Watch CBS News

The wartime president: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks with Scott Pelley in Kyiv

Volodymyr Zelenskyy: The 60 Minutes Interview
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy: The 60 Minutes Interview 27:42

On February 24, with the Russian invasion coming at him from three sides, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reached for his most powerful weapon – his phone. The moment Zelenskyy told his people he refused to flee, Ukraine refused to fall. Leaders don't become legends often, but over these nearly seven weeks, this 44-year-old former comedian inspired his country to stand up to the overwhelming force of Russia. Last Wednesday, we were admitted to Zelenskyy's fortified war rooms to meet the man who stands between the Russian army and the free world. 

We met President Zelenskyy in the blacked-out hallways of his command center in Ukraine's capital, Kyiv. It is a fortress, crowded with troops, machine guns, mines, explosives and a great deal more.

Scott Pelley: Are you safe here?

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, speaking Ukrainian: Yeah, I'm fine. I feel pretty calm about it. Our guards are worried because there could be an airstrike. But when we get the air-raid evacuation signal we head downstairs.

Scott Pelley: Mr. President, what has it been like working under these conditions?

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in English: We, we, found a way to work. We don't have another way. 

Scott Pelley: You found a way how to work, you don't have any other way.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, speaking Ukrainian: It has to be dark in here, you can't switch the lights on because a bomb could just fly in, during an airstrike. 

Scott Pelley interviews Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. 

Scott Pelley: You have troops sleeping…

The president and his staff have lived here for 46 days now. The Russian invasion plan expected Kyiv to fall in 3 days. But that relied on one assumption – that Zelenskyy would run. 

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, translation: When everyone is telling you, you need to go, you need to think. Before I do something, I analyze the situation. I've always done it calmly, without any chaos. I might not be the strongest warrior. But I'm not willing to betray anyone.

Scott Pelley: What did you tell your wife and children about your decision?

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, translation: I told them this is my choice. And I can't do it any other way. I'm the president of my country. I'm the president of our people. And even if I wasn't president, I would have stayed here. [My family] understood. Not only understood, but fully supported my decision. Fully. 

It was the decision that saved Ukraine from immediate collapse.

"Good evening, everyone," he said. "We are all here, our soldiers are here, the citizens of the country are here. We are all here protecting our independence, our country and we're going to continue." 

Scott Pelley: You had made a decision to give your life for your country if it came to that.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, translation: I don't want to make myself out to be a hero. I love my family. I want to live many more years, but choosing between running or being with my people, of course I'm ready to give my life for my country.

For a man with 44 million lives in his hands, we found Zelenskyy buoyant, gracious, humble and brutally honest.  

The day before our visit, an angrier Zelenskyy scolded the UN Security Council –  "where's the security?" he asked.

Scott Pelley: In speaking to NATO, you called them weak. In speaking to the UN Security Council, you said, if you can't help, you shouldn't exist. Not very diplomatic of you. I wonder why you feel the need to speak so bluntly.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, translation: When you are [working] at diplomacy, there are no results. All this is very bureaucratic. That's why the way I'm talking to them is absolutely justifiable. I don't have any more lives [to give]. I don't have any more emotions. I'm no longer interested in their diplomacy that leads to the destruction of my country. A lot of countries have changed their mind about Ukraine and about our people. But I think we've paid too high price for that.

Scott Pelley: What must the world understand?

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, translation: We are defending the ability of a person to live in the modern world. We are defending the right to live. I never thought this right was so costly. These are human values. So that Russia doesn't choose what we should do and how I'm exercising my rights. That right was given to me by God and my parents.

God was hard to find on our visit to Kyiv's northern suburbs which Russia occupied for weeks. Much of what we found will be difficult to watch. Behind St. Andrew's Church there is a sandy trench not quite full of civilian residents of the town of Bucha. Ukraine stopped the Russians here, 45 minutes from the center of the capital city. The Russian retreat was so hasty, it seems there was no time to cover up the war crimes. President Zelenskyy visited Bucha two days before our interview. 

Scott Pelley: What did you see in Bucha?

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, translation: Death. Just death. 

Last Monday was the first time Zelenskyy saw, with his own eyes, what Russia has done in what Vladimir Putin calls the liberation of Ukraine. The day after our interview, we found civilian neighborhoods in Bucha, blocks and blocks shelled and blasted with no purpose but terror. Bodies and parts of bodies lay in the streets, "left out like trash," Zelenskyy told us. No one knows how many victims are still in their homes, yet to be found. 

Scott Pelley: There's a photograph, Mr. President, of you in Bucha with an expression on your face that you have not allowed your people to see during this war. And I wonder what we're seeing there. Is that heartbreak? Is it anger?

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, translation: It's anger. It's anger because we don't understand [the Russians]. You can't really understand this world. That there are people on this planet who give these orders and people [who carry them out]. 

In Bucha, neighborhood relief for the hungry and the homeless looked like World War II in color. Valeriy Matvienko was so angry about the senseless Russian bullet wound in his leg, we can't repeat what he told us in English. 

Valeriy Matvienko, translation: Some of the Russians were normal. Some of them were totally crazy. You could walk, and they would shoot sometimes up in the air, sometimes at your legs. So, you have to jump in front of them. [Cars] were run over by Russian tanks. Very brutal. Not human. 

Scott Pelley: Can you tell me what you saw? 

We met Tetyana Dmitriivna, who compressed the occupation into a single word.

Tetyana Dmitriivna, translation: Horror. Horror. Gunfire was nonstop day and night. Thanks to God it all passed and we survived. It's simply a miracle. I had two grandchildren with me in the basement. [I never thought] I would live to see this horror. 

Tetyana Dmitriivna talks with Scott Pelley. 

Scott Pelley: Mr. Zelenskyy told us he couldn't believe that human beings could do something like this. 

Tetyana Dmitriivna: We never believed it either. We are simply in shock. All of us. 

Scott Pelley: What evidence is there of war crimes across Ukraine?

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, translation: The Ukrainian Security Service has intercepted communications. There are [Russian] soldiers talking with their parents [about] what they stole and who they abducted. There are recordings of [Russian] prisoners of war who admitted to killing people. There are pilots in prison who had maps with civilian targets to bomb. There are also investigations being done based on the remains of the dead. 

Scott Pelley: Should Vladimir Putin be prosecuted for war crimes?

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, translation: Look, I think everyone who made a decision, who issued an order, who fulfilled an order, everyone who is relevant to this, I believe they are all guilty.

Scott Pelley: Do you hold Putin responsible?

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, translation: I do believe he's one of them. That's what I believe.

The slaughter of civilians could have been stopped, Zelenskyy told us. He's deeply grateful for the weapons NATO and the U.S. are sending around the clock. But he's bitterly disappointed the allies refuse to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine. President Biden has called that an invitation to World War III. But in Zelenskyy's view, it's the kind of inaction the world has suffered before. 

Scott Pelley: Mr. President, in a speech to NATO you said, quote, 'All the people who die will die because of you, because of your weakness.' Are you saying that the West bears some responsibility for these atrocities? 

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, translation: I remember, all of us remember, books about the second World War, and about the devil in uniform – Adolf Hitler. Are those countries who did not participate in the war responsible? The countries who let German forces march throughout Europe? Does the world carry responsibility for the genocide? Yes. Yes, it does.  When you [have the ability to] close the sky – yes it's scary, that a world war could start. It's scary. I understand [that]. And I cannot put pressure on these people because everyone is afraid of war. But whether the world [is responsible] for this, I believe so, yes. I believe so. Stand in front of the mirror every day and ask yourself, were you able to do something? Or were you unable to do something? You will find the answer in the mirror to this question, and to another question – who are you? That's what I believe. 

Perhaps Zelenskyy reaches for World War II because of his homeland's history of catastrophe and because he's Ukraine's first Jewish president. Zelenskyy is 44 years old, holds a law degree. He's married with a son and daughter. His family is safe, somewhere in Ukraine. In this war, Zelenskyy is the leading man in a tragedy but he worked his entire career to make people laugh. He was Ukraine's favorite comedian whose sitcom was popular in Russia too. 

In his show, called "Servant of the people," he played a high school history teacher whose anger at corruption in Ukraine explodes into a profane rant. A student posts the tirade and the teacher is elected president. 

In 2019, Zelenskyy turned parody into power. He ran on an anti-corruption platform and won 73% of the vote. He was 41 years old. He brought longtime friend and business partner, Andriy Yermak, in as chief of staff.

Andriy Yermak: He's smart. He's strong. He's brave. And he is person who is self-made. Zelenskyy is not just the leader of our heroic nation. I think he is the leader of the free world. 

Scott Pelley: Why do you say President Zelenskyy is the leader of the free world now?

Andriy Yermak: Because Ukraine defend not just Ukraine. We defend all democracy.

Zelenskyy has been defending Ukraine since his inauguration day. That green T-shirt which caught the eye of the world was no surprise to Ukrainians. He keeps fatigues in his office because he often visited the battlefront near the Russian border where Ukraine has been in a shooting war with Russia since 2014. 

That was when Putin invaded part of Ukraine called the Donbas and seized Ukraine's Crimea peninsula. In 2014, before Zelenskyy was elected, a Russian anti-aircraft battery in Ukraine shot down an airliner killing 298 civilians. 

In our interview, Zelenskyy told us he's been trying to warn the world that Putin will not stop at Ukraine. 

Scott Pelley: Mr. President, it appears that the free world has calculated that the suffering of your people is not worth even the risk of a nuclear exchange.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, translation: I think so. That's how it is. Some are using that politically, as an excuse, by saying, 'We can't defend Ukraine because there could be a nuclear war.' I think that today, no one in this world can predict what Russia will do. If they invade further into our territory, then they will definitely move closer and closer to Europe. They will only become stronger and less predictable.

Scott Pelley interviews Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.  CBS News

Scott Pelley: President Biden says he is outraged by Bucha. NATO leaders say they are outraged by Bucha. So, what should they do now?

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, translation: Weapons, number one. They need to be very serious about it. They definitely understand what I'm talking about right now. They have to supply weapons to Ukraine as if they were defending themselves and their own people. They need to understand this: If they don't speed up, It will be very hard for us to hold on against this pressure. The second factor is sanctions. Because we've found some things in sanctions that are easy for financial experts to circumvent. Russia has been circumventing them, and this is absolutely true. The Western world knows it. This shouldn't be allowed. This is not a movie, this is real life. Stop fearing the Russian Federation. We've shown we are not afraid. 

Friday, a Russian missile strike hit a crowd of refugees striving to escape eastern Ukraine by train. At least 50 were killed, five children. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy calls it a war crime. Tonight, Zelenskyy is fighting a powerful Russian assault on Ukraine's East and South. Russia has not seized its strategic objectives so, instead, it's shelling defiant cities to ruin. The one exception, at least now, is Kyiv. In a feat of arms no one expected, Ukraine's outgunned army defeated the massive Russian force that had been ordered to take the capital city. 

Kyiv survives, for the moment, a capital of mummified monuments and 19th century grace. Before, it was a bumper-to-bumper city with 3 million residents. But now the streets are congested only by shadows. Air raids are still a danger but, after nearly seven weeks, the siren doesn't quicken the step like it used to. 

Scott Pelley: Have you won the battle of Kyiv?

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, translation: Kyiv. I think, yes, but, this isn't the final victory. I will only be able to tell after we win this war. When we liberate our country, then I will be able to tell. Because Bucha is part of greater Kyiv. Bucha, Irpin, Hostomel if the people of those [towns] were wiped out, then did we win this battle? I'm not sure. We've withstood, and we did not give up what is ours. But whether we won, I can't say.

Scott Pelley: No one expected Ukraine to fight Russia to a standstill. And I wonder, how did you manage?

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, translation: We united as a nation. Even though [our people] understood that they would be outnumbered tenfold, and there would be no way out, just no way out, we fought for our existence and for survival. That's the combined heroism of everyone – of the people, of the authorities, of the armed forces. We became a single fist.

We saw the Ukrainian punch in the town of Bucha where the remains of a Russian armored column rusted, dead in the street. Neighbors, holed up for weeks, emerged to remember what victory looks like. No one seemed in a hurry to deal with the bits of Russian soldiers in the wreckage. The full story of how the outmanned Ukrainian army stopped the invasion of Kyiv, will fill history books but we already know part of it. 

Because the Russians believed that Kyiv would fall in a matter of days, they literally did not bring enough food or fuel for their armored columns. On the other side, the Ukrainians had been trained for years by the California National Guard and other U.S. units. When the invasion happened, the U.S., Britain and other countries flooded Ukraine with light-weight, shoulder-fired anti-tank missiles.

Scott Pelley:How much difference have American arms made in this war?

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, translation: They're helping. Frankly speaking, I would have wanted more. I don't know if I have the right to say that. But the fact that the United States has helped a lot is true.

Zelenskyy's man in charge of arming Ukraine is chief of staff Andriy Yermak. When we met, he'd just finished a two-hour call with U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley. Yermak asked for heavier weapons – faster – first there was artillery.

Andriy Yermak: The second, we need the tanks. We need the military jets. And we need everything which give to us opportunity to closed our sky. 

Scott Pelley: When you ask the Biden administration for artillery, tanks, jet airplanes, the administration says what?

Andriy Yermak: We had very deep and very detailed conversation. This is American president who has done for Ukraine more than all other president. But then you have the war and we have openly said we need more. It's not enough. We need it as soon as possible. If we receive this support in time, we will win.

A White House official tells us Yermak got a "yes" to his requests. But filling orders takes time. The Ukrainians need Russian-made weapons that they already know how to use. The U.S. is cajoling allies to ship their Russian gear now on the promise that the U.S. will replace it later. America has thrown in nearly $2 billion in military aid. From the Ukrainian point of view, of course, nothing is fast enough. Russian bombardment is escalating in the East and South. Cities are being shelled to ruin, including Mariupol, with 450,000 residents.

Scott Pelley: What are you expecting now in the East and in the South?

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, translation: We think this will be a new wave of this war. We don't know how much [Russian weaponry] there will be. But we understand that there will be many times more than there is now. [All] depends on [how fast] we will be helped by the United States. To be honest, whether we will be able to [survive] depends on this. I have 100% confidence in our people and in our armed forces. But unfortunately, I don't have the confidence that we will be receiving everything we need.

Scott Pelley: And so what are you asking of President Biden? 

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, translation: To tell you the truth. Long ago, I asked President Biden for very specific items. He has the list. President Biden can enter history as the person who stood shoulder to shoulder with the Ukrainian people who won and chose the right to have their own country. [This] also depends on him.

Scott Pelley: You are frustrated with President Biden? 

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, translation: No. I'm not disappointed. I don't know how another president in his place would help us, I don't know. It's difficult. We have a good relationship. I think so at least. Ukraine depends on the support of the United States. And I, as the leader of a country at war, I can only be grateful.

As for the other president at war, we asked Zelenskyy if he would meet, now, face to face with Vladimir Putin. He told us it was worth the chance. They wouldn't resolve everything, Zelenskyy said, but they might stop the killing. 

Scott Pelley: Are you willing to give up any part of Ukraine for peace?

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, translation: Overall we are not ready to give away our country. I think we have already given up a lot of [lives]. So, we need to stand firm for as long as we can. But this is life. Different things happen.

Scott Pelley: It's negotiable?

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, translation: Well, this issue would definitely be raised in the course of negotiations. We understand the Russian side. We understand one of their provisions that is always talked about is to recognize Crimea as Russian territory. I will definitely not recognize that. [And] they would really like to take the southern parts of our country. I clearly understand that questions like this will be raised [in negotiations] – if there ever are any. But we were not ready to give up our territory from the beginning. Had we been willing to give up our territory, there would have been no war. 

Scott Pelley: Mr. President, in almost every speech to your country you say that Ukraine is going to win. What does winning look like to you?

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, translation: Victory. First of all, our people would definitely feel victory. They will come back. The return of [refugees] is blood for the body of Ukraine. Without them there is nothing. The bombardments would end. We would recover our territory. There would be no Russian soldiers in our country. Yes, I understand they will not withdraw from Crimea, and we'll be arguing and negotiating for one territory or another in the south of our country, the Donbas. I know exactly what [has to] happen, after which we can say, 'this is victory.' But, if [you don't mind], I'm not going to talk about it just yet. 

Scott Pelley: Mr. President, we wish you all the luck in the world.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in English: I need half of it. I think even half will be enough.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy has borrowed more luck than anyone expected. With the reprieve of Kyiv, Ukraine has turned mere admiration into credibility. Its people are suffering grievous loss every hour, but they have proven – there was a moment in Kyiv – when they silenced the guns of Russia. 

Produced by Maria Gavrilovic. Associate producer, Alex Ortiz. Broadcast associate, Michelle Karim. Edited by April Wilson and Sean Kelly. 

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.