Zelensky: Do not begin to accept Russian atrocities

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered to thousands of Australian students a heartbreaking account of the impact of Russia’s war on his country.

The images painted by this entertainer turned mega statesman—of homes and hospitals targeted with missiles and bound civilians murdered by the hundreds—will stay with his young audience for a very long time.

During the hour-long video-linked session hosted at the Australian National University and broadcast to institutions across the country, Zelensky did not once name Vladimir Putin other than through his biting references to ‘he’ who had ordered murders, rapes and bombings of cities.

Zelensky said the world must not become accepting of new Russian atrocities every day. That would mean it had opted to ‘put up with death’ and to find ways for Russia to save face.

But, he said, someone who wants to save face doesn’t fire rockets from multiple launchers into cities, doesn’t hit households with cruise missiles, doesn’t destroy living quarters with phosphorous bombs, doesn’t launch rockets into railway stations or into a mall where shoppers are buying food. ‘It’s been already 161 days,’ he said. ‘It’s important not to forget any of those days.’

He said a nation concerned about its image did not ‘drop bombs on birth houses and hospitals, on kindergartens, schools and universities, on museums, theatres and temples’. It doesn’t target artillery against cemeteries and doesn’t strike with rockets the memorial to Holocaust victims in Babi Yar. Its leaders don’t commit thousands of military crimes and crimes against humanity and mass executions of civilians.

‘They don’t put handcuffs on peaceful people, don’t put them on their knees and kill them with a shot in the back of their heads. Don’t rape wives before the eyes of their children and children before the eyes of their mothers.’

Someone who wanted to save face would not blockade cities depriving people of food, water, medical supplies, warmth, communications and hope, Zelensky said. They would not use civilians for forced labour, kidnap children, separate families, leave generations in mass graves, hijack nuclear power stations, hit power plants with tanks, threaten nuclear war and force an energy crisis. They would not blockade ports to stop ships carrying wheat, threatening famine.

Russia had brought mobile crematoria to destroy bodies and hide the torture and other atrocities they had endured. It had lost its mind, its heart, its conscious dignity, ‘and all that a human has’, Zelensky said.

‘The difference between a terrorist and Russia is that terrorists hold themselves accountable for their actions and Russia cannot do even that and tries to accuse other people for their atrocities.’

It was time, Zelensky said, for the nations of the world to give up their own interests for the interests of the planet and stop all trade with the Russian Federation. Providing political or economic benefits to Russia, and paying it for energy supplies, cost the lives of thousands of people killed by Russian weapons.

Russia had to be recognised as a state sponsor of terrorism.

‘The world has to make that choice, the UN has to make that choice, the Security Council has to make that choice, the International Committee of the Red Cross has to make its choice.’ So did the OECD, the EU, NATO and the G7 and G20 countries.

Zelensky said many Australians sent financial aid to Ukraine, provided medical supplies and volunteered in its hospitals. They helped with humanitarian deliveries ‘and also they are on the front line,’ he said.

Students and teachers in Australian classrooms could dismantle the myths about Ukraine fabricated by Russia’s propaganda machine.

Zelensky said he was very grateful to the government of Anthony Albanese for its military and humanitarian assistance, sanctions against Russia and Russian entities, and cancelling of taxes on Ukrainian goods.

Australia was one of the biggest suppliers of military support to Ukraine among non-NATO countries, he said. ‘We will be thankful for continuation of this support. Today, as never before, we need your support, need the support of all civilised countries along with whom we will most surely start to conquer evil.’

An auditorium packed with students and their teachers rose as one in a standing ovation.

ANU chancellor and former foreign minister Julie Bishop told Zelensky the ovation reflected Australians’ recognition of the sacrifice being made by the people of Ukraine. ‘We acknowledge that they have a right to choose their own destiny and people around the world are sending a powerful message in various ways. We here at the ANU condemned the invasion in the very early days and suspended all research and academic activity with Russian counterparts. We must all do our part.’

Zelensky then took questions from students.

Sophia asked the president how, when many Ukrainians had lost their families and homes, he and his nation still had a strong fighting spirit and an optimistic attitude.

‘I am inspired by people,’ Zelensky said. ‘I am inspired by our nation, a strong, resilient, honest nation. The people who fight for its life, for their families, for everything that we have, for our Ukraine. This belongs to the Ukrainian nation and nobody else and that’s why I am proud of it and I’m proud that I’m one of the citizens of those people.’

Ukraine’s resilience did not depend on the nation’s leaders, he said. ‘Everyone in our country is a leader.’ And that could only happen because people valued Ukraine as much as their own lives.

‘I’m sure that thanks to resilience of our country, to our military, to our doctors and everyone, I’m sure we will win this war.’

Liam asked Zelensky if he believed a post-Putin Russia could democratise and be integrated into Europe and global society.

That depended on the Russian nation, Zelensky said. He used the example of Germany, which recognised after World War II that it had brought a bloody war on the world that stained the whole German nation.

‘It was a fascist Germany, but the German nation found the power to recognise the tragedy as a great, tragic mistake of their nation, of their people, of those who followed Hitler, because some supported this government and some just kept silent and everyone understood that everyone was guilty. They have chosen another path to recognise this tragedy, to recognise themselves as guilty and move on.

‘And today we see one of the most powerful economies in the world and one of the most powerful democracies in the world.’

Zelensky said the German people chose to give following generations the chance to live among civilised people. ‘And I think that Russia will have this opportunity for sure.’

Carolyn noted the impact of Russia’s invasion on food, fertiliser and fuel costs and asked how Australian students could help alleviate the human cost to Ukraine. ‘Is our empathy and moral support sufficient or can we do more?’

Zelensky responded, ‘You can’t stand aside, because the one who stands aside, in any corner of the world, is the one who helps Russia.’ Russia was powerful, with more people, more equipment and nuclear weapons and it was trying to overthrow a democracy, he said. He was sure most people wanted to protect the same values that Ukrainians were defending with their lives on the battlefield.

Young Australians could just sympathise, he said. ‘And thank you for your moral support. But you also need to support that with deeds. For us to win against tyranny, we need to have support with concrete actions, because every hour, every day, we are losing the most important thing we were given by God, the lives of people.’

Zelensky noted that many Australians were helping with material assistance. ‘Please continue,’ he said.

Russia spent billions on propaganda that was having an impact internationally, convincing people that it had not invaded anyone. He urged the students and other young Australians to use their social networks to tell the truth about what was happening in Ukraine.

‘That will help us indeed.’

Xintong asked Zelensky how he viewed China’s support for Russia while claiming to be neutral. Zelensky said China was balancing and was maintaining neutrality. That was better than it joining Russia.

Kyle asked if Ukraine and Russia could ever again be on good terms. This was, said Zelensky, the hardest question. ‘Frankly, nobody wants anything in common with people who did all the things to our people.’

The answer would depend on Russia.

‘I don’t know if we can have this peace. Every family has lost something.’ Every Ukrainian had lost something, he said, and would not forget who or what they’d given—a child or a father.

Bridget asked Zelensky what he found the hardest thing about being a leader in war.

He said that was what people were capable of. ‘On one side, our people who are capable of such heroism, who went out on the street and started to stop the military equipment, tanks, with bare hand in the areas which were occupied.’

On the other side, he was shocked by the invaders’ brutality. ‘We have seen different movies, thrillers, the horror movies, we all watched it, but I never thought that the reality in Ukraine would be even more scary than the scariest movies.’

Shingu asked how Ukraine’s economy would be rebuilt.

Zelensky said the war had displaced 12 million people. Most wanted to return and ‘Thanks to God, are not losing the desire to come back.’ That would make it possible to rebuild.

Having that many people displaced and losing their jobs and homes was a disaster that was causing a monthly US$5 billion deficit that was almost killing the economy. Russia’s blockade had prevented movement of millions of tonnes of grain.

Bailey, a disabled student, asked about disabled Ukrainians caught up in the war. Zelensky said his wife was helping support the handicapped with medical supplies and other support. Australians could join those programs.

Olivia asked how Zelensky felt about Ukraine’s winning the 2022 Eurovision song contest. ‘Do you believe music is an important tool for cultural connection during violence?’

Zelensky said culture, sport and science had great significance in times of war—’even more important than in peace time’. Ukrainians were motivated by any victory. ‘Eurovision is one of the greatest examples of where we support our cultural activists.’

Paulina asked how Ukrainian society and culture would be different after the war.

Zelensky told her Ukrainians were fighting for their freedom to live and to love. Before Russia’s invasion they did not need to think about those things. ‘The scariest thing is that someone else will choose where you need to live. And you hear it from me, but you can’t feel it right now. And I’m happy that you don’t have to face this choice. And I’m happy that you still have the peace in your country and [scanning the assembled mass of young people] such beautiful faces. You have the same values we have.’

Ukrainians now had different priorities. ‘The most important thing is my child, my family, how is our neighbour? Let him live. What’s going on at the front? What’s going on with our military, with our statehood, with our homeland? Are we retreating or we are going further? Are we wanting to give up our countries? We are changing the values.’

Zelensky said Ukrainians were different peoples with different values but they were united. ‘I would like to believe that we will stay this very united nation in the same way that we have during this war. And we’ll have the same unity after the war.’