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Zelensky urges China to attend peace summit in Switzerland


May 18, 2024 06:27 PM

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in an interview with AFP on Friday said his country needed over a hundred aircraft to counter Russian air power and said Ukraine only had a quarter of the air defences it needs.

His country has faced a surge of devastating attacks as the war stretches into its third year, leading Kyiv to double down on pleas to strengthen its depleted air defences.

"Today we have about 25 percent of what we need to defend Ukraine. I'm talking about air defence," Zelensky said.

Russia currently holds an advantage in the air, which limits Ukraine's ability to protect cities and hold the front line.

To combat sustained aerial and ground assaults, Ukrainian officials have called for more support.

"So that Russia does not have air superiority, our fleet should have 120 to 130 modern aircraft... to defend the sky against three hundred (Russian) aircraft," Zelensky said.

He also said the fighter jets were needed "to have parity" with Russia.

His comments came just weeks after the US Congress finally approved a $61-billion financial aid package for Ukraine following months of political wrangling.

Zelensky called for some of the assistance to be delivered.

"Can we have three (billion) to get two (Patriot) systems in Kharkiv region, and no bombs will fall on the heads of the military," he said.

Lack of troops 

President Volodymyr Zelensky said his army needed more men to boost the forces' morale, a rare acknowledgement from the Ukrainian leader.

Ukraine has ceded ground to Russian forces since late last year, partly due to manpower shortages that forced the government to pass a mobilisation law.

"We need to staff the reserves... A large number of (brigades) are empty," Zelensky told AFP.

Many Ukrainian soldiers have been fighting for over two years without the possibility to be discharged.

With no end to the war in sight, the army is struggling to recruit, while fighters are growing exhausted and angry at the lack of rotation.

"We need to do this so that the guys have a normal rotation. Then their morale will be improved," Zelensky told AFP.

"It is a matter of their physical strength and justice. This requires that reserves be prepared," he continued.

The law passed by parliament comes into force Saturday.

It lowers the minimum age of mobilisation from 27 to 25 and streamlines mobilisation procedures.

But in a controversial twist, it scrapped a vital proposal that would have given soldiers serving for more than 36 months the possibility to be discharged.

Urges China to attend peace conference 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky  urged China and countries of the Global South to participate in a peace summit in Switzerland next month.

The Swiss government announced that it would host a high-level peace conference for Ukraine in mid-June, but said Russia would not attend.

Uncertainty surrounds the presence of China, which has said "a lot of work" would need to be done before the conference.

Chinese leaders believe that "if Russia loses the war... it is a victory for the United States," Zelensky said.

"It's a victory for the West, and they want to find a balance between the two... That's why I would like to see China involved in the peace summit."

His comments came as Russian President Vladimir Putin visited China this week for talks in which the leaders framed their nations' ties as a stabilising force in a chaotic world.

China says it is a neutral party in the Ukraine conflict and has sought to play a mediator role.

But it has been criticised, like other countries particularly in the Global South, for refusing to condemn Moscow's offensive.

Zelensky made a wider appeal for countries to send delegations to Switzerland.

"If there is no representative of your state, this is a public response that when you say that we all want peace, no, you want Russia to win."

The Ukrainian president pointed to three issues around which consensus could be found in Switzerland.

The first, he said, was that free navigation in the Black Sea could strengthen global food security by allowing Ukrainian grain exports.

Second, he hoped for an agreement on a call to halt strikes on energy infrastructures.

Third, he advocated for the return to Ukraine of thousands of children deported to Russia, a crime for which the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Putin.

"If we come out of the summit with these three steps with the majority of countries agreeing... it means that Russia will not block them further."

Warns Russia could step up offensive

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in an interview with AFP on Friday warned Russia could intensify its offensive and said Kyiv would only accept a "fair peace" despite the West's calls for a quick solution.

Zelensky also repeated pleas for allies to send more air defence and fighter jets and said the "biggest advantage" for Russia was a ban on Ukraine using Western-donated weapons to strike Russian territory.

With a mobilisation law coming into force on Saturday, he admitted issues with staffing and "morale" in Ukrainian ranks, which have been often outgunned and outmanned as the third year of the war grinds on.

While Russian troops have made gradual advances in recent months, it has seen larger gains along the northeastern border in an offensive that began on May 10 in Kharkiv region.

But Zelensky said on Friday that Ukraine would hold its defensive lines and stop any major Russian breakthrough.

"No one is going to give up," said Zelensky, who has been the face of Ukraine's resistance against Russia since the invasion began in February 2022.

  'Nonsense situation' 

 Zelensky also rejected French President Emmanuel Macron's call for an Olympic truce during the Paris Games, saying it would hand an "advantage" to Moscow by giving it time to move around troops and artillery.

He said Ukraine and its Western allies had the "same values" but often "different views", particularly on what the end of the conflict might look like.

"We are in a nonsense situation where the West is afraid that Russia will lose the war. And it does not want Ukraine to lose it," Zelensky said.

"Everyone wants to find some model for the war to end faster," he said, when asked about the possibility of a scenario for ending hostilities like the one that established a dividing line on the Korean peninsula.

The president urged China and countries from the developing world to attend a peace summit with dozens of leaders being hosted by neutral Switzerland next month to which Russia has not been invited.

He said global players like China "have influence on Russia. And the more such countries we have on our side, on the side of the end of the war, I would say, the more Russia will have to move and reckon with."

The 46-year-old former comedian wore one of his trademark khaki outfits for the interview in Kyiv -- his first with foreign media since the start of Russia's Kharkiv region offensive.

"We want the war to end with a fair peace for us," while "the West wants the war to end. Period. As soon as possible. And for them, this is a fair peace," he said.

  'First wave' of Russian offensive 

 Zelensky said the situation in the Kharkiv region, where thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes, was "controlled" but "not stabilised".

An AFP estimate based on data from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) showed Russian forces have advanced more than 278 square kilometres (107 square miles) in their offensive-- their biggest gains in a year and a half.

Zelensky said Russian troops had penetrated between five to 10 kilometres along the northeastern border before being stopped by Ukrainian forces.

Russia's offensive "could consist of several waves. There was the first wave" in Kharkiv region, he said.

Zelensky played down Russia's gains in the offensive so far but added: "We have to be sober and understand that they are going deeper into our territory. Not vice versa. And that's still their advantage."

 'They are like a beast' 

Speaking about the offensive during a visit to China on Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said it was a response to Ukraine shelling border regions.

"I said publicly that if this continues, we will be forced to create a security zone," he said.

When asked whether Russia planned to capture the city of Kharkiv, which has over a million inhabitants, Putin said: "As for Kharkiv, there are no such plans as of today."

But Zelensky said that Russian forces "want to attack" the city although they realise it would be "very difficult".

"They understand that we have forces that will fight for a long time," he said.

He also said Russia did not have enough forces for "a full-scale offensive on the capital like the one they had at the beginning of the offensive".

But he emphasised that Ukraine and its Western allies should not show weakness and called for the deployment of two Patriot batteries to defend the skies over the Kharkiv region and show Ukraine's resilience.

"They are like a beast... If they feel a weakness somewhere in this direction, they will press on," he said.

'Biggest advantage' for Russia 

In the interview, he said Ukraine only had "about 25 percent of what we need" to defend the country in terms of air defence.

He also said "120 to 130" F-16 fighter jets or other advanced aircraft were needed "in order to have parity" with Russia.

He was highly critical of restrictions on striking Russian territory with Western arms, although Britain and the United States have hinted in recent days that these bans could be eased.

"They can fire any weapons from their territory at ours. This is the biggest advantage that Russia has. We can't do anything to their systems, which are located on the territory of Russia, with Western weapons," he said.

When asked about the issue during a visit to Ukraine this week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that "ultimately Ukraine has to make decisions for itself about how it's going to conduct this war."

On a more personal note, Zelensky said his sense of professional pride and duty helped him keep going.

"I'm just a very responsible person. I was just raised to be such a person... I know that what I do, I have to do better than anyone else," he said.

But he said his comedy days were behind him: "I don't make anyone laugh. It seems to me that today it's the opposite."


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