Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke virtually to an in-person audience at the University of Toronto Wednesday, explaining Ukraine’s need for financial support, humanitarian aid and sanctions on Russia, with students from numerous Canadian universities in attendance virtually.
Questions from Canadian students covered topics as wide-ranged as Zelenskyy’s cultural role models, how the internet shapes public perception of war, and what he believes the future holds for Ukraine.
Nearly four months after Russia’s invasion of his country began, Zelenskyy’s talk, hosted by University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, offered his perspective on democratic freedoms, security of citizens during warfare, and if NATO could be reformed to prevent future international crises.
Here are some highlights of the Zelenskyy’s Q&A, with questions coming from students enrolled at University of Saskatchewan, University of Calgary and University of Toronto:
Quotes have been fixed for grammar and formatting
Over the past four months you have been compared to so many cultural icons, ranging from Winston Churchill to Harry Potter. Who are your historical or literary role models that you look up to for strength and inspiration?
Zelenskyy: First of all, thank you for these kind of comparisons. Harry Potter is better than Voldemort. We know who Voldemort is in this war, and we know who Harry Potter is, so we know how the war will end.
To be honest, I will be very trivial in my response… I think that such role models are the people of Ukraine, and there are very many of them… An ordinary Ukrainian farmer who will take his tractor and close off the road to Russian tanks during invasion. An ordinary woman in our village who went out and stopped the armoured vehicles with her hands. Our beautiful children who sat in their apartments when the enemy missiles hit their house, and unfortunately they rest in peace.
These are Ukrainian people who have stayed in Ukraine and who have not given away our freedom.
Right now many Ukrainian students have left the country to study at foreign universities. How can the Ukrainian government ensure that the smartest of this generation can come back to Ukraine and have a bright future?
Zelenskyy: There are several stages that we need to pass with the government and the people. We need to make sure our security aspects are protected. We have to stand strong for our land, for our universities and cities, and use the capacity of our country.
By standing up for our country, ensuring our strong security aspects, we lay the foundation for the country that will become different out of full-fledged aggression. The security situation must become the best in the world. This is a task for the government, for the law enforcement, for the army. And this is what will happen… We don’t have time for bureaucratic hurdles because we are a country in war.
With the availability of social media, much of the war has been publically accessible, unlike wars before. How do you believe the internet has shaped the way the world perceives the war in Ukraine?
Zelenskyy: Social media is a space that means opportunities. We can cut distances between our country and other countries. Between the government and society. It gives an opportunity, by using this instrument, to share the truth.
In our case, it’s almost like a weapon, showing the world what’s going on in Ukraine. It means freedom. It means freedom of press, freedom of speech, freedom of thought. Some think that in Russia and other countries where internet resources are blocked, where there is no opportunity to talk freely, this is the challenge of the dictatorship. Because people don’t have the ability to analyze and decide what is the truth and the lie and don’t have the means to compare the facts and the arguments.
For us, the internet is a kind of weapon. By means of it, we can show what’s going on in Ukraine.
As a young person, I’m greatly concerned by self-centred nationalism and the failing commitment to promote democracy around the world that I’m seeing here in North America. How do we convince others that the ideal democracy is worth fighting and sacrificing for?
When we say we are fighting for common values, this is absolutely true. The war has no distance. We are fighting for the same values that any country would want to live with… This is about the right of choice… We are protecting this.
As I said, in the contemporary world, the war has no distance. If we allow it to happen here, it could happen anywhere… All countries should respond to the aggressor as if this war was waged within your own country.
Since the war began in February, martial law has been instilled in Ukraine and we’re curious how you and the government have managed to balance democratic freedoms with and the safety of Ukrainians and the security of the nation, and how the application for EU membership has affected the government’s decision in these actions?
Unfortunately, I have to acknowledge that we have not had a martial law before this. Never. Therefore, we had to respond very quickly. Sometimes very rigidly. Because when you are protecting democracy, there may not be questions in having only democratic means to doing so.
Democracy allows the dialect of choice, but when the war is going on, there is no time for dialect. There is no time because you are not counting seconds or minutes, but human lives. The number that have survived and the number that are dead… I have to state that in order to protect democracy you need to move fast and non-democratic.
But when this ends, when the war ends, I think this will bear good fruit. In terms of fair entry into the European Union, and the candidate status for our country, I do believe that Ukraine will get the candidate status for the (EU). We have been moving towards this for many years. Some people on my team feel that this is going into the light from the darkness. I do believe that all 27 of the European countries will support our candidate status. In terms of our army and our society, this is a big motivator for the unity and for the victory of the Ukrainian people.