Ukraine’s counteroffensive has been “slowed down” by entrenched Russian defenses, President Volodymyr Zelensky told CNN in an exclusive interview broadcast on Wednesday, adding that he wished that Western weapons deliveries had allowed it to begin “much earlier.”
Speaking with CNN’s Erin Burnett in Odesa, Zelensky said that in some areas of the country his military cannot “even think of starting” attacks, because it does not have “the relevant weapons.”
“I’m grateful to the US as the leaders of our support,” he told Burnett through a translator, “but I told them as well as the European leaders that we would like to start our counteroffensive earlier, and we need all the weapons and materiel for that. Why? Simply because if we start later, it will go slower.”
The Ukrainian leader added that difficulties on the battlefield were now leading to a “slowed down” counteroffensive.
“I wanted our counteroffensive to happen much earlier, because everyone understood that if the counteroffensive unfolds later, then a bigger part of our territory will be mined. We give our enemy the time and possibility to place more mines and prepare their defensive lines.”
Ukrainian officials have repeatedly said that while the counteroffensive is under way, the main push is yet to come.
Deputy Minister of Defense Hanna Maliar said last month that Ukraine was holding back some of its reserves and that the “main strike” was still ahead.
In any direction Ukraine chooses to attack, however, time is the enemy, Zelensky told Burnett. “The later we start, the more difficult it will be for us.”
As he has done so often since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the president pleaded with Western governments to give Kyiv more advanced weaponry – such as the US-made long-range Army Tactical Missile Systems – now rather than later.
“In some directions it will give us an opportunity to start the counteroffensive,” he said. “In some directions we cannot even think of starting it, as we don’t have the relevant weapons. And throwing our people to be killed by Russian long-range weapons would be simply inhumane.”
He also re-emphasized his plea for American-made F-16 fighter jets. The United States has authorized its allies to begin training Ukrainian pilots to fly those aircraft, but has not yet allowed allies to re-export those planes to Ukraine.
“It’s not even about the Ukrainian advantage in the sky over the Russians,” Zelensky said. “This is only about being equal. F-16s help not only those on the battlefield to move forward. It is simply very difficult without cover from the air.”
‘Where did Putin go?’
Burnett’s interview with Zelensky comes at a crucial moment – weeks into Ukraine’s counteroffensive, but also in the wake of Wagner’s armed rebellion in Russia last month.