Ex-Zelensky aide to ToI: Putin wants to own Ukraine; world must do more to deter him

Iuliia Mendel, the president’s former press secretary, says Ukraine having ‘some successes’ in defending itself, urges no-fly zone, laments sanctions to date are inadequate

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Iuliia Mendel, then press secretary to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, in 2019 (via Facebook)
Iuliia Mendel, then press secretary to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, in 2019 (via Facebook)

For two years until last July, Iuliia Mendel was the press secretary to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. Now a journalist and consultant, she spoke to The Times of Israel by phone as she was driving in the Lviv area on Saturday evening.

She reported long lines at those gas stations still open in the area, while many are closed as fuel runs low. She also said electronic payment processing had broken down and that people buying whatever food was available had to pay in cash.

With Russia having massed forces to the east, south and north, Lviv and western Ukraine in general are the calmest part of the country, she said, though they sustained heavy shelling on the first day of the Russian attack.

On Friday, she said, a traffic jam nearly 120 kilometers (75 miles) long built up on the main highway between Kyiv and Lviv, with Ukrainians fleeing west from the capital to escape Russian bombardment at the same time as the Ukrainian military was moving equipment to the capital to defend it.

Mendel, whom this writer met when I interviewed Zelensky in Kyiv in January 2020, made no grandiose pronouncements about how the war would proceed and end, saying, “I want to pray and hope for the best.” She said Ukrainians are as united as they have ever been, while Russia is bent on “owning” Ukraine “one way or another.”

International support is vital and appreciated, she said, but the sanctions imposed to date are woefully inadequate. She said it will be a victory for Ukraine if Russia is banned from the SWIFT financial system; Russia’s central bank should be sanctioned (the US is reportedly weighing this); and crucially, a no-fly zone should be introduced to deny Russia its full air supremacy over Ukraine (a move that is deemed unlikely given its potential to escalate and widen the war).

As for her former boss Zelensky, she said his pledge to stay to the very end is not bravado: “That’s not for the cameras. He means what he says.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arrive for a working session at the Elysee Palace, on December 9, 2019, in Paris. (Ian Langsdon/Pool via AP)

The following is an edited transcript of our conversation, which ended as Mendel approached one of the innumerable checkpoints set up all over Ukraine — some of them official military positions, and others impromptu affairs, established after Zelensky encouraged Ukrainians to take up arms to defend the country, manned by locals with rifles.

The Times of Israel: Do you feel the impact of the war where you are right now, near Lviv?

Iuliia Mendel: You can’t not feel it, but the west is the calmest part of the country. On the first day [in this area], there was shelling of military units, airports and a TV station.

A huge problem is the lack of fuel. There are long lines at open gas stations; many are closed. Electronic payments are not working, so you have to use cash.

There are checkpoints in this area and all over Ukraine — formal and ad hoc, self-organized by people with rifles from towns and villages who were encouraged to take up arms to defend the country. In some areas, they are digging trenches around cities to enable their defense.

There was a 117-kilometer traffic jam yesterday between Lviv and Kyiv, as military equipment, including anti-aircraft defenses, moved to the capital. People were heading in the opposite direction, to the west, and they started driving on both sides of the major highway, and had to be turned back so that the military vehicles could get through.

Tens of thousands are fleeing the country [an estimated 100,000 as of Saturday], but many more are driving west to escape the bombardments, taking parents and families to perceived safer areas.

How is Zelensky handling the war?

I know him very well, and when he says he’ll stay to the very end, that’s not bravado. That’s not for the cameras. He means what he says.

There was disbelief that Russia would start a large-scale war. I don’t know what information he had [ahead of the attack], but he certainly wanted to keep the people calm.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, interviewed by The Times of Israel in his office in Kyiv, on January 18, 2020. Iuliia Mandel is second from right. (Press service of the Office of the President of Ukraine)

Now he’s doing two things: He’s coordinating the military defense of the country, taking the major decisions, so that the people recognize that the state is with them and doing everything to protect them. And he’s pursuing diplomacy, speaking with world leaders — Biden, Macron, Scholz, Erdogan… Poland’s President Duda is extremely helpful… Baltic leaders… There’s support around the world.

But the sanctions to date are not effective. The Russian economy is growing. Banning Russia from SWIFT would be a victory. Sanctioning the central bank of Russia. I hope this would hurt the Russian economy and make Putin think. There are protests within Russia; he’s illogical but he needs to think about the economy.

Airpower is crucial to Russia, also for moving in its troops, so a no-fly zone [is needed].

Ukraine’s entry to the European Union should be fast-tracked.

But right now, the most important thing is to stop the bombardments, the shelling.

I’m from the Crimea border region. My mother is a pediatrician there. She has been in the bomb shelter for the past 3 days, together with 30 newborns.

How do you think this will end?

There are many scenarios. I want to hope and pray for the best — as short as possible, as light as possible — and that we’ll be able to defend the country.

We have had our successes. We are as united as we have ever been. But they are unstoppable — because they don’t care about deaths on either side.

They can grab parts of the country.

They are trying to get to the president’s offices, to the president himself.

It’s blackmail — to prevent Ukraine from entering NATO. They want to own Ukraine one way or another.

That’s the worst-case scenario. Right now we need to stop the bombardments.

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