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Ahead of Biden-Putin summit, Ukraine leader tells Americans war with Russia could "be tomorrow in their houses"

Ukraine warns of possible Russian attacks on U.S.
Ukraine president warns of possible Russian attacks on U.S. 02:22

Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine — When the President of Ukraine invited CBS News to visit the front line in his country's war against Russian-backed separatists, we expected a quick trip in an armored motorcade to the muddy trenches that cut a bloody scar through the wheat fields of eastern Ukraine. We did not anticipate an informal breakfast — lard on rye bread, salmon sashimi, homemade cookies and shots of brandy — with President Volodymyr Zelensky and his elderly parents in their tiny, Soviet-era kitchen.

The war in Ukraine has raged since 2014, when protests in the capital, Kyiv, toppled a government friendly to Moscow. Russia retaliated by sending troops across the border to seize control of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, and by backing a separatist insurgency in the east. The United Nations puts the death toll after seven years of war at more than 13,000.

The U.S. has supported Zelenskyy's government with money, weapons and training. But the president told us what he really wants is America to back his country's bid to join NATO — a move that the U.S. fears could exacerbate tensions with Moscow.

U.S. military aid a matter of survival in Ukraine 02:40

Just days before President Biden's summit with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, during which Ukraine will figure near the top of the agenda, we asked Zelensky why ordinary Americans should care about the conflict in his country, which is thousands of miles from their own.

"It can be tomorrow in their houses" he told us.

That may sound far-fetched, but experts say Russian hackers are using Ukraine as a testing ground — including attacking its power grid — before employing similar tactics in the U.S. When tens of thousands of Russian troops massed at Ukraine's border earlier this year, some saw it as a move intended not only to scare an American ally, but as a threat to the United States and its allies.

The "Forgotten War" between Russian-backed forces and Ukrainian troops 02:55

President Zelenskyy grew up in an era when Ukraine was part of the USSR, and he was raised in a Russian-speaking household. Part of his early years were spent in the Mongolian city of Erdenet which, at the time, was within the outer reaches of the Soviet empire. His father Oleksandr, a professor of computing, had been sent there to teach.

Like many Ukrainians, Zelenskyy believes that Vladimir Putin has neo-imperial ambitions for Russia, to control its neighbors once again.

"They don't want to make us free", he told CBS News.

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky visits Donbas
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy walks with CBS News correspondent Holly Williams during a visit to a front line in Donbass, Ukraine, in his country's war with Russian-backed separatists, June 9, 2021. Ukrainian Presidency/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Zelenskyy started down his surprising path to the presidency as a comedian with his own production company. He played a fictional President of Ukraine, contending with corrupt oligarchs, in the wildly popular television series "Servant of the People."

It served as a springboard for his own, very real political career. One of Zelenskyy's top priorities in office has been combating widespread corruption.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, center, speaks with CBS News' Holly Williams over breakfast at the home of his parents, who can be seen in the foreground, in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine, in June 2021. CBS

Over breakfast, Zelenskyy, an only child, told us that his parents were "always" worried about him since his election to Ukraine's top job.

In a country where corruption is endemic and Enemy No. 1 is the massive nuclear power next door, I asked the president's parents whether they preferred comedy or politics as a career path for their son.

"Maybe comedy is more to my liking," replied his father, with a wry smile.

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