Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has raised the stakes in the battle over Bahkmut, warning that if Russia conquers the eastern city, Moscow could begin building international support for an armistice that would be undesirable for Ukraine.
If Bahkmut falls, Russian President Vladimir Putin would “sell this victory to the West, to his society, to China, to Iran,” Zelensky told the Associated Press during a train ride from the northeastern city of Sumy to Kyiv Tuesday.
“If he will feel some blood — smell that we are weak — he will push, push, push.”
Ukraine has been fighting Russian forces in Bahkmut for nearly eight months in some of the bloodiest battles in the 13-month-old war, and Zelensky said a loss in the city, or any other contested cities, could sap the momentum of Ukraine’s military.
“We can’t lose the steps because the war is a pie — pieces of victories. Small victories, small steps,” he said.
The 45-year-old, who recently visited Bahkmut, said a defeat there would be more of a political loss than a tactical one, and build pressure among Ukrainians and the international community to force him to accept an unacceptable truce.
”Our society will feel tired. Our society will push me to have compromise with them,” Zelensky said.
At this point in the war, the United States and its Western allies have backed Ukraine in its fight against the Russian invasion, offering billions of dollars in military and humanitarian aid.
And world leaders, including President Biden, have made the dangerous trek to Kyiv to meet with Zelensky.
But the Ukrainian leader noted that Chinese President Xi Jinping has not made the journey, although he did travel to Moscow earlier this month to meet with Putin.
“We are ready to see him here,” Zelensky said of Xi. “I want to speak with him. I had contact with him before full-scale war. But during all this year, more than one year, I didn’t have.”
As the war continues into its second year, Zelensky said he remains focused on maintaining morale among the military and among the Ukrainian population, and is well aware that the support he receives from the US and Europe is critical to his country’s battlefield success.
But remarks from some US lawmakers — whom Zelensky did not name — questioning the need to continue aiding Ukraine worry him.
“The United States really understands that if they stop helping us, we will not win,” he told the Associated Press.
Xi’s visit with Putin raised concerns that China would begin supplying arms and ammunition to Russia, whose weapons stockpiles have been depleted, but the trip concluded without any announcement.
Days later, Putin announced that he planned to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus.
Zelensky said that was a ploy by Putin to distract from his talks with Xi.
“What does it mean? It means that the visit was not good for Russia,” he said before expressing conviction that Ukraine will ultimately triumph over Russia’s “big army” with “small hearts.”
Zelensky also acknowledged that the war has brought Ukrainians together.
“It could’ve gone one way, to divide the country, or another way — to unite us,” Zelensky said.
“I’m so thankful. I’m thankful to everybody — every single partner, our people, thank God, everybody — that we found this way in this critical moment for the nation. Finding this way was the thing that saved our nation, and we saved our land. We are together.”