The presidential press office of Ukraine accused global media outlets of “nuclear hysteria” on Thursday for sharing remarks made by President Volodymyr Zelensky in which he asked the world for “preemptive strikes” on Russia to avoid nuclear war.
Zelensky made the remarks during a question and answer session with the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, on Thursday, asserting that NATO had a responsibility to “make it impossible for Russia to use nuclear weapons.”
“Preemptive strikes are needed so that they know what awaits them if they use nuclear weapons. Not the other way around, waiting for Russia’s nuclear strikes and then saying, ‘oh, you’ve done that, then get this,'” Zelensky said, according to the Interfax news agency.
The comments are consistent with how Zelensky has discussed conflict generally in the past. The Ukrainian president expressed outrage last year following the decision by leftist President Joe Biden to lift sanctions on the Nordstream 2 pipeline project, which would have greatly increased Russia’s ability to sell natural gas to Europe. Zelensky insisted that sanctions prior to an invasion, not after the damage is done, were necessary.
“Sanctions are considered to be a preventive tool because they can be applied and then lifted. If there is an invasion by Russia, do you introduce powerful sanctions after we might have already lost several territories?” Zelensky asked in an interview with the Washington Post in January. “Once you introduce sanctions, what will Russia do?”
Zelensky made similar remarks in June when asked about China’s repeated threats to invade the neighboring country of Taiwan.
“We must not leave them behind at the mercy of another country which is more powerful in financial terms, in territorial terms and in terms of equipment,” Zelensky said. “And therefore, if there is a way out diplomatically, we need to use the diplomatic way. But it must be a preemptive way, not the one that comes after the war has started.”
Zelensky’s “preemptive strikes” remarks on Thursday caused alarm worldwide in the greater context of growing panic over a potential nuclear war, fueled by individuals such as Biden, who warned of an impending “Armageddon” on Thursday. The Russian government, as the target of the remarks, was particularly appalled, referring to Zelensky as a “monster.”
“Everyone on the planet must realize that Zelensky, a puppet pumped with weapons, has turned into a monster whose hands could destroy the planet,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a social media post responding to the remarks.
The Ukrainian government has addressed the backlash by attempting to walk back Zelensky’s comments. The remarks do not appear in the official transcript of Zelensky’s comments to the Lowy Institute – only his prepared speech, not the question and answer responses, appear – and the president does not make similar calls to attack in that text. Zelensky instead focused on sanctions, condemning the administration of world powers in charge in 2014, when Russia first invaded Ukraine, for not punishing Moscow enough to prevent an escalation.
“In 2014, we did not see, for example, really tough sanctions against Russia. It was not punished for this crime. At that time, there was a very strong desire among many in the world to turn a blind eye to the annexation, to consider the war simply a ‘crisis’ and to continue relations with Russia,” Zelensky said, referring primarily to the foreign policy of then-American President Barack Obama, who greatly influenced the European non-response to the invasion of Crimea.
“But this always happens: when a criminal does not receive an adequate punishment for a crime he has committed, he perceives it as permission for further criminal acts. ‘They are weak,’ is how the aggressor reacts when he feels no response,” Zelensky’s remarks continued.
Zelensky also repeated the official Ukrainian government claim that damage to the Nordstream pipelines, which funnel natural gas from Russia to Europe, was Russian “sabotage” meant as an attack on European peace. The Nordstream pipelines in the Baltic Sea began leaking in late September; the countries through which the pipeline passes have claimed that such leaks would be impossible without sabotage but no investigation has identified a culprit at press time. Russia stands to lose millions in natural gas profits from being unable to use the pipeline.
“The recent sabotage with gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea was also very eloquent. These are actions that can destabilize life on the entire continent. This is a real energy weapon of mass destruction,” Zelensky said. “Absolutely every country in the world depends on underwater cables and pipelines, which can be destroyed by an aggressor in the same way as gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea.”
The presidential office focused on Zelensky’s call to sanctions. Ukrinform, the official state media agency, also omitted his “preemptive strike” comments.
Ukrinform reported on the comments in the context of Zelensky’s press secretary, Serhii Nykyforov, condemning international media for reporting them. Nykyforov alleged that media outlets around the world had published “incorrect” interpretations of his remarks, particularly those who suggested that Zelensky had called for a nuclear bombing of Russia.
“Colleagues, you have gone a little too far with your nuclear hysteria and now you hear nuclear strikes even where there are none,” Zelensky’s press secretary wrote on Facebook. “The president spoke about the period before February 24. At that time, it was necessary to apply preventive measures to prevent Russia from starting a war. Let me remind you that the only measures that were discussed at that time were preemptive sanctions.”
“Only the terrorist state Russia allows itself to blackmail the world with explosions at the ZNPP [Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant] and hint in every way at the use of nuclear weapons. You will never hear such calls from Ukraine,” Nykyforov wrote.
Ukraine is not known publicly to possess any nuclear weapons.
Russia escalated its eight-year-old invasion of Ukraine on February 24, announcing that it would recognize the territories of Ukraine’s Donbas region, Donetsk and Luhansk, as sovereign states. Russian leader Vladimir Putin “annexed” the regions, along with Ukraine’s Kherson and Zaporizhzhia territories, last week.
Contrary to Nykyforov, Zelensky was discussing how to prevent a nuclear escalation currently and did not make any indication that he was discussing the use of a “preemptive strike” in the past.
One of Zelensky’s top advisers, Mykhailo Podolyak, took a different approach, claiming that Zelensky was calling for countries to “outline” potential consequences preemptively rather than actually making “preemptive strikes.”
“Zelensky reminded the world of Russian nuclear blackmail and suggested it pre-emptively outline the consequences for Russia and intensify strikes against Russia – sanctions and armed aid,” Podolyak wrote on Twitter.
Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.