Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned unless his country wins a months-long battle in the eastern city of Bakhmut, Russia may begin building international support for a peace deal that could require Ukraine to make unacceptable compromises.
He also invited the leader of China, long aligned with Russia, to visit Ukraine.
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If Bakhmut falls to Russian forces, President Vladimir Putin would “sell this victory to the West, to his society, to China, to Iran”, Zelenskyy said.
“If he will feel some blood – smell that we are weak – he will push, push, push,” Zelenskyy told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
The president said he worries the war could be impacted by shifting political forces in Washington. “The United States really understands that if they stop helping us, we will not win.”
Zelenskyy also extended an invitation to Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“We are ready to see him here. 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,” he said.
China, economically aligned and politically favourable towards Russia for decades, has provided Putin diplomatic cover by staking out an official position of neutrality in the war.
Xi visited Putin in Russia last week, raising the prospect Beijing might be ready to provide Moscow with the weapons and ammunition it needs to refill its depleted stockpile. But Xi’s trip ended without any such announcement.
Days later, Putin announced he would deploy tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus, which neighbours Russia and pushes the Kremlin’s nuclear stockpile closer to NATO territory.
Zelenskyy suggested Putin’s move was intended to distract from the lack of guarantees he received from China. “What does it mean? It means that the visit was not good for Russia.”
‘Big enemy, big army’
Zelenskyy recently made a visit near Bakhmut where Ukrainian and Russian forces have been locked for months in a grinding, bloody battle.
While some Western military analysts have suggested the city is not of significant strategic importance, Zelenskyy warned a loss anywhere at this stage in the conflict could put Ukraine’s hard-fought momentum at risk.
“We can’t lose the steps because the war is a pie – pieces of victories. Small victories, small steps,” he said.
Zelenskyy’s comments were an acknowledgement that losing the seven-month-long battle for Bakhmut – the longest of the war so far – would be more of a costly political defeat than a tactical one.
He predicted the pressure from a defeat in Bakhmut would come quickly – both from the international community and within his own country. “Our society will feel tired. Our society will push me to compromise with them.”
Zelenskyy made few predictions about the biggest question hanging over the war: How it will end?
He expressed confidence, however, Ukraine will prevail through a series of “small victories” and “small steps” against a “very big country, big enemy, big army” – but an army, he said, with “small hearts”.