The first hint that my audience with Volodymyr Zelensky might not be what I’d hoped for came with the emailed invite. A few days before I’d been told I’d made the shortlist for a select presidential news conference marking the anniversary of the war. Not quite an exclusive interview, granted, but given current Zelenskymania, a decent second best. Images of a cozy roundtable in the secret presidential bunker beckoned.
Alas, when the email from his office finally arrived, it was notably bereft of the cloak and dagger one might expect. No orders to leave my phone at home. No secret rendezvous with a blacked-out van. Just an order to report at 3:30 p.m. to 2A Velyka Zhytomyrska Street – which turned out not to be some anonymous bunker, but Kyiv’s best-known hotel, the Intercontinental. Where myself and roughly 500 other star-struck hacks — who’d all likewise got excited at the prospect of a tête-à-tête — were then crammed into a conference suite.
Clearly, Zelensky no longer feels that Vladimir Putin’s cruise missiles are quite the threat they were. After all, this time last year he was addressing the world via thirty-second video selfies shot on street corners, scuttling off before Putin’s drones could track him This time, it was a three-hour news conference — the kind, indeed, that Putin likes giving.
In Zelensky’s case this was perhaps less about presidential vanity, and more about catering to the insatiable global demand for airtime with him. Rather than just a few questions from the usual big beasts from CNN and the BBC, for example, he made time for reporters from Mexico and Azerbaijan, South Korea and Brazil. This, presumably, is a strategy to garner as much international support for Ukraine’s cause as possible. But it comes with hidden perils.
Firstly, most western journalists aren’t used to press conferences anything like this long. There’s a distant risk, as the cameras pan round the room, of being caught yawning or picking your nose in the great man’s presence. Secondly, it encourages reporters to ask questions tailored purely to get some of the Zelensky magic for their domestic audiences. Far from giving him a serious grilling, this gathering of august foreign correspondents came across more like a fan club.
Take the man from Australian TV, for example, who asked if it was time for Australia to reopen its embassy in Kyiv. On a day marking the anniversary of Europe’s gravest conflict since World War Two, the question of whether Canberra’s functionaries have filled in their risk assessments correctly might seem a little parochial. Similarly, Brazilian telly asked what Mr. Zelensky thought about a proposed peace plan by, yes, President Lula of Brazil. Given that lefty Lula got ticked off by Kyiv last year for saying that Zelensky and his western backers shared blame for the invasion — and given that it’s one of about a dozen peace plans — this again didn’t really seem like the bigger picture.
Yet I could see the Brazilian and Aussie TV crew’s logic. Whatever Zelensky’s answer was it would generate an easy headline back home. If I’d been picked to ask a question — which I wasn’t, despite waving my hand in the air like a schoolboy desperate to get Sir’s attention — I’d have probably done the same.
At least these questions were straightforward. Also at the press conference was Sir Geoffrey Nice KC, the former lead prosecutor of Slobodan Milošević at the Hague. These kind of events attract the global great and good like him. The rule being that the bigger the occasion, the more flaccid their questions.
“Mr. President, those fighting for your country, led by you — and you — have put you on moral peaks, not just high ground, from which you can make requests or demands of the western world, whose methods of accountability for war crimes are unsatisfactory, incomplete and very, very slow,” he began.
My shorthand couldn’t keep up after that. But Nice’s question carried on for quite a while, talking — I think — about reform of the Hague, and also slipping in a “supplementary” question. He made Jim Naughtie, the former BBC Today presenter notorious for long-windedness, sound curt. Afterwards, there was a long sigh on the simultaneous translation headphones — which may have been Zelensky, or may have just been his exhausted interpreter. It wasn’t a question, more a legal opening argument. Either way, the president managed to parry it a bit. “It is a quite complicated question, but it actually had all the answers in it,” he said. “It is very profound.”
The flattery went on. Yes, Zelensky was grateful to Sweden for their tanks and “amazing relations.” Yes, he’d like it if Spain helped Latin America do more to back Kyiv’s cause. A few proper questions did come. A man from the BBC asked Zelensky how he’d feel if the fighting was still at the same tempo this time next year. Zelensky warned that morale would start to sap: “That’s a drama that I don’t even want to think about.”
Overall, for what was probably one of the most eagerly awaited press conferences of modern times, it wasn’t that enlightening. Few Ukrainians, I suspect, would have come away feeling much more informed. Indeed, the only person who had a really good day was a man from Azerbaijani TV — who, in a fine display of journalistic chutzpah — got up on the podium and asked for a selfie with the president. He claimed it was for his young son. Yeah, right…
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.