The risk of losing the war, the importance of Bakhmut and Putin's nuclear threats: Zelensky's interview for AP

Zelensky invited the leader of China to Ukraine and commented on nuclear weapons in Belarus

Volodymyr Zelenskyi gave an interview to an information agency Associated Press by train by road from Sumy to Kyiv. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned on Tuesday that if his country does not win a long battle in a key eastern city, Russia may begin to build international support for a deal that could require Ukraine to make unacceptable compromises. He also invited the leader of China, a longtime supporter of Russia, to visit.

If Bakhmut fell into the hands of Russian troops, their president Vladimir Putin "would sell this victory to the West, to his society, to China, to Iran," Zelensky said in an exclusive interview with the Associated Press.

"If he smells blood — smells that we are weak — he will push, push, push," Zelensky said in English, which he used almost throughout interview.

The leader spoke to the AP aboard a train that took him across Ukraine to cities near some of the fiercest fighting and others where his country's forces successfully repelled a Russian invasion. AP is the first news organization to travel extensively with Zelensky since the war began just over a year ago.

Since then, Ukraine — with the support of much of the West — has surprised the world with the strength of its resistance to the larger and better equipped Russian army. Ukrainian troops kept their capital, Kyiv, and pushed Russia out of other strategically important areas.

But as the war enters its second year, Zelenskyi appears focused on keeping both his own military and the Ukrainian population at large — especially the millions who have fled abroad and those living in relative comfort and safety far from the front lines — high on motivation.

Zelensky is also well aware that his country's success is largely due to waves of international military support, particularly from the United States and Western Europe. But some in the United States, including Republican Donald Trump, the former US president and current 2024 candidate, question whether Washington should continue to provide Ukraine with billions of dollars in military aid.

Trump's likely Republican rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, also suggested that defending Ukraine in a "territorial dispute" with Russia is not a high priority for US national security. He later retracted that statement after facing criticism from other corners of the Republican Party.

Zelensky did not name Trump or any other Republican politicians, figures he may have to deal with if they win the 2024 election. But he said he worries that the shift in political power in Washington could affect the war.

"The United States really understands that if they stop helping us, we're not going to win," he said in an interview. He was sipping tea while sitting on a narrow bed in a cramped, undecorated sleeping cabin of a state railway train.

The president's carefully planned trip by rail was a remarkable overland journey through a country at war. Zelensky, who has become a recognizable face around the world as he insists on telling his side of the story nation by nation, has used the morale-boosting trip to bring his considerable influence to regions near the front lines.

He traveled with a small group of advisers and a large group of heavily armed security personnel dressed in military uniform. His places were celebrations on the occasion of the anniversary of the liberation of the cities of the Sumy region and a visit to the troops stationed at the forward positions near Zaporizhzhia. Each visit was kept secret until his departure.

Recently, Zelensky made a similar visit near Bakhmut, where Ukrainian and Russian troops have been engaged in a brutal and bloody battle for months. While some Western military analysts have suggested that the city is of little strategic importance, Zelensky warned that losing it anywhere at this stage of the war could jeopardize Ukraine's hard-fought momentum.

"We cannot lose steps, because war is a cake - pieces of victories. Small victories, small steps," he said.

Zelensky's comments were an admission that losing the seven-month battle for Bakhmut — the longest of the war so far — would be a costly political defeat rather than a tactical one.

He predicted that the pressure from the Bakhmut defeat would be swift, both from the international community and within his own country. "Our society will feel tired," he said. "Our society will push me to compromise with them."

While Zelensky says that he did not feel such pressure. The international community has largely rallied around Ukraine since Russia invaded on February 24, 2022. In recent months, a parade of world leaders have visited Zelenskyi in Ukraine, most of whom traveled on trains similar to the ones the president travels around the country.

In an interview with AP, Zelensky invited one notable and strategically important leader to Ukraine who did not make the trip — Chinese President Xi Jinping.

"We're ready to see him here," he said. "I want to talk to him. I talked to him before the full scale war. But for this whole year, more than one year, I didn't have it."

China, which has been economically and politically sympathetic to Russia for decades, has provided Putin with diplomatic cover by maintaining an official position of neutrality in the war.

Asked whether Xi Jinping would accept Zelensky's invitation — or whether it had been officially extended — Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning told reporters that she had no information. She said Beijing supports "communication with all interested parties, including Ukraine."

Kremlin spokesman Dmytro Peskov, when asked whether a meeting between Xi and Zelensky would be helpful in resolving the conflict in Ukraine, said Russian authorities "highly value" China's balanced position on the issue and "have no right to give any advice" on whether they should to meet "The Chinese leader himself decides the expediency of certain contacts," Peskov said during a daily conference call with journalists on Wednesday.

Xi visited Putin in Russia last week, raising the prospect that Beijing may be willing to provide Moscow with the weapons and ammunition it needs to replenish its depleted stockpiles. But Xi's trip ended without such an announcement. A few days later, Putin announced that he would deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, which neighbors Russia and brings the Kremlin's nuclear stockpile closer to NATO territory.

Zelensky suggested that such a move by Putin was intended to divert attention from the lack of guarantees he received from China.

"What does it mean? This means that the visit was not good for Russia," Zelensky suggested.

The president makes few predictions about the biggest question hanging over the war: how it will end. However, he expressed confidence that his nation would prevail through a series of "small victories" and "small steps" against a "very big country, a big enemy, a big army" — but armies, he said, with "small hearts." »

And Ukraine itself? While Zelensky acknowledged that the war "changed us," he said it ultimately made his society stronger.

"It could go one way, divide the country, or another way — unite us," he said. "I am very grateful. I am grateful to everyone - to each individual partner, to our people, thank God, to everyone - that we found this way at this critical moment for the nation. Finding this way saved our nation and we saved our land. We are together."

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