MUNICH — With his country under threat of imminent attack by Russia, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy received a standing ovation at the annual Munich Security Conference on Saturday — and then bit the hands that applauded him in a scathing speech that slammed Western allies for not doing enough to punish Moscow and move his nation toward the safety of Western integration.
Without naming names, Zelenskiy took jabs at Germany for hesitating to send weapons and offering helmets instead. He also threw shade at the United States for refusing to impose immediate sanctions on the Kremlin for threatening Ukraine, which is now nearly surrounded by more than 100,000 Russian troops and sophisticated weaponry.
“We are going to protect our country with or without the support of our partners,” Zelenskiy said, before referencing Germany’s donation of 5,000 helmets.
On sanctions, he asked: “What are you waiting for? We don’t need sanctions after bombardment happens, after we have no borders, no economy. Why would we need those sanctions then?”
But Zelenskiy’s most caustic words were directed at Moscow, which he accused of lying and plotting to destroy Ukraine.
“Ukraine wants peace; Europe wants peace; the whole world says it doesn’t want war; and Russia claims it doesn’t want to intervene,” he said derisively. “Someone of us is lying.”
Referring to a kindergarten that was damaged in shelling in Donbass, Zelenskiy railed against Russian disinformation, saying even schoolchildren could not be fooled.
“With their elementary knowledge of physics, even these kids will know that alleging Ukraine to have shelled these buildings is just silly,” Zelenskiy said. He added that it did not take higher-level math to understand which side was responsible for a spike in serious violations. And then he suggested that world leaders might have forgotten their history lessons.
“Has our world completely forgotten the mistakes of the twentieth century?” he asked. “Where does appeasement policy usually lead to?”
While the audience offered another standing ovation at the end of his remarks, some were clearly jarred by the rebuke of NATO allies, particularly Germany, the host nation for the conference.
But if his remarks at times seemed impolite or discomfiting, they were mostly spot on.
Western leaders have confided privately for weeks that in the event of a Russian attack, Ukraine would be left to fight largely on its own, albeit with tons of recently donated weapons and ammunition. Amid all the calls for a diplomatic resolution, and the warnings to Moscow of heavy sanctions, no NATO country is willing to put soldiers on the ground.
While Western powers have sought to portray unity in their sanctions threats, there are still some disagreements between the U.S. and the EU. And EU leaders have avoided conversations about what action precisely would trigger sanctions in hopes of preventing any open disagreements, while hoping that an attack by Russia would create the urgency needed to resolve disputes at the moment of truth.
Meanwhile, minutes before Zelenskiy’s speech, Germany ordered all of its citizens to flee Ukraine, as Lufthansa began canceling flights to the country. France followed up with a similar warning, while Washington urged its citizens to evacuate days earlier.
Cry for help
In his address and a subsequent question-and-answer session with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Zelenskiy chastised Western allies for failing to offer Ukraine a clearer path to EU membership, and for being unwilling to broach the possibility that Ukraine may never join NATO as a core demand of the Kremlin.
Kyiv has been warning of Russian military aggression since the invasion and annexation of Crimea and the start of the Russian-backed separatist war in Donbass in 2014, he said.
“We appreciate the support, but everyone needs to understand that this is not some kind of donation Ukraine should be … begging for,” he said. “This is your contribution into the European and international security for which Ukraine has been serving as a reliable shield for eight years now, holding back one of the largest armies in the world.”
Russia’s army was posted on the borders of Ukraine, not the EU, and its rockets were being fired at Mariupol, not EU cities — and it’s the airport in Donetsk, not Frankfurt, that was destroyed in fighting in Donbass, he said.
“None of the countries of Europe know what the military funerals are around the country in all regions,” Zelenskiy said. “And none of the European Union leaders knows what it is to regularly meet with the families of the dead soldiers.”
Zelenskiy also stressed that his country deserved credit for strengthening its armed forces and managing the war in Donbass while striving to implement democratic reforms demanded by Western allies to join the EU and NATO.
“Russia is convincing everyone that this was an erroneous path for Ukraine — that no one is waiting for us in Europe,” he said. “Isn’t it Europe that should be saying and proving them wrong? Isn’t it Europe who should be saying today that our citizens have a positive attitude towards Ukraine joining the Union?”
“Why are we avoiding this question?” he asked. “Doesn’t Ukraine deserve to have direct and frank answers?”
Amanpour also pressed Zelenskiy about leaving Kyiv in a time of such acute crisis. In fact, the Biden administration had warned the Ukrainian leader against traveling, citing intelligence suggesting that Moscow might try to topple Zelenskiy and install a puppet regime.
But Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the security conference, praised Zelenskiy for attending in person, saying many did not think he would make it. Zelenskiy quipped he ate breakfast at home and would be back in time for dinner.
Despite the ominous outlook, Zelenskiy said Ukrainians aren’t panicking and that his country is ready to negotiate peace in “any format,” in any location. The crucial factor was making sure Russia is at the table, he said — and he forcefully denied any possibility that Ukraine would instigate any new military escalation in Donbass.
“We are ready to sit down and speak,” he said. “What’s the point of us shooting and proposing diplomacy at the same time?
Russian President Vladimir Putin has insisted that his country is not a party to the conflict in Ukraine and has demanded that Kyiv meet with separatist leaders from the occupied areas of Donbass. Russia has also repeatedly denied it has any intention of attacking Ukraine.
Zelenskiy has countered that Ukraine was doing its part to implement the Minsk peace accords and accused Russia of obstructing. “Everything is blocked,” he said.
Despite the high tension, Zelenskiy, a comedian and television actor before entering politics, showed that he had not lost his sense of humor. When his translation device gave out, he interrupted Amanpour, saying “cyber-attack.”
Asking for a new apparatus, Zelenskiy teased about Russia refusing to send an official delegation to the conference. “You see Russia is not here,” he said. “But they are here.”
On the brink
Zelenskiy’s speech came as an array of Western leaders — including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen — used their own appearances to reiterate support for Kyiv and praise Ukraine’s restraint.
At the same time, they repeated their sobering assessment that a military strike by Russia seemed likely. As provocative false flag operations appeared to be underway Friday in the occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk — with separatist leaders calling for an evacuation of civilians — U.S. President Joe Biden said he believed Putin had decided to launch an invasion of Ukraine, though he still called on the Kremlin to choose a diplomatic path instead.
“NATO allies, we have the same assessment, we share the same information, and we all see the increasing risk — likelihood — for an attack,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.
“Of course there’s not 100 percent certainty,” Stoltenberg added. “And it’s never too late for Russia to change plans, and stop preparing for war, step back from the brink and start to engage in the political dialogue.”
Scholz, attending his first Munich conference as chancellor, said that he had used a recent visit to Moscow to push back on Putin’s allegations that NATO had acted aggressively following the breakup of Yugoslavia. And he again called on the Russian leader to seek a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
Harris, meanwhile, reiterated Biden’s warnings that Russia will face the stiffest economic sanctions ever seen if it attacks Ukraine.
“We will impose far-reaching financial sanctions and export controls,” the vice president said. “We will target Russia’s financial institutions and key industries. And we will target those who are complicit and those who aid and abet this unprovoked invasion.”
If Putin wanted NATO troops out of Eastern Europe, she noted, he would actually get the opposite result. “We will not stop with economic measures,” she said. “We will further reinforce our NATO allies on the eastern flank.”
Von der Leyen, in her remarks, accused Russia of using gas supplies as a weapon but insisted EU countries would get through the current winter without a problem.
After Zelenskiy’s speech, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki described the threat as real and persistent.
“Who knows what will be his next step,” he said of Putin. “Today it’s Ukraine, tomorrow it could be the Baltics, the day after tomorrow it could be Poland and Finland.”
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson took a wider lens, arguing that an invasion of Ukraine would have serious global ramifications, potentially emboldening other rogue acts, such as an attack by China on Taiwan.
“If Ukraine is invaded, the shock will echo around the world,” Johnson said. “Those echoes will be heard in East Asia. They will be heard in Taiwan.”
“We do not fully know what President Putin intends, but the omens are grim, and that is why we must stand strong together,” he warned.
Erin Banco, Cristina Gallardo and Giorgio Leali contributed reporting.