Having wrested thousands of miles of territory back from Russia since late August, Ukrainian soldiers are trying to extend their counteroffensive and recapture more occupied land.
But they face the prospect of a Russian force that will soon be buttressed by tens of thousands of newly called-up Russian soldiers and a Kremlin intent on shifting the balance of power in the war.
Ukraine has been calling on the United States and other Western countries to send tanks, longer-range missiles and other critical weaponry in response to Moscow’s dramatic threats of escalation.
So far, the United States and Germany — the two countries on which Kyiv has focused its request for tanks — have not agreed to provide them
Zelensky’s comments Tuesday amounted to a warning for Western leaders not to delay and miss the chance to head off Russia’s escalation.
“The ability to prevent is a good feature in leadership,” Zelensky said. “You know about safety belts you have to use in a vehicle, just to avoid any dire consequences of an accident. We are not waiting for an accident to make sure we do need those safety belts, because we do trust in previous experience with previous accidents.”
Zelensky, who spoke from Kyiv, accused Russia of carrying out “nuclear blackmail” and said the world must guarantee that a nuclear strike does not happen, rather than waiting to respond to a cataclysmic attack.
“Prevention is the basis for lasting peace — a measure to cut short any aggression, a measure to save many more lives than by reacting to something that already happened, and it will ensure a lasting peace,” Zelensky said.
Zelensky underscored the importance of leadership if Ukraine is to have any chance of outmuscling Russia on the battlefield despite having a far smaller military.
“You can have a smaller army — because we are smaller than the Russian army — but your army has to be highly motivated,” Zelensky said. “You have to be followed by people who are able to watch your back, but your key weapon is people, and for people, the key armament is courage. They say courage loves leaders.”
The Ukrainian president obliquely compared Russian President Vladimir Putin to a killer who must be put behind bars.
“A killer is normally put behind bars in isolation after a court session,” Zelensky said. “It is not just about looking and finding punishment. It is also about preventing new killing from happening, which might happen if the killer remains at large.”
Zelensky said seizing the initiative, rather than responding in a reactive way, is critical to ensuring a Ukrainian victory. “The question is: When will it happen?” he said. “The answer is whenever we are able to act first.”
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.
The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.
Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.