Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said at an event on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum on Thursday that he is unsure if his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, is “alive” and does not know who within the Russian government he would have to speak to if he wanted to begin talks with Moscow.
The bizarre remark follows months of pressure on both sides of the Ukrainian war to come to the negotiating table, pressure largely ignored, and sometimes mocked, by both the Russian and Ukrainian governments. Zelensky and Putin last met in talks in 2019, which did nothing to resolve their ongoing conflict.
Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, “annexing” its Crimean peninsula. Putin’s government then proceeded to support a prolonged military engagement by rebel forces in the eastern Donbass region of Ukraine for years, finally announcing the “annexation” of that territory into Russia in September 2022.
Russia’s involvement in Ukraine became direct in February 2022, when Putin announced a “special operation” to oust Zelensky from power, calling him an illegitimate “Nazi” rumor. Russian claims that Zelensky – elected as the “pro-Russian” candidate in the 2019 presidential election – is not the rightful president of Ukraine because a popular uprising resulted in the resignation of then-President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, long before Zelensky started his political career.
The new phase of the war has raged for nearly a year. Zelensky has shown little interest in dialogue; the president outlawed negotiations with Putin in October, insisting Ukraine would only engage in talks with another Russian president.
Speaking at the annual Ukrainian Breakfast at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday, Zelensky suggested Putin is no longer in control of his country. Discussing the possibility of talks with Russia, Zelensky said, “I don’t quite understand whom to talk to and about what.”
“I’m not sure that the Russian president who sometimes appears against a green screen is actually the right one,” he continued.
“I do not fully understand whether he [Putin] is alive,” Zelensky said, according to a transcript published by the office of the president of Ukraine. “Is he the one who makes the decisions, or someone else, a certain group of people? I have no information.”
“I don’t quite understand how you can promise European leaders one thing and the next day start a full-scale invasion of another country. I don’t quite understand who we are dealing with,” he added.
Zelensky emphasized that Kyiv is not interested in “dialogue” or verbal support from other countries, but weapons and money.
“There can be no segmented assistance or selectivity in strengthening our army. We need all forces, because we are fighting against tyranny,” he told the audience via video link from the Ukrainian capital. “If you want to help, help. Without a dialogue. Just help.”
The Ukrainian Breakfast is an annual event hosted by Davos and organized by the Ukrainian Victor Pinchuk Foundation since at least 2007.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov replied to Zelensky’s comment by portraying it as wishful thinking.
“It is clear that Zelensky prefers that neither Russia nor Putin exist,” Peskov told reporters. “The sooner he realizes that Russia exists and will continue to exist, the better for Ukraine.”
Peskov did not directly answer whether Putin is alive or dead. Putin has been the subject of dubious health speculation for years but, at press time, continues to remain the president of Russia. No reliable reports out of Russia indicate that he is dead or close to death.
Zelensky’s insistence in “no dialogue” while suggesting that Putin has died appears to contradict prior statements in which he has blamed Putin single-handedly for the ongoing war. In an interview with American talk show host David Letterman in December, Zelensky suggested the war would immediately end if Putin died.
“Let’s just say that Putin got a really bad cold and died,” Letterman asked, “or accidentally fell out a window and died, would this [the invasion] continue?”
“No. There would be no war,” Zelensky responded. “There wouldn’t be. The authoritarian regime is dangerous as it poses great risks. Because you can’t allow just one person to have total control over everything. That’s why when such a person is gone, institutions come to a halt.”
“I think if he’s gone, it will be hard for them. They will have to deal with their internal policy rather than foreign issues,” Zelensky added at the time.
Zelensky has resisted calls for talks repeatedly in the past year on the grounds that Ukraine and Russia had engaged in years of negotiations before the escalation that began in February. Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly in September, Zelensky said the two countries had engaged in “88 rounds of talks” between March 2014 and February 2022. Zelensky has, however, urged other countries to pressure Russia into negotiations, ideally through economic sanctions and battlefield defeats.
Speaking at the U.N. climate summit COP27 last year, for example, Zelensky proclaimed, “Anyone who is serious about the climate agenda should also be serious about the need to immediately stop Russian aggression, restore our territorial integrity, and force Russia into genuine peace negotiations.” At the time, Zelensky insisted Ukraine had “repeatedly proposed” such negotiations but had “always received insane Russian responses.”