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Ukrainian President Zelenskyy makes case for continued U.S. support against Russia

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy attended a gathering of world leaders in New York this week. He also addressed an issue dividing American politicians. Zelenskyy wants the U.S. to continue arming and funding Ukraine's defense against the Russian invasion, and Democrats and most Republicans still support this. But right-wing Republicans increasingly object. Zelenskyy spoke with our colleague Steve Inskeep of NPR's Morning Edition, who is in New York. Hi, Steve.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Hey there, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hi. OK, so how did Zelenskyy address those objections from some Republicans?

INSKEEP: Well, he's careful always not to say that he's wading into American politics, but he knows what's going on here. And you mentioned it. Some right-wing Republicans have been skeptical of this project from the beginning. And now House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has said he would not accept a blank check. And this is now getting tangled up in these broader U.S. budget negotiations here in September. So in that situation, Zelenskyy argued that our two countries, the United States and Ukraine, still share and are fighting for similar values. Most of our conversation, I should tell you, he spoke Ukrainian, but he switched to English when I asked about this and became pretty passionate, knowing that he's appealing directly to the American people. Let's listen.

If a Republican lawmaker who you may meet during this visit says, what's in it for the United States? - your answer is American values. Is that right?

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: Yes, of course. We have the same values - freedom and democracy - and that's why we are fighting against Russia. And they want to cut it, to blow it, and that's it. And they not only think about it. They showed it. They kill our people - woman, man, you saw it. They deported children. So you - they are bombing civilians. It's not about only front line. It's not simple war.

INSKEEP: And he says the way that Russia has waged the war has shown Russia's contrasting values.

CHANG: Well, how much longer, Steve, does Zelenskyy expect Ukraine to need assistance from other countries like the U.S.? What do you think?

INSKEEP: This was a big question on my mind because this feels like a long war. I've covered wars. I've studied war. It's pretty basic to know that offense is harder than defense. The Ukrainians had a miracle in stopping the Russian offensive, but now they're trying to push back the other way, and that is proving very difficult. So I raised with Zelenskyy the possibility that the hardest part of this war, the deadliest part of this war, even, may be ahead, and he disagreed with me. Let's listen to that.

ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) I believe that the most difficult part of this war is already in the past. When we prevented the occupation of our capital city and, together with the Kyiv region, we've prevented the occupation of the major part of Ukraine. And we control the 80% of our country. We de-occupied that. I'm confident about the situation 'cause we can see that whenever we start pressing on the Russians, the Russians are starting to retreat. And now we are having the initiative on the battlefield.

INSKEEP: And the Russians have retreated some, but there's a very, very long way to go.

CHANG: Well, let me ask you, Steve, how did President Zelenskyy seem to you personally? - because he hasn't left the country much. There's no end in sight to this war, at least at this moment. So what were his spirits like, his mood to you?

INSKEEP: Well, he's an unassuming character when he arrived in our rather crowded hotel suite where we were to meet him. And it's a very interesting person. He's a very interesting person to meet. You know, when you're getting ready to meet a president, you put on a suit and tie, so I was dressed that way. I'm also, by the way, wearing a suit and tie for you right now, Ailsa.

CHANG: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Just so you know.

CHANG: I quite appreciate that.

INSKEEP: But, of course, he's wearing the military fatigues or military gear that he's worn elsewhere...

CHANG: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...In the world.

CHANG: And some photos.

INSKEEP: And - but when all attention focuses on him, you get a sense of the weight on this person. And parts of our conversation were contentious when we looked into questions like, will Ukraine be able to resume their elections as they fight as the front line of democracy?

CHANG: And real quick, Steve, in about the 30 seconds we have left, I mean, what did Zelenskyy say about priorities for when the war ends?

INSKEEP: He did talk about the end of the war and talked about promoting a liberal economy. He wants a free and open economy that can encourage investment, encourage recovery and rebuilding, and encourage the millions of Ukrainians who fled to come back.

CHANG: That is NPR's Steve Inskeep. Thank you so much, Steve.

INSKEEP: Always glad to do it.

CHANG: And I understand that there will be lots more on Morning Edition in the next couple days.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.