It was a remarkable moment in the war in Europe: President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine gave a 90-minute-long Zoom interview on Sunday to four prominent journalists from Russia, the country invading his.
Hours later, the Kremlin responded. A government statement notified the Russian news media “of the necessity to refrain from publishing this interview.”
Journalists based outside Russia published it anyway. Those still inside Russia did not. The episode laid bare the extraordinary, and partly successful, efforts at censorship being undertaken in Russia by President Vladimir V. Putin’s government as his bloody invasion of Ukraine enters its second month, along with Mr. Zelensky’s attempts to circumvent that censorship and reach the public directly.
In the interview, Mr. Zelensky offered a graphic description of what he claimed was the Kremlin’s disregard for both Ukrainian and Russian lives, to the point, he said, that the Russian army was slow to pick up the bodies of its fallen soldiers.
“First they refused, then something else, then they proposed some sorts of bags to us,” Mr. Zelensky said, describing Ukraine’s efforts to hand over the bodies of Russian soldiers. “Listen, even when a dog or a cat dies, people don’t do this.”
Mr. Zelensky generally speaks Ukrainian in public — his country’s official language — but he is a native Russian speaker, and he has repeatedly switched into Russian in the video addresses that he posts to social media, seeking to encourage Mr. Putin’s critics inside Russia. But Sunday’s interview marked the first time since the war began that Mr. Zelensky had spoken at length with Russian journalists, in their language.
The journalists were Ivan Kolpakov, the editor of Meduza, a Russian-language news website based in Latvia; Vladimir Solovyov, a reporter for Kommersant, a Moscow-based daily newspaper; Mikhail Zygar, an independent Russian journalist who fled to Berlin after the war began; and Tikhon Dzyadko, the editor of the temporarily shuttered, independent television channel TV Rain, who had left Moscow for Tbilisi, Georgia.
After they finished the interview, the journalists posted about it on social media, promising that they would soon publish it. Several hours after that, the Russian telecommunications regulator, Roskomnadzor, released a statement directing Russian news outlets not to publish the interview, and warning that an inquiry had been launched against the reporters involved to “determine their responsibility.”
Even by the standards of contemporary Russia’s arbitrary law enforcement, the statement was remarkable, offering no legal pretext to justify the order not to publish the interview. But in the wake of the law signed by Mr. Putin early this month — potentially punishing news reporting on the Ukraine invasion that deviates from the Kremlin narrative with as much as 15 years in prison — the government directive had an impact.
Novaya Gazeta, the independent newspaper whose editor, Dmitri A. Muratov, shared the Nobel Peace Prize last year, decided not to publish the interview, even though Mr. Zygar asked a question on Mr. Muratov’s behalf. Unlike many other Russian journalists, Mr. Muratov has stayed in Russia and kept his newspaper operating despite the new law, even though that has meant using the Kremlin’s terminology of calling the war a “special military operation” and not an invasion.
“We have been forced not to publish this interview,” Mr. Muratov said in a phone interview, noting that his newspaper was based in Russia and was under the jurisdiction of Russian law. “This is simply censorship in the time of the ‘special operation.’”
Kommersant, as of early Monday in Moscow, also had not published the interview on its website; Mr. Solovyov did not respond to a request for comment. It was unclear whether he or his newspaper would face legal consequences for conducting the interview.
But Mr. Kolpakov’s publication, Meduza, as well as Mr. Dzyadko and Mr. Zygar, all now based outside Russia, did publish it, both in text form and on YouTube. While the Meduza website is blocked in Russia, YouTube remains accessible. (Probably not for long, many analysts believe, with Facebook and Instagram having been blocked earlier this month.)
Videos of the interview had been viewed more than a million times within a few hours of being published, offering a very different picture of the war to Russians than what they see daily on their televisions screens. Most independent news organizations have either been banned or forced into exile, while polls show that most Russians rely on state television for their news — in which the war in Ukraine is cast as a righteous crusade against extreme nationalism and necessary to pre-empt a threat emanating from an expanding NATO.
“It was very important for us to speak, for him to be able to address the Russian audience,” Mr. Zygar said of Mr. Zelensky in a telephone interview from Berlin, citing the Kremlin propaganda tropes of Ukraine as overrun by Russia-hating Nazis. “For him, it appears, this also was important.”
Even as the fighting continued, Ukraine and Russia on Sunday agreed to conduct a new round of negotiations this coming week in Istanbul. It will be the first time that senior officials from both countries meet in person in more than two weeks, after a series of long sessions conducted by video link in the interim.
With Russian troops having failed to achieve a swift victory and seemingly bogged down, Mr. Zelensky is seeking a negotiated end to the war, without ceding Ukrainian sovereignty. But the two sides still appear to be far apart. He said in Sunday’s interview that Ukraine was not discussing two of Mr. Putin’s main, vaguely defined demands — the demilitarization and “de-Nazification” of Ukraine.
He said that Ukraine would, however, be willing to discuss lifting restrictions on the Russian language and adopting a neutral geopolitical status. Any deal, he said, would need to be validated by a referendum to be held after Russian troops withdraw.
He described a potential deal as including “security guarantees and neutrality, the non-nuclear status of our state.”
“We are ready to go for this,” he said.
In the interview, Mr. Zelensky blamed Mr. Putin for manufacturing the enmity between Russia and Ukraine. He said the war would have the opposite effect of what Mr. Putin apparently planned — marking a definite split between the Russian and Ukrainian people, rather than somehow reuniting them.
“This is not simply a war, this is much worse,” Mr. Zelensky said. “A global, historical, cultural split has happened over this month.”
Mr. Zelensky’s descriptions of the violence of Russia’s invasion ran directly counter to the Kremlin narrative, which accuses Ukrainians of firing on their own cities and blames them for any civilian casualties and urban destruction. He said that the port city of Mariupol was “littered with corpses — no one is removing them — Russian soldiers and Ukrainian citizens.”
He also accused the Russian government of forcibly taking more than 2,000 children from Mariupol, saying that “their location is unknown.” He said that he had told his officials that Ukraine would halt all negotiations with Russia “if they will steal our children.”
Mr. Putin has received grossly exaggerated reports about the attitude of the Ukrainian people toward Russia and its government, Mr. Zelensky said.
“They probably said that we are waiting for you here, smiling and with flowers,” he said, adding that the Russian government “does not see Ukraine as an independent state, but some kind of a product, a part of a bigger organism that the current Russian president sees himself as the head of.”
After Meduza, Mr. Dzyadko and Mr. Zygar published the interview, the Russian prosecutor general’s office released its own threat. It said it would conduct a “legal assessment” of Mr. Zelensky’s statements and their publication, given “the context of mass anti-Russian propaganda and the regular placement of false information about the actions of the Russian Federation” in Ukraine.
“It would be funny if it wasn’t tragic,” Mr. Zelensky said in a video posted to his account on Telegram, commenting on the Kremlin’s frantic censorship efforts. “This means that they are nervous. Perhaps they saw that their citizens are beginning to question the situation in their own country.”