The burden of war weighs heavily on him.
Despite the strong voice that rolls out of his chest, a flicker of a twist in his stoic face now and again when he speaks, reveals a man who is used to being filmed, wanting to lock up state secrets of war behind a mask of toughness that befits a President.
You’d tell that he is getting accustomed to maintaining an expressionless face as a lid concealing elements of war plans that may slip through by way of a smile or a flicker of emotion here and there, especially at a meeting with journalists.
Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelensky is a President that the world wants to know more about, especially now that he is forced to make decisions that drive his country towards defending itself against Russia, right across his country’s eastern border.
He refers to Vladimir Putin’s Russia as a colonialist state that has little respect for the territorial integrity of other nations. Today as the war enters a state of ‘frozen conflict’ from his definition, some of the
decisions he continues to make include securing as many lives of his countrymen as possible.
He also seeks to revive a previously thriving economy through securing some of his country’s big treasures such as the Ports on the world-famous Black Sea Front, including the Port of Odesa.
His most recent is to continually win more allies from other parts of the world, including Africa. Yet with such an in-tray, that few men have to deal with when they become presidents (a few have been war presidents), Zelensky is less of a politician and has not seemed to build that political mien.
The impression that one gets when they meet and speak with him is of a man who does not dub in cutting corners with his answers to questions. He does not waste time sticking to a pre-arranged script like most politicians do.
He relates with journalists in a freestyle of ‘you just shoot your questions and I will answer them’.
For this session where he met journalists from 10 African countries, including Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, there were no prior inquiries from The Office of The President for a list of questions to be forwarded beforehand.
After all, journalists had been ushered into the gold stripped boardroom, which reminds one of the architecture of Europe’s traditional monarchies. The president of Ukraine walked in, went round the oval golden conference table shaking everyone’s hand.
In Zelensky’s style, there seems to be no suit or tie. A few have seen him in one since the war or during his election victory against Petro Poroshenko in April 2019. At this interview session, he wore a well-cut dark green sweatshirt and matching trousers.
In all his answers, there were indications that he wanted to be a friend of Africa. Is that simplicity a Ukrainian strategy that is being used to build an image that is opposite of its arch-enemy, Russia?
The Ukrainian leaders we met talked about friendliness with Africa and laced their messages with "unlike colonial Russia”. Although the world thinks Russia started waging war on Ukraine in 2022, three years after Zelensky took over, in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, the messaging is that the
invasion started in March 2014 with the annexation of Crimea.
By all accounts, Ukraine holds Crimea close to its heart and all government officials describe the Black Sea territory, now in Putin’s hands, as part of the traditional Ukrainian land that "Russia is colonising".
Zelensky came into office in April 2019, which was in the middle of Russia’s war on Ukraine, officials say. Last year's February 24 invasion, according to his administration, was only an escalation of Russia’s colonialist ways.
Describing the current state of war as a frozen conflict, Zelensky expresses his frustration with the war and shows signs of wanting to shift focus to rebuilding his country.
He believes Russia is not intent on ending the conflict and that it will ruin the economy.
“A frozen conflict is a war without certainty of ending, and if you are in a situation of stalemate during the war, who is likely to invest in your country?” says Zelensky. “Such a situation means our children and grandchildren will fight in this war."
Zelensky does not seem to have a ready plan for ending the war. It emerges that only Russia can end it by stopping its campaign against Ukraine. Zelensky leaves this squarely in the hands of his friends in the West.
“Currently the gap in our budget is $40 billion this year," Zelensky says in response to a question about overall losses in revenue because of the war.
He adds: “This is what Russia has done to us this year alone. But our GDP is growing again, not like before by 8%, but down to 5%, which is a good sign. The economy is recovering and we are going to bridge the gap. When Russia derailed the grain initiative, we had grain worth billions of dollars in our ports. When we start to export again we will bridge that gap in the economy.”
The Initiative on the Safe Transportation of Grain and Food from Ukrainian ports signed on July 22 last year at Dolmabahçe Palace, Istanbul, Turkey, allowed the operationalisation of Ukrainian ports and partial utilisation of the sea routes in the Black Sea where Ukraine holds a longer coastline than its neighbours.
In attendance at the signing of the deal was United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Ukrainian Minister of Infrastructure Oleksandr Kubrakov and Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar.
The plan was linked to efforts to ensure Russian and Ukrainian food and fertiliser reach global markets to stabilise spiraling food prices worldwide.
The deal allowed for commercial food and fertiliser, including ammonia from three key Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea front – Odesa, Chornomorsk, Yuzhny to be fully functional.
Under the deal, Ukrainian vessels were guiding cargo ships into international waters of the Black Sea, avoiding mined areas. The vessels then proceed towards Istanbul along the agreed maritime humanitarian corridor.
Zelensky now reads Russian economic sabotage into its decision to derail the deal by engaging in military exercises in the agreed sea routes and launching several attacks on the Odesa Port, scaring vessels that use routes that had been agreed upon in the deal.
In the last month the port of Odesa has been attacked three times, the most recent was on November 10, the day we arrived in Kyiv.
Deputy Chief Executive of the Ukrainian Sea Port Authority Dmytro Barinov told journalists at an earlier session that Russia had violated the deal by attacking the Port of Odessa using missiles and drones.
"In the last four months, 21 attacks have been launched, which is contrary to the deal," said Barinov at the Odesa Port. He added: "About 300,000 tonnes of grain was destroyed and three civilians were killed, with about 22 injured."
But even with what looks like economic sabotage by Russia, Ukraine has been failing to take a firmer stand on it at international forums. The country last month abstained from taking a stand at the UN on the Israel-Gaza war where Palestinians are facing circumstances similar to
those Ukrainians have been facing for the last 20 months.
One would have thought Ukraine would have stood solidly with Palestine. It, however, chose to abstain at the mid-October New York vote.
President Zelensky says Ukraine acted fairly. “We made proposals to the resolution with an element of condemnation of the Russian aggression, but at some point in time our amendments were dropped," he said.
He adds: “If we would only seek fairness and justice in one war and no such fairness in another war, Ukraine would not do that. We made our position known."
Zelensky does not treat the Israel-Gaza war as an isolated incident caused by protracted hostilities between Jewish Israel and Muslim Palestine.
He accuses Russia of using its allies in the Middle East such as Iran to ignite the war. He believes the invasion by Hamas on October 7 was funded by Iran working with Russia to divert the attention of Ukraine’s allies in the West from the war his neighbour is waging on him.
Russia is bathing in the half-hearted support that the US is giving Ukraine, Zelensky believes, because it has shifted focus to Israel.
At least 12,000 lives have been lost in Gaza, according to Hamas-controlled media.
“This was something that Russia had intended to do to divert the attention of the world from the Russian-Ukrainian war,” Zelensky says, adding: “Yes, the United States is our strategic partner, they provide us with weapons and money. Now everyone is talking about the war in the Middle East. But this is not the problem, the problem is Russia’s hand and its ally Iran."
However, despite the precarious situation, Zelensky has rallied his government and country to believe Russia is no longer able to fully conquer Ukraine in a matter of weeks as it had hoped.
During President Zelensky’s most recent visit to Washington DC, American media reported a not-so-exciting reception. Time magazine said 20 months into the war, about a fifth of Ukraine’s territory remains under Putin’s occupation.
Tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed, and Zelensky says he can feel during his travels that global interest in the war has slackened, and so has the level of international support.
“The scariest thing is that part of the world got used to the war in Ukraine,” Time quoted him as saying.
“Exhaustion with the war rolls along like a wave. You see it in the United States, in Europe, and we see that as soon as they start to get a little tired, it becomes like a show to them: ‘I can’t watch this rerun for the 10th time,'” Time reported in its October 30 issue, 23 days after fresh attacks in Israel that launched the current war.
There is concern from Zelensky’s government over Russia’s broader support by African countries and emerging countries on the African continent that are becoming hostile to Ukraine.
Some stand with Russia fully, a case in point is Algeria, he said. This is a fact Zelensky does not shy away from discussing. He says there are historical reasons for it.
Russia’s relationship with African countries was built during the Soviet Russia era which is a legacy of more than 60 years. Zelensky says there is a need for a more contextual approach to Africa so that the truth can be known, which is, that Ukraine also helped Africa in those days but all
assistance came through Moscow; help was not coming from Russia alone.
Ukraine was part of Soviet Russia and made its contribution under the Soviet umbrella.
He says Ukraine is extending a hand of genuineness and not propaganda, "it comes as a true friend".
“Ukraine is defending itself by fighting for its freedom. We are fighting against the colonial ambitions of Russia," the president said, adding that, "The African continent is no exception. It understands what to be colonised is. As Ukraine, we don’t want to generate fakes. We want friends who believe in our democratic development, and our fight for freedom”.
Ukraine is interested in building strategic partnerships between it and African nations, not just through the African Union, says Zelensky.
“We say this relationship should be based on mutual respect, respect to the territorial integrity of the nations, their sovereignty, language and culture.”
At the session with journalists from Africa, President Zelensky announced advanced plans to open 10 more embassies in Africa.
He says he recognises that to be a challenging fit owing to the war, but Zelensky adds that his government is already acting on the plan.
According to the Ukrainian Foreign Affairs department, countries in Africa targeted with new Ukrainian embassies are the Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Botswana and seven others.
Currently, Ukraine has embassies in Kenya, Angola, Egypt and seven other countries.
There is prevalent nervousness in Ukraine over the expansion of the BRICS initiative that includes Brazil, Russia, India China and South Africa. Now that Ukraine is seen as heavily leaning towards Western hegemonic empires such as the US, one of the African countries that would have been important to Ukraine on the African continent is South Africa which hosted
the BRICS August summit.
Ukraine’s enemy Russia was a key convener. There were more
frowns in Kyiv when two more African countries joined; Ethiopia and Egypt, especially at a time when Ukraine has been trying to woe the majority of the African countries.
This will be a matter to be discussed at the planned Africa leaders’ summit in Kyiv next year. As Ukraine plans for the 2024 summit, one message is clear, that the leader of Ukraine is keen to change the old narrative about his country, especially on the African continent.