We met President Zelenskyy as he prepared to depart Kyiv for the United States. This week, he will speak at the U.N. and meet President Biden. It is a critical time. U.S. officials tell us that over nearly 600 days, almost half a million troops have been killed or wounded—both sides, all together—part of the cost, so far, of Vladimir Putin's unprovoked invasion. We spoke to Zelenskyy on Thursday. He told us that his people are dying every day to prevent World War III.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (translated): We're defending the values of the whole world. And these are Ukrainian people who are paying the highest price. We are truly fighting for our freedom, we are dying we are not fiction, we are not a book. We are fighting for real with a nuclear state that threatens to destroy the world.
Scott Pelley: The United States has contributed about $70 billion to your war effort, and I wonder if you expect that level of support to continue?
Zelenskyy (translated): The United States of America [is] supporting Ukraine financially and I'm grateful for this. I just think they're not supporting only Ukraine alone. If Ukraine falls, Putin will surely go further. What will the United States of America do when Putin reaches the Baltic states? When he reaches the Polish border? He will. This is a lot of money. We have a lot of gratitude. What else must Ukraine do for everyone to measure our huge gratitude? We are dying in this war. (PAUSE) Look, if Ukraine falls, what will happen in ten years? Just think about it. If [the Russians] reach Poland, what's next? A Third World War?
Pelley: What will it take? Another $70 billion?
Zelenskyy (translated): I don't have an answer. The whole world [has to] decide whether we want to stop Putin, or whether we want to start the beginning of a world war. We can't change Putin. Russian society has [lost] the respect of the world. They elected him, and re-elected him and raised a second Hitler. They did this. We cannot go back in time. But we can stop it here.
Ukraine stopped the Russian advance, but at a terrible cost. Ruined cities, millions of refugees, untold thousands of dead, all for Vladimir Putin's nation-building vanity.
Today the war is fought on a 700-mile front. The red area is the 20% of Ukraine still occupied by Russia. That is where western donated tanks were supposed to punch through cutting the Russian force in half. But trenches, minefields and artillery stopped the armored advance. Now, it's an artillery duel with each side firing about 40,000 shells a day. Ukrainian infantry is advancing bloody yards at a time. It's World War I with drones.
Pelley: How would you describe the fighting at the front?
Zelenskyy (translated): It's a difficult question. I will be completely honest with you. We have the initiative. This is a plus. We stopped the Russian offensive and we moved into a counter-offensive. [But] despite that, it's not very fast. It is important that we are moving forward every day and liberating territory.
Pelley: You have about six weeks of good weather left, and I wonder, after that point will the front be frozen in place?
Zelenskyy (translated): We need to liberate our territory as much as possible and move forward, even if it's less than [half a mile or] a hundred [yards] we must do it. we can't lose time. Forget about the weather, and the like. In places that we can't get through in an armored vehicle - let's fly. If we can't fly – let's send drones. We mustn't give Putin a break.
If the front is stationary, Ukrainian drones have vaulted into Russia itself, hitting the Kremlin, warplanes and Moscow high rises. Officially, Ukraine does not acknowledge these attacks.
Pelley: The drone strikes in Russia are being done on your orders?
Zelenskyy (translated): You know that we don't shoot at the territory of the Russian Federation.
We decided to try the question another way.
Pelley: What message is being sent with these drone strikes in Russia?
Zelenskyy (translated): You do know that we use our partners' weapons on the territory of Ukraine only. And this is true. But these are not punitive operations, such as they carry out killing civilians. But Russia needs to know that wherever it is, whichever place they use for launching missiles to strike Ukraine, Ukraine has every moral right to send a response to those places. We are responding to them saying: "Your sky is not as well protected, as you think."
Last winter, it was Ukrainian skies that were filled with missiles in a Russian bombardment to destroy powerplants. Millions shivered in the dark. With winter approaching again, Zelenskyy had this warning.
Zelenskyy (translated): They must know if you cut off our power, deprive us of electricity, deprive us of water, deprive us of gasoline you need to know we have the right to do it [to you].
Russia takes Zelenskyy seriously now because Putin's mass invasion was a fiasco. The red marks where Ukraine stopped Russia's advance last year. It also marks the stain of Russia's war crimes.
Pelley: Mr. President, in traveling around Ukraine for the last year and a half we spoke to people in bombed-out schools in Chernihiv, we've seen destroyed apartment blocks in Borodyanka, a bombed hospital in Izium, civilians in a mass grave in Bucha. These are not military targets. What is Vladimir Putin trying to do?
Zelenskyy (translated): To break [us]. And by choosing civilian targets, Putin wanted to achieve exactly this – to break [us]. this person who has made his way with such bloody actions, with everything he has said, cannot be trusted. There is no trust in such a person because he has not been a human being for a long time.
Pelley: The Russians have suffered grievous losses without resorting to nuclear weapons, and I wonder if you believe that the threat of nuclear war is now behind us.
Zelenskyy (translated): I think he's going to continue threatening. He is waiting for the United States to become less stable. He thinks that's going to happen during the U.S. election.
He will be looking for instability in Europe and the United States of America. He will use the risk of using nuclear weapons to fuel that [instability]. He will keep on threatening.
That U.S. election he mentioned worries him. His negotiations with President Biden have been contentious at times. But Zelenskyy tends to get what he asks for, even if, in Zelenskyy's opinion, it's generally, six months too late. This week, Zelenskyy will press Mr. Biden for missiles with longer range. Congress is debating another 24 billion dollar package.
Zelenskyy (translated): And if Ukraine had enough of these modern systems, we would have already restored the territorial integrity of Ukraine. We would have already done that. These systems exist.
We first met Zelenskyy not long after the invasion when his office was a blacked-out bunker. Now a year and a half later, we noticed a difference. As we were setting up the interview, the former actor used his talent to mask the strain. He smiled at a compliment to his wife.
And then, instantly, he seemed pulled beneath a depth no one can know. We don't know what he was thinking, it looked like empathy for the lost and for those who might be saved.
Our time with Zelenskyy began in silence--a remembrance of the fallen during a ceremony to award medals of valor. Ukrainian officials tell us Ukraine and Russia have lost their professional armies. Now the forces are made up of volunteers, draftees, and, in Russia's case, prison inmates. Zelenskyy counts his dead in casualty reports each morning.
Pelley: You are the President, but it must be humbling to meet those men. I wonder what they mean to you?
Zelenskyy (translated): First of all, it is a great honor for me. I look into their eyes and it makes me proud that we have such strong people because this is a big risk, a big risk, you can definitely lose your life… for the sake of [saving] other lives. [And] when I say, "other lives", I don't speak in general, I mean my own life, [the] lives of my children and I understand completely what risks are involved.
That empathy for life has Volodymyr Zelenskyy reaching out, again, to the United Nations and the United States hoping to convince the allies that the world can be safe only when Ukraine is whole.
Pelley: Can you give up any part of Ukraine for peace?
Zelenskyy (translated): No. This is our territory.
Pelley: You must have it all? Including Crimea?
Zelenskyy (translated): Today you and I… you said it to me… you saw me awarding people [medals]. [Well] today is a day like that. A week ago, I gave awards to parents [of soldiers who have been killed]. There were 24 families of the dead. There was a woman. She was with three children. There were parents, very old. They could barely walk and they had had only one son. One of the women was pregnant. She arrived holding a baby in her arms. And she was pregnant. And that baby will never see… what should I tell them? That all of them died so that we could say, "It's okay, [Russia] you can take it all." It's a difficult job. You understand me, right? Giving awards to people whose faces show their whole world has collapsed. And all I can give them, all I can give them – is victory.
Produced by Maria Gavrilovic. Associate producer, Alex Ortiz. Broadcast associate, Michelle Karim. Edited by Peter M. Berman.