On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy virtually addressed an in-person audience at the University of Toronto, explaining Ukraine’s need for financial support, humanitarian aid and sanctions against Russia, in virtual presence of students from many Canadian universities.
Questions from Canadian students covered topics as varied as Zelenskyy’s cultural patterns, how the internet is shaping public perceptions of war, and what he thinks the future holds for Ukraine.
Nearly four months into Russia’s invasion of his country, Zelenskyy’s lecture, hosted by the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, offered his perspective on democratic freedoms, security of citizens during war and whether NATO could be reformed to prevent future international crises.
Here are some highlights from Zelenskyy’s Q&A, with questions from students enrolled at the University of Saskatchewan, University of Calgary and University of Toronto:
Quotes have been corrected for grammar and formatting
Over the past four months you have been compared to so many cultural icons, from Winston Churchill to Harry Potter. Who are your historical or literary role models that you admire 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 answer… I think these role models are the Ukrainians, and there are a lot of them… An ordinary Ukrainian farmer who will take his tractor and close the road to Russian tanks during the invasion. An ordinary woman from our village who came out and stopped the armored vehicles with her hands. Our beautiful children who were sitting in their apartments when the enemy missiles hit their house, and sadly they rest in peace.
These are Ukrainians who stayed in Ukraine and did not give up our freedom.
Currently, 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 steps we have to take with the government and the people. We need to ensure that our security aspects are protected. We must firmly defend our land, our universities and our cities, and use the capacity of our country.
By defending our country, by guaranteeing our strong security aspects, we are laying the foundation for a country that will become different from a full-fledged aggression. The security situation must become the best in the world. It is a task for the government, for the forces of order, for the army. And that’s what will happen… We don’t have time for bureaucratic hassles because we are a country at war.
With the availability of social media, much of the war was accessible to the public, unlike previous wars. How do you think the internet has shaped the way the world views the war in Ukraine?
Zelenskyy: Social media is a space that signifies opportunity. We can reduce the distances between our country and other countries. between government and society. This gives the opportunity, 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 the press, freedom of speech, freedom of thought. Some think that in Russia and other countries where Internet resources are blocked, where there is no possibility to speak freely, this is the challenge of dictatorship. Because people lack the ability to analyze and decide what is truth and lies and lack the means to compare facts and arguments.
For us, the Internet is a kind of weapon. Thanks to this, we can show what is happening in Ukraine.
As a young person, I am very concerned about the self-serving nationalism and failure of commitment to promoting democracy around the world that I see here in North America. How do you convince others that the ideal democracy is worth fighting and sacrificing?
When we say that we fight for common values, it is absolutely true. War has no distance. We fight for the same values that any country would want to live with… It’s about the right to choose… We protect that.
As I said, in the contemporary world, 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 were being fought in your own country.
Since the beginning of the war in February, martial law has been imposed in Ukraine and we are curious to know how you and the government have managed to balance the democratic freedoms and the security of Ukrainians and the security of the nation, and how the application for EU membership influenced the government’s decision in these actions?
Unfortunately, I have to admit that we didn’t have martial law before that. Never. So we had to react very quickly. Sometimes very rigidly. Because when you protect democracy, it may not be a question of having only democratic means to do so.
Democracy allows the dialect of choice, but when the war goes on, there is no time for dialect. There is no time because you are not counting seconds or minutes, but human lives. The number of survivors and the number of dead… I have to say that to protect democracy you have to act quickly and undemocratically.
But when it ends, when the war ends, I think it will bear good fruit. In terms of fair entry into the European Union and candidate status for our country, I think Ukraine will get candidate status for the (EU). We have been moving towards this for many years. Some people on my team feel like it’s going into the light of the dark. I believe that the 27 European countries will support our candidate status. In terms of our army and our society, this is a great motivating factor for unity and for the victory of the Ukrainian people.