By one account, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said something convincing when he met with leaders of Congress on Thursday.
Before the meeting, Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy brushed off a question about committing for more funding for Ukraine's defense against Russia.
"Is Zelenskyy elected to Congress? Is he our president?" McCarthy asked. "I have questions for him. Where's the accountability on the money we've already spent?"
After the meeting, McCarthy said Zelenskyy answered his questions and had "made some changes" regarding concerns about corruption.
It's hard to say whether the Ukrainian president really changed McCarthy's mind, or if the whole episode was part of McCarthy's effort to win over recalcitrant Republican lawmakers. Some of McCarthy's caucus seems even more reluctant to fund Ukraine than they are to fund the operations of the U.S. government.
Zelenskyy spent part of this week's visit to the U.S. trying to assure continued backing from Washington. He knows he has President Biden's support — with the two leaders meeting at the White House. And he knows Ukraine enjoys broad bipartisan backing in Congress.
But a faction of right-wing lawmakers has been demanding an end to American funding. That faction has folded criticism of Ukraine into its various demands over the federal budget, which may cause a partial federal government shutdown after September 30.
Zelenskyy spoke to Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep in New York on Wednesday shortly before he joined a special meeting of the United Nations Security Council.
In the sit-down interview, Zelenskyy insisted he is doing all he can to answer legitimate concerns about his administration's conduct of the war. Days before traveling to the U.S., he removed the defense minister and numerous other senior leaders amid concerns about corruption.
The timing may not have been entirely coincidental.
"We have to be very strict and very fast because we might lose the trust and the support of our partners," he told NPR. Apparently, he discussed the move with Speaker McCarthy, who emerged from their meeting and praised it.
In the Morning Edition interview, Zelenskyy insisted the scandal within the ministry — inflating the price of eggs bought for the troops — had nothing to do with U.S. aid.
"We have zero tolerance for corruption," he said, with him promising to be transparent on the inevitable occasions when it is found.
Other problems will need careful tending as the war goes on. While Ukraine is positioned as the front line of democracy, Ukrainians have lived under martial law since early 2022. The response to Russia's invasion has included limits on large gatherings, restrictions on media and a delay in this fall's parliamentary elections.
In the interview, Zelenskyy did not commit to holding a presidential election in 2024, as peacetime law would require. He said he would be happy to hold a vote, but only after the many problems of balloting in a war zone were resolved.
He insisted that Ukraine remains a "free country" that shares basic democratic values with the United States. "And that's why we are fighting against Russia," he said.
Zelenskyy also faces periodic suggestions that he eventually will have to negotiate with Russia, but has insisted on a complete Russian withdrawal before discussing anything. He said it was impossible to trust the word of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
"How many times would you need to make the same mistake, really? I believe that with this leader... we can't achieve anything," Zelenskyy said.
Several of the questions in the NPR interview came from Ukrainians, and had been solicited by an NPR team in Kyiv. Inskeep told Zelenksyy of a soldier in uniform, who was married just this week. The young couple said they worried about the future, but were in love, said they would "overcome everything" and they wanted to start a family. Zelenskyy was visibly moved.
What could Zelenskyy promise them about the future?
"I'm not sure they need promises," Zelenskyy replied, saying they had spoken "such strong words." Such people showed why "we will win," he added. "What can I say? I will be with them."
The radio version of this story was produced by Lisa Weiner and edited by Ally Schweitzer. Anton Loboda was the Ukrainian interpreter. The digital version was edited by Treye Green.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy this week. He was in New York City for the meeting of the United Nations, and he took some time to talk to a team from NPR. Zelenskyy was surrounded by people in suits, although he wore his trademark military clothes, olive green pants and a dark sweatshirt. He settled into his chair and he wondered how his mixture of English and Ukrainian would come across on the radio.
PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: Can I ask you a question?
INSKEEP: Yes, of course.
ZELENSKYY: Yes. We will speak, and I will answer Ukrainian and sometimes English.
ZELENSKYY: But in radio, they will not hear my natural voice if I will speak Ukrainian, they will hear a translation?
Zelenskyy observed that people can't see the emotions on his face and might not even hear much of his voice. He wanted to reach Americans who have supported Ukraine's defense against Russia's invasion. So whenever possible, he spoke in English about shared values.
ZELENSKYY: Yes, of course, we have the same values, freedom and democracy. And that's why we are fighting against Russia.
INSKEEP: He says Russia shows its values by the way it fights, targeting the power grid or deporting children.
ZELENSKYY: They kill our people, women, man, you saw it. They deported children. They are bombing civilians. It's not about only front line. It's not simple war. By the way, war couldn't be simple, but it's not just a war on the front line, no. Energy system. Nuclear plant. What is it? What will be next?
INSKEEP: This is the message Zelenskyy went on to deliver Thursday in Washington. His country has enjoyed bipartisan support, though a right-wing faction is pushing right now to cut off U.S. funding. Early this week, Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy seemed to reflect those right-wing views.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
KEVIN MCCARTHY: Is Zelenskyy elected to Congress? Is he our president? I don't think I have to commit anything. I have questions for him. Where's the accountability on the money we already spent? What is the plan for victory?
INSKEEP: After those remarks, McCarthy met Zelenskyy and said Zelenskyy answered his questions. Ukraine's leader still faces doubts about how the war would end. Some foreign policy specialists say only diplomacy can do that.
There are Americans who have urged some kind of negotiation. One of them is Richard Haass, a veteran U.S. diplomat, one of a group of U.S. diplomats who met with Russian officials. I spoke with Richard Haass. And he wanted to know, are you willing to negotiate, not over territory - you want all your territory back - but over the timing and the means by which that would happen?
ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) Look, we have prepared, I guess, the very correct diplomatic way.
INSKEEP: He said Ukraine did welcome talks with Russia, like the deal that allowed Ukrainians to load grain onto ships to feed much of the world. He says Russia suspended that agreement when it saw an opportunity, in Zelenskyy's words, for blackmail.
ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) How many times would you need to make the same mistake, really? I believe that with this leader, this is something that is impossible to do. We can't achieve anything.
INSKEEP: In one of your speeches here in New York, you said Russia cannot be trusted, ask Prigozhin.
ZELENSKYY: I think, yes.
INSKEEP: Yes. Is that your answer to any call for negotiations?
ZELENSKYY: I think, yes. We heard a lot from intelligence and from different people, from different leaders, what negotiations Prigozhin had.
INSKEEP: Yevgeny Prigozhin was the mercenary leader who mutinied against Russian President Putin. He later walked free under an arrangement that seemed to mean that he would not be harmed, and then died in a mysterious plane crash.
ZELENSKYY: And it's not the first negotiations with Putin with somebody, and after that, he forgot it or killed people or forgot he had negotiated.
INSKEEP: He mentioned Putin's conversations with European leaders just before the war.
ZELENSKYY: They spoke with Putin directly, and he said, no. No full-scale invasion, full-scale war. No, I never will go where we are now. Honestly, yes, it's true - you can't negotiate with a person who really doesn't want.
INSKEEP: Does Russia have to be permanently disempowered in some way?
ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) I believe the fact that they won't be coming to this on their own, that they would need to have some sort of, like, changes, transformation, a new face for their country.
INSKEEP: Zelenskyy pondered whether the real problem is Russia or just Putin. He concluded that it shows a problem with Russians that they have allowed Putin to stay in power so long. With Ukraine heading into another winter of war, a team from NPR's Kyiv bureau went out into the streets this week. They asked Ukrainians what questions they would put to their president. Some said they support him and have no questions at all. But a woman named Lyudmila (ph), who is 73, said she spoke for many.
LYUDMILA: (Through interpreter) I think we all have one desire, to know when the war is over.
INSKEEP: What can you tell her?
ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) Well, thank you for the question. I think the question addressed by Lyudmila, who is 73 year old - I wish her many years. And I think this question is something that many Ukrainians would like to ask no matter the age. It's easier to say when we will have a victory.
INSKEEP: Zelenskyy has set a goal of recovering all Ukrainian territory that Russia seized. Ukraine's late summer offensive has made limited gains but has moved slowly. The lengthening duration of the war complicates every problem in a democratic country. And as we reached out to Ukrainians, one asked about martial law. Ukrainians have lived under it since the invasion started, and our correspondent Joanna Kakissis knows what it's like in Kyiv.
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: There are military checkpoints in and out of the city. You got to stop, get checked by guys with guns who look at your IDs to make sure you're in the country legally, that you're not a saboteur. Martial law also means curfews. You got to be home by midnight or you could be detained by police. Shopping malls, cafes, bars, those all closed by 10 p.m. And big gatherings like protests, music festivals, holiday celebrations, they are largely prohibited.
INSKEEP: Martial law has even delayed parliamentary elections. And the president told us there are many obstacles to next year's scheduled presidential election. A Ukrainian economist said he would like to know if Zelenskyy would lift some of the martial law rules, especially one that combines the operations of TV channels. Zelenskyy said the questioner should think about the value of unified information in what is a propaganda war, as well as a shooting one.
ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) And we're all kind of reinforced. And those steps that were made in order to have a unit inside the country and not to allow Russia to kind of absorb us, I believe that those steps that were made, they were right.
INSKEEP: I want to conclude by telling you a few more things that we heard from Ukrainians.
ZELENSKYY: Yeah, please.
INSKEEP: A number of Ukrainians raised concerns about corruption and hoped that you would clean it up. I know that in recent days, you have replaced the leadership of the defense ministry. And there were some concerns about corruption there. In your view, how widespread is corruption in the government today?
ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) Well, first, I want to say that we have zero tolerance to corruption. And this is why - and everyone knows about this. So whenever we find any detail of corruption or corrupt practices, then everything is discussed openly and the people are kind of dismissed. And let us be frank, there are kind of weak people and strong people everywhere in the world.
INSKEEP: I think you're saying there will always be some corruption, and you will attack it where you find it. Is that what you're...
ZELENSKYY: Always. (Through interpreter) Yes, I think this is the only way how you can, well, defeat the corruption. You can take steps. You can dismiss people. You can run investigations, and people will have to go to prison for corruption. But we have to kind of be very strict and very fast because we might lose the trust and the support of our partners. But once again, I would like to say that the way we're doing that, the way we are kind of showing and disclosing all of this corruption, it's not to - well, for someone to say that we are corrupt country, no, that's a different thing.
INSKEEP: Our correspondent in Kyiv was speaking with Ukrainians this week and came across a couple who had just been married. They were just leaving the church. She was in a dress. He was in his army uniform. He was briefly on leave, and they took the opportunity to marry. And they said of the future, everything's going to drag on in the war.
UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: (Non-English language spoken).
ANASTASIA ZHULINSKA: Yes, about our family, of course, like, we concerned. But we believe it best because, like, we love each other. We will handle everything. We will overcome everything. And, like, we fight for our family.
INSKEEP: They want to start a family. What promise can you make to them about their future and the future of their country?
ZELENSKYY: Promises - I'm not sure that they need promises. I think they're people who said such strong words, and I know it's not about hoping. I know that mostly, our people such people, that's why we will win. But we have to stay strong. What I can say? I will be with them, and my family will be with them. And it's great that they will have children, they want to have it. And that's so great because what we do, we do everything for the future of children and that's it. So what can I? I can promise them that I will be with them - not at home.
ZELENSKYY: Don't be afraid, not at home. No, no, no, but yeah.
INSKEEP: I'll tell them you're coming to visit.
ZELENSKYY: Great. Great. But anyways, I'm happy, especially, you know, the war divided people - somebody from Ukraine, somebody abroad. But for those people who are in Ukraine, all my thanks. I think you saved it. You did it.
INSKEEP: Mr. President, thanks for your time.
ZELENSKYY: Yeah, thank you so much.
INSKEEP: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke with us in New York City. The interview is on video as well as audio. And you can see it at npr.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHILIP GLASS AND PAUL LEONARD-MORGAN'S "TALES FROM THE LOOP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.