Russian forces reportedly came close to capturing Zelenskiy during first hours of invasion
Interview with Time magazine reveals that Russian troops made two attempts to storm the presidential compound while Zelenskiy and his family were inside
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy Photograph: EyePress News/REX/Shutterstock
Fri 29 Apr 2022
The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has described how Russian forces came close to capturing or assassinating him in the early hours of the invasion.
Zelenskiy has been widely lauded for his response to the invasion in the 65 days since the first Russian troops entered Ukraine. He has addressed the US Congress, the World Bank and the Grammy Awards; Boris Johnson is among the high-profile figures eager to be seen in his company.
But his time as the leader of a country under attack from a far more powerful neighbour could have ended within hours of the invasion beginning, according to interviews in Time magazine.
Speaking to reporter Simon Shuster, who spent a fortnight in the presidential compound in Kyiv, Zelenskiy described how Russian troops came close to finding him and his family as they attempted to seize the capital’s government district on day one of the conflict.
While many of his memories of those first few hours remained “fragmented”, Zelenskiy said the predawn of 24 February stood out.
After the bombing had started, he and his wife, Olena Zelenska, went to tell their daughter, 17, and son, nine, to prepare to flee their home. “We woke them up,” Zelenskiy told Time. “It was loud. There were explosions over there.”
The Ukrainian military told Zelenskiy that Russian strike teams had parachuted into Kyiv to kill or capture him and his family. “Before that night, we had only ever seen such things in the movies,” Andriy Yermak, his chief of staff, told the magazine.
Gunfights broke out around the government quarter as night fell on the first day of the war, Shuster wrote. “Guards inside the compound shut the lights and brought bulletproof vests and assault rifles for Zelenskiy and about a dozen of his aides.”
One of the few officials who knew how to use the weapons was Oleksiy Arestovych, a veteran of Ukraine’s military intelligence service. “It was an absolute madhouse,” Arestovych told Time. “Automatics for everyone.”
Russian troops made two attempts to storm the compound while Zelenskiy’s family were still inside, according to Shuster.
The following night, after refusing offers of more secure surroundings – including an evacuation by US and British forces that would enable him to set up a government in exile – Zelenskiy walked outside into the courtyard to record a now-famous video message on his phone.
At that moment Zelenskiy said he became truly aware of his role in the war. “You understand that they’re watching,” he told the magazine. “You’re a symbol. You need to act the way the head of state must act.”