really against the use of the Western weapons that's important to mention today.


He became quite animated.


He was gesturing.


He was using his skills as a public speaker to convey what he felt was a very important point.


They are striking with the missiles from Russian territory. So how can we protect ourselves from these strikes?


And he was saying that it's really not possible for him to fight when the Russians can gather their forces and fly their airplanes in Russia and then attack Ukraine when he is not allowed to strike back as they gather across the border.


They are in the closest villages and settlements to the border from Russia, knowing that we will not respond.


He was conveying this sense of fighting with one hand tied behind his back, and they have to endure the attacks from Russia, the bombings and the artillery strikes, and they're not allowed to hit back.


That is their big, big advantage.


Then he talked about the northeastern part of Ukraine, near Ukraine's second largest city, Kharkiv.


It's been a target of Russian attack. It's bombarded almost daily. It's now one of the focal points of the war. To defend Kharkiv, Ukraine has been forced to divert soldiers from elsewhere to fight this Russian incursion with the city at their backs.


Russia is piling up the troops.


They are-Zalinski was telling us that his intelligence can see the Russians unloadading from trains, weaponry, and equipment just across the border in Russia, but he's not allowed to strike it because of the restriction on the use of Western weaponry. So he He had a very vivid image for this. He was saying that he sees the Russians gathering on that side of the border.


That means that tomorrow, they will not give us flowers. They will give us death.


And that he knows they aren't coming with flowers, but they're coming with death.


If we know that tomorrow, they are not celebrating with us, but they are killing us, why can't we use our weapons to demolish them in the point of collection of the arms.


In other words, what he was saying was that they're basically sitting ducks. If you could only use these big, powerful American weapons to shoot inside of Russia, to take the war to Russians, then that could turn the tide of the war. But the Americans were just not letting him do that.


That's right. He's also asking for very specific weaponry to do this. It really speaks to Zelensky's life over the past two and a half years. His country depends on an arsenal of weaponry from allies who have often been reluctant to provide it. He finds himself often coming with what amounts to a shopping list to these Western nations, describing what his military needs in any particular circumstance.


We can get, in the end of the day, from NATO countries.


What he told us, seven system Petr Patriot systems. 7. Was that he needed seven Patriot anti-aircraft missile systems.


Our analysts told us we need 120, 130 F-16s.


And 120 to 130 F-16 airplanes. These requests, while understandable, his soldiers are engaged in combat, they're suffering casualties, and civilians are being killed. It's of dire importance to Zelensky. But these type of have sometimes graded on Western politicians, so much so that last summer, the British Minister of Defense had said in response and really in frustration, that Zelensky, we're not Amazon. Don't come with a shopping list.


This, of course, has been the view of the US administration as well. Hey, guy, we just gave you $60 billion. Have some gratitude.




Okay, so it's clear why shooting American weapons into Russia would help Zelensky. But how is he viewing the risk Russia retaliating and potentially setting off a nuclear war? Because, of course, that's why the US drew this red line in the first place, right?


Well, this is really the question of the hour on escalation.


What do you say to the people who argue that it is too risky to allow Ukraine to use these weapons inside Russia because of the risk of escalation?.


There are no risks of escalation.


When we asked about this, Zelensky asked us in a to get inside Putin's head a little bit and understand how he sees this playing out. He was saying that Putin is an irrational actor, so obviously somebody to be feared.


That he could use the nuclear weapon then when he failed to conquer us during the first year of the win.


But if he were to use nuclear weapons, he would have used them in the first year of the war when Russia was down and Ukraine was up. He was also saying that- He did not use it because he really loves his own life. Putin, he's irrational, but he would also fear for his own life.


He understands that that's it. The door will be totally locked to Russia, fully locked, if he uses nuclear weapons. It's a fact. No one will be able to do anything with that. Even his fans among the politicians, they won't be able to do anything because the use of the nuclear weapon is not the red line. This is a totally different level. That's it. This is the War III.


Using a nuclear weapon would obviously be risking World War III, and Putin would understand the consequences of this. So these were Zelenskyy's explanations of why he felt the Russians were bluffing on the nuclear question.


So Zelenskyy's conclusion was that the nuclear threat really isn't real, that it's not that much of a risk then for the West to let Ukraine cross that red line, use those American weapons to shoot at Russians inside Russia.


Yes. And then last week, apparently Biden was convinced by Zelensky's arguments. The Biden administration, administration officials announced that American weapons could be used to hit targets inside of Russia. The decision to shift was weighing the risk of losing Ukraine's second largest city, Kharkiv, or having it bombed into oblivion against a very small risk of a nuclear war, a large risk of losing a city and a small risk of nuclear war. But there were caveats. The American permission only allowed the use of American weapons weapons on the border and in response to Russian military attacks across the border on Ukraine. It didn't cover the most powerful rocket in the arsenal that the United States has provided, the Atakum's guided rocket. We won't see Ukrainian attacks on large Russian cities using American weapons such as rocket attacks on Moscow. But it is evidence that the Biden administration has shifted the red line.


It seems significant, even if it's limited. So the red line maybe isn't actually so red. What do you think this tells us?


It tells us that Zelenskyy has been persuasive with his style of public performance, with his style of reaching out directly to voters in the countries that are allies with Ukraine, he has pushed Western leaders to shift on red lines and to continually provide more military support for his military and change their policies on how they assist Ukraine. But Zelenskyy has another challenge. It's something he doesn't talk about nearly as much, but it's just as important to winning the war. This is a challenge inside Ukraine in Ukrainian society.


We'll be right back.


I'm Carol Rosenberg from the New York Times. Right now, I'm sitting alone in the press room at the US Navy base at Guantanamo Bay. I've probably spent around 2,000 nights at this Navy base. I've been coming here since four months after the 9/11 attacks. I watched the first prisoners arrive in those orange jumpsuits from far away Afghanistan. Some of these prisoners, they still don't have a trial date. It's hard to get here. It's hard to get news from the prison. Often, I'm the only reporter here. If you build a military court in prison, out of reach of the American people, it should not be out of reach of American journalism. We have a duty to keep coming back and explain what's going on here. The New York Times takes you to difficult and controversial places. It keeps you informed about unpopular and hard to report developments, and that takes resources. You can power that journalism by subscribing to the New York Times.


Andrew, you said that there was another big potential problem for Zelensky, and that was a problem in Ukrainian society. Tell me about that.


In short, it comes down to this. Not enough men want to fight, and Zelensky doesn't know how to make them. He has been drafting men in relatively small batches throughout the country. Those who have signed up in the beginning, they are still serving at the front and have been fighting continuously for two years. There's fatigue of soldiers who who are fighting and in the army, and there's also reluctance of those who have not yet been drafted to be drafted into the military.


Andrew, I'm really thinking about this with you and remembering back to those early days when you and I were walking around the streets of Kyiv and going into draft offices and seeing everybody who signed up, history professors. I think you even interviewed a male stripper at some point that we were remarking on. Everybody wanted to fight. But that is very different now. What happened? What changed?


It's now been two years, and there's been a lot of dying. If you look at the number of men serving in the Ukrainian military now, including some units like the National Guard and border guards, it's about one million men under arms. Out of that one million, about 10 % have died so far. We don't know the exact number of casualties in the Ukrainian army, but estimates are in the range of about 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers who have been killed over two years of war. Wow. One thing that I found really remarkable when you travel around in villages and towns is that there are almost always dry flowers all over the roads because there are funerals so often, and they put these flowers down, and then they have procession. So military vehicles will come very slowly, carrying a body in a hearse, and people will get out of their cars, and they'll kneel on the side of the road while this procession goes by. And it's these scenes that are really frightening to men who are eligible for the draft and who know what it would mean to be called up and sent into the trench fighting.


How many men are eligible for the draft?


In Ukraine, there are 3-4 million men who could be drafted and could be serving in the military. They could be fighting a war of attrition with Russia, with a larger army, were they able to mobilize and equip these additional soldiers. But they haven't done this, and there's been quite a bit of reluctance. They're at a moment now where they need soldiers, but the patriotic wave from earlier in the war, it has really washed over. At this point, they're going to have to use the power of calling up men against their will in order to continue fighting this war.


What does that look like in Ukraine now?


Well, the call up of men from villages in some areas of Ukraine has been so great that there are villages without men. There are villages where women, when they see the draft officials coming into town, they have swarmed these vehicles and are protesting to protect the few remaining men in these areas. There have been roadblocks put up in Kyiv and other towns to stop cars and check draft registration documents on the street. Sometimes men are asked to report to basic training within a little of a week after being stopped at one of these surprise checkpoints. This has been disruptive, and men are fearful of being caught in one of these roadblocks and approached by draft officials. There are even social media apps that track where they're moving around town. For example, in Kyiv, there's an app called Weather in Kyiv, and it will say it's raining on a certain intersection. That would mean that the draft officials are there and men should avoid that area.


Interesting. Is Zelensky acknowledging this challenge? I mean, the challenge of trying to get men to fight in the war?


Politically, Zelensky has disassociated himself from the challenges of the draft. He's said this is a problem for parliament or for the military. It's politically very unpopular. He hasn't, for example, given major speeches calling on Ukrainians to sign up and explaining the draft policies.




In our interview, he did, though, acknowledge the toll of the war on Ukrainian society. He described this as divisions.


Some people are at war, some people are not.


That there had been some rift in society between men who are fighting and men who are not fighting.


It is really serious because the society begins to For somebody trying to steer a country in a war, this could be a problem. This separation in the society, this division, at this moment, the enemy can use it.


At this moment, war.


Given that fewer and fewer people want to fight, and war is obviously fundamentally about fighting, where is Ukrainian society's head right now on this war? What is their appetite to stop it? I mean, do people want to call it quits, agree to just, okay, lob off a third of their territory and give it to Russia and finally be done with this? Or is a full draft mass mobilization, finally going to be on the table?


Well, this is what makes Zelensky's situation now so interesting, is he's in a bind. He's ruling a country that on the one hand, there's massive support for continuing the war. There's incredible anger at Russia, still seething anger at Russia over this war and no desire to negotiate. On the other hand, you have fewer and fewer people actually willing to fight. So Zelensky is caught between these two positions, and it's a difficult moment.


Okay, to summarize here, Zelensky has been pushing on these red lines abroad. He's getting stuff. He made some progress last week, but it seems like it's not enough to dig himself out of the hole he's in. At home, there's a similar dynamic. He's done these small batch draughts of men, but that also It seems like it's not enough to really win. Now, he's in this very hard place. To put it very bluntly, it seems like a losing place.


Well, this is probably the moment of most uncertainty for Zelenskyy and for Ukraine since the beginning of the war. There's no popular decision for Zelenskyy. Drafting more soldiers is unpopular. If he doesn't draft soldiers and settles in a ceasefire negotiation, that will also be unpopular. Zelenskyy is really squeezed between two fires, and this is all against the backdrop of Russia escalating an offensive that's expected to continue through the summer.


How is he coping with this? This is a lot on his shoulders.


Well, this is something that we asked in the interview I just wanted to ask if you could say a few words about your own life as a wartime President. We talked to him on what was the 817th day of the war.


I'm not afraid of working for many hours and to do my work and many other works. But the hardest is the emotions. You understand that? Emotions.


He doesn't tell jokes like he used to. One aspect of the war is that his life as a comedian has really come to a close, and he's become a much more serious public figure.


I wake up very early.


He said that he deals with some of the stresses of leadership by working out in the morning.


I can see my wife more often. She's in the office, but I see my children not that much.


He was most expressive and went on at some length about his family.


He said that through the course of the war, his children have grown up.


His daughter is now 19. His son is 11. He said that he would spend time with his son working on Spanish homework.


I don't know Spanish, in fact, but I'm interested just in some time to spend with him whatever he does.




These are the happiest moments, and here I can relax.


Andrew, how did you end the interview?


I asked him what he would do after the war, and I thought his answer telling. What are your plans after the war?


I would like after the war, after the victory because those are different things.


He said there's a distinction between the end of the war and victory.


I think that my plans depend on that.


Then he described what would happen after victory. He would spend time with his and his dogs. But what he left unsaid was what his life would look like if Ukraine lost the war.


And what would it look like?


One scenario is that he could die at the end of this. He's been the target of 10 assassination attempts, according to his government. Another possible outcome would be that Ukraine could lose a large chunk of its territory in a settlement agreement. So it's understandable why he didn't go into the details. But it was still remarkable that he acknowledged, just for a moment, this vulnerability, this idea that there could be an outcome for Ukraine other than victory.


Andrew, thank you.


Thank you, Sabrina.


We We'll be right back. Here's what else you should know today.. On Sunday, Mexican voters elected the country's first woman and first Jewish President, Claudia Sheinbaum.




It was a landslide victory for the 61-year-old climate scientist and former mayor of Mexico City. Sheinbaum, a leftist, had campaigned on a promise to continue the legacy of Mexico's current President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.


Gracias a la felicitación.


Under Obrador, millions of Mexicans were lifted out of poverty, but he was also criticized for failing to control rampant cartel violence. The election was the largest in Mexico's history, with the highest number of voters taking part. It puts a Jewish leader at the helm of one of the world's largest, predominantly Catholic, countries. President Biden is expected to sign an executive order on Tuesday, allowing him to temporarily seal the US border with Mexico when the number of migrant crossings exceed a certain threshold. The order would suspend protections for asylum seekers in the US and represents the most restrictive border policy instituted by Biden, who is under intense political pressure to address illegal migration. Polls suggest that there is growing support, even inside the President's own party, for more aggressive border measures. The executive order is likely to be challenged in court. Today's episode It was produced by Nina Feldman, Claire Tennis-Sketter, Rob Zypko, and Diana Wyn, with help from Michael Simon Johnson. It was edited by Lisa Chou, contains original music by Marion Lozano, and Alishaba YouTube, and was engineered by Chris Wood. Our theme music is by Jim Brumberg and Ben Lansberg of WNDY. Special thanks to Sashko Chubko.


For The Daily. I'm Sabrina Tavernisi. See you tomorrow.