Zelensky, speaking in Russian, said Moscow had approved the movement of nearly 200,000 troops into Ukrainian territory, along with thousands of armored vehicles lined up at the border. He said an incursion risked becoming “the start of a big war on the European continent.”
“You are being told this is a plan to free the people of Ukraine,” Zelensky said. “But the Ukrainian people are free.”
His words appealing for peace stood in sharp contrast to a speech delivered Monday by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who delved into Russian history to undermine the notion of Ukraine as an independent nation. He also launched a barrage of accusations against the government in Kyiv that were widely seen as a prelude to an invasion.
By turns wrenching and defiant, Zelensky sought to break through the wall of state-controlled Russian newscasts that have depicted Ukraine as a nation run by Nazis threatening Moscow, though he conceded that his words probably wouldn’t be shown on Russian television.
“The Ukraine on your news and Ukraine in real life are two completely different countries — and the main difference is ours is real,” Zelensky said. “You are told that we are Nazis. How could a people that lost more than 8 million people in the fight against Nazism support Nazism?
“How could I be a Nazi?” Zelensky, who is Jewish, asked, noting that his grandfather spent the entire war as a Soviet soldier but died in an independent Ukraine.
Zelensky said Russians are being told that he is preparing an offensive to retake separatist territory in the Donbas region and “bomb it without questions.” But, he asked, who he would be attacking?
“Luhansk? The house where my best friend’s mother lives? The place where the father of my best friend is buried?” Zelensky said.
“This is our land. This is our history. What are you fighting for and with whom?” he said. “Many of you have been to Ukraine. Many of you have relatives in Ukraine. Some have studied in Ukrainian universities. Some have made friends with Ukrainians. You know our character. You know our people. You know our principles.”
“The people of Ukraine want peace,” he said. “The government of Ukraine wants peace.”
For weeks, Zelensky has complained that the U.S. government has been overly alarmist in warning about the possibility of a large-scale Russian war against Ukraine, damaging the country’s economy in the process.
But on Wednesday, his tone had transformed into that of a leader worried for a people who stand alone against the might of the Russian military despite planeloads of Western weapons and aid.
He warned Russians that if their military invades Ukraine, his nation would defend itself.
“We know for sure we do not need a war — not a cold one, not a hot one, not a hybrid one,” he said. “But if these forces attack us, if you attempt to take away our country, our freedom, our lives, the lives of our children, we will defend ourselves. Not attack — defend. And in attacking, you are going to see our faces. Not our backs, our faces.”
Zelensky spent much of the address warning about the costs of war, which Ukrainian territory has seen more than most.
“War is a grave tragedy, and that tragedy has a great cost in all senses of the word,” Zelensky said. “People lose money, reputations, quality of life, freedom … but most of all people lose their loved ones … They lose themselves.”
The Ukrainian leader, who played the president on television before securing the job in real life, described armed conflict as consisting of “pain, dirt, blood, death.” He warned Russians that thousands or tens of thousands of people could die, which wouldn’t leave anyone with the sort of security guarantees the Kremlin has been seeking.
“War takes away guarantees for everyone,” he said. “No one will have any kind of guarantees of security. And who will suffer from that the most? People. Who doesn’t want that the most? People. Who could not allow that? People. Are those people among you? For sure.”
Zelensky expressed hope that the leadership of Russia would listen to the Russian people, even if it wouldn’t listen to him. He said he placed a phone call to Putin on Wednesday but received only silence.
“I know that my address to you won’t be shown on Russian television, but the citizens of Russia should see it,” Zelensky said. “They should know the truth. And the truth is that this needs to stop before it’s too late. And if the leadership of Russia doesn’t want to sit down at the table with us for the sake of peace, maybe they will sit down at the table with you. Do Russians want war? I would like to answer that question, but the answer depends only on you.”