Exclusive: Ukrainian president warns Russian build-up 'threatens entire democratic order'

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Roland Oliphant
·4 min read
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Zelenskiy gave a press conference at the Ukrainian embassy in Paris before his meeting with Macron and Merkel - AP
Zelenskiy gave a press conference at the Ukrainian embassy in Paris before his meeting with Macron and Merkel - AP

Ukraine must be allowed to join Nato, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told the Telegraph on Friday as he warned that Russia’s military build-up on his country’s borders “threatens the entire democratic order”.

Mr Zelenskiy reiterated his country's longstanding call for Nato membership in an exclusive interview with the Telegraph hours before travelling to Paris for talks with Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel.

He backed Joe Biden’s call for a bilateral summit with Vladimir Putin to defuse the crisis, warning that it was a test of “Europe and the West as a whole”.

“It is only Ukraine's accession to Nato that can guarantee security and peace in the long run,” he said. “This is a conflict which will decide whether the true democratic order will be preserved, whether the principle of the inviolability of borders will work, and whether there will be freedom of nations in choosing their own destiny.”

The intervention comes amid growing international concern at Russian troop concentrations near the Ukrainian border. According to Mr Zelenskiy, there are now at least 40,000 Russian troops deployed in Crimea and another 40,000 in regions of Russia bordering Ukraine.

A Ukrainian soldier is seen at fighting positions on the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels near Luhansk - AP
A Ukrainian soldier is seen at fighting positions on the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels near Luhansk - AP

Together with around 30,000 Russian and separatist troops already stationed in the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, they amount to the largest Russian force in the region since the height of the war.

Experts are divided over whether or not the Russian show of force is part of a genuine invasion plan or simply an act of intimidation. Mr Zelenskiy said he did not ruled out either scenario and was assessing the situation “absolutely soberly”.

“There are more Russian troops concentrated on our border and in the occupied territory of Ukraine than in the period from 2014 to 2015, when the fiercest fighting in Donbas took place,” he said.

“This is pressure on Europe and the West as a whole. It is a test of the strength of our ties and the weight of the words and decisions of Western nations.”

He backed Mr Biden’s offer to meet Mr Putin face-to-face at a summit in a neutral European venue this summer. “President Biden has a good understanding of the situation in our part of Europe and of the Ukrainian context,” he said.

“So, I am sure he will formulate to the Russian leader our common position with the West: that there is no alternative to peace and we need to return to meaningful negotiations to end the war in Donbas.”

Ukrainian and Canadian servicemen do training exercises to get ready for large scale International military drills in Western Ukraine
Ukrainian and Canadian servicemen do training exercises to get ready for large scale International military drills in Western Ukraine

But he warned: “We already have a crisis situation. That is why it is important that our joint efforts bear fruit and that it is clear to everyone that aggressive actions or threats will never benefit anyone.

“This position is already very strongly expressed by Britain. In a conversation with me, Boris Johnson expressed solidarity with Ukraine and full support.”

It comes as the Moscow prosecutor's office announced it was seeking to designate two organisations associated with opposition leader Alexander Navalny as extremist groups and his staff members as extremists. If approved, the move could effectively dissolve Navalny's political organisation in Russia.

The threat to Ukraine is not limited to the Russian troops massing on its borders, Mr Zelensky said.

“Russia is using more than just military pressure. These are also waves of disinformation, the spread of destructive conspiracy theories, attempts to interfere in political and electoral processes in other countries, cyber attacks, economic pressure and the export of corruption.

“That is why we must jointly fight disinformation, protect our political institutions and ensure the transparency of economic processes.”

Mr Zelenksiy met with Mr Macron in Paris and they were joined by Mrs Merkel in a video conference.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia welcomed the talks and hoped they could “help to normalise the situation”.

The Kremlin responded cautiously to Mr Biden’s offer of a summit, condemning US sanctions but praising his call for de-escalation.