oDR: Feature

Behind the scenes in Zelenskyi’s office just before the invasion

An extract from a new book by the FT’s Ukraine correspondent reveals the signs of Russia’s imminent invasion

Christopher Miller
15 September 2023, 11.27am

Volodymyr Zelenskyi was elected president in 2019


(c) John Moore/Getty Images. All rights reserved

In his new book ‘The War Came to Us: Life and Death in Ukraine’, American journalist Christopher Miller chronicles life in Ukraine in the run-up to Russia’s invasion – and after.

Miller first came to Ukraine in 2010 as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bakhmut, a city that has been turned into a wasteland by Russia’s invasion. He then became a journalist, and has broken a number of vital stories – covering the 2014 Euromaidan revolution, annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine.

In this excerpt, Miller writes about how Ukraine’s top officials interpreted the ‘warning signs’ that immediately preceded Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022.

Kyiv, early 2022

Volodymyr Zelensky paced across the ornate parquet floors of his office, the clack of his black, size 8½ oxfords echoing through the cavernous building, as he studied the contents of a red folder.

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A stamp at the top read “top secret.” It was for the Ukrainian president’s eyes only. Inside was an intelligence briefing compiled by his National Security and Defense Council. The information contained within was so urgent and alarming that the secretary of the NSDC, Oleksiy Danilov, had rushed across town in his aging Audi to deliver it himself.

“Sir, information from our Western partners indicates your life is in grave danger,” Danilov told Zelensky. The document outlined a Russian capture-or-kill operation targeting the president.

Zelensky furrowed his brows and scrunched up his face.

“Hmm,” he grumbled. “Thank you.”

He left the folder on his desk, dismissed Danilov, and headed down the hall to another meeting.

It wasn’t the first time Zelensky had been warned of such a thing and he was, frankly, tired of hearing about it – even if he was finally beginning to believe it.

For weeks, the United States and other Western nations had been alerting him to the threat of a Russian invasion, the goal of which, they said, was to capture Kyiv and install a pro-Russian puppet government. On a secret visit to the Ukrainian capital in mid-January, CIA Director Bill Burns had also told Zelensky that there was a threat to life, my sources in the president’s office would later tell me.

Burns warned that the Kremlin had compiled a “kill list” of Ukrainians who were to be assassinated or sent to prison camps. The list included government officials, journalists, activists, ethnic and religious minorities, and LGBTQ Ukrainians. But Zelensky himself was at the top. And shortly before the intelligence report landed in Zelensky’s hands, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, had been briefed in Washington. “I was received by President Biden. And then we had a meeting with Secretary Blinken. We delivered our comment to the press and then I was asked to go to a separate room,” he told me later. “And in that room I received an update, a pretty detailed update on the Russian preparations. And the guys who were speaking with me said the invasion was likely to begin within like 48 hours.”

The War Came to Us - Christopher Miller JACKET IMAGE

The Biden Administration was especially and unusually vocal about the looming Russian threat. It had first sounded an alarm in March and April 2021, when Russia began massing thousands of personnel and military equipment near its border with Ukraine and in occupied Crimea. Russia withdrew some troops that summer but left the equipment in place. Then, in October 2021, Washington sounded a second alarm when it noticed Russia was moving its forces back toward the border and deploying more units on new fronts. By December, US intelligence was saying that roughly 120,000 Russian troops, along with fighter aircraft and ballistic missiles, were in place, and that the troop numbers were likely to increase to 175,000, maybe more. American General Mark Milley, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called Russia’s troop build-up “larger in scale and scope… than anything we’ve seen in recent memory.” President Joe Biden showed solidarity with Ukraine, warning the Kremlin of severe consequences should Vladimir Putin give the order to invade.

Zelensky’s annoyance was evident to the public three weeks before Danilov walked into his office, when the president held a press conference on 28 January. Foreign media, myself included, gathered at the baroque-styled Mariinsky Palace, the official residence of the President of Ukraine, designed and built in the eighteenth century. Crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling of the gilded room. There were samovars filled with coffee and tea. Servers dressed in uniform and white gloves opened doors for us and offered pastries and fruit. The mood among us journalists was tense. We had, of course, been the ones writing about the Western intelligence warnings. Some of us had received off-the-record briefings ourselves from our respective government sources, who said that it might be a good idea to leave Kyiv and head west, where Russia was unlikely to invade. “I know you probably want to be in the thick of it when it happens, but I’m telling you this isn’t going to be like 2014,” a senior US official who I’d known for many years told me. But the Ukrainians appeared less anxious. I chatted on the sidelines with Zelensky’s press secretary, Sergii Nykyforov, before the event. He was calm and reassuring. “I think it’s possible Russia might do something, but I’m not sure it will be like they are saying,” he told me.

“It’s like your film, ‘Don’t Look Up’. We’re looking up. We do understand what’s happening and we’re talking about this. We’re talking about this with our people”

Volodymyr Zelenskyi

I was seated in the front row when Zelensky strutted in, clean-shaven and wearing a black suit and tie. He flashed a little smile, greeted us with hello in English and Ukrainian. “Can I be without a mask?” he asked in English as he walked past me and gave a little bow before plopping down on his chair in front of a row of Ukrainian flags. It was a reminder that we hadn’t seen the end of one crisis while another one was looming. Covid was still ravaging Ukraine. Hospitals were full of coronavirus patients; ventilators were in short supply. Just about every foreign correspondent flying into the country caught it within 72 hours. An entire crew of some 20 CNN journalists were infected at the same time at the Intercontinental Hotel. I had had it in December and spent more than a week cooped up in my room at the Radisson Blu, dining on room service.

It was immediately clear at the presser that Zelensky was irritated by the West’s repeated warnings. In particular, he was concerned about the impact they would have on Ukraine’s already struggling economy and cause panic among the population. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t taking the threats seriously, he said. Shrugging off questions about whether he was in denial about Russia’s military build-up, Zelensky referred to the Netflix movie ‘Don’t Look Up’, a satire about astronomers trying to warn the world of a comet threatening mankind’s extinction but who are ignored by the US president, who is more concerned about her popularity. The film was wildly popular in Ukraine, where quick-witted social media users following geopolitical events created memes of Zelensky as the president in the movie.

“It’s like your film, ‘Don’t Look Up’. We’re looking up. We do understand what’s happening and we’re talking about this. We’re talking about this with our people,” Zelensky said. “But we are also looking on the ground.

“Do we have tanks on the streets?” he continued. “No. When you read reports in the media, you get the image that we have troops in the city, people fleeing. That’s not the case.”

He wasn’t saying Russia couldn’t or wouldn’t invade. He was saying that it already had, back in 2014. “Escalation already happened,” he explained. “The [Russian] threat is imminent. The threat is constant.”

While he respected Biden and appreciated his support, just like the American president knows better about what’s happening in Washington, he said, “I’m the president of Ukraine and I’m based here, and I think I know the details better here.”

And he had one more thing to say. He was unhappy about the US, the United Kingdom, and Canada evacuating its embassy staffers. “Diplomats are like captains,” Zelensky said. “They should be the last to leave a sinking ship. And Ukraine is not the Titanic.”

Several months after the invasion, Zelensky would defend his words to me in an interview, saying that despite the public warnings by US officials, Kyiv was never given intelligence it could act on about the impending Russian attack. “Nobody showed us specific material saying it would come from this or that direction,” he said. A US official would tell me otherwise. “We told them exactly where the Russians would come from and how they would do it,” the official said.

But by the time Zelensky had received the intelligence briefing from Danilov, he had finally started to come around to the US assessments and believed, at the very least, that Russia would invade Ukraine again – he just thought it would be an incursion aimed at seizing more of the Donbas.

Hours before Danilov placed the folder in the president’s hands, Putin had gone on Russian state television and recognized the “independence” of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in eastern Ukraine, all but confirming attacks there. Citing false and unproven reports as a justification, the Russian strongman said he would heed the appeals of his puppet leaders in the occupied parts of those regions, who had asked for military support, and deploy his troops there under the guise of a bogus “peacekeeping mission.”

Zelensky was looking for more details on that when he walked into his next meeting late that evening. He had called to his fourth-floor office the leaders of all the political parties serving in parliament, so that they, too, could be brought up to speed.

Knowing they were on the verge of renewed all-out war, he asked them to set aside their differences now and unite for a common cause: the defense of the country. Also present were Denys Shmyhal, Ukraine’s prime minister; Valery Zaluzhny, the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine; Ivan Bakanov, Zelensky’s childhood friend who’d been tapped without any relevant experience to head the Security Service of Ukraine; defense minister Oleksiy Reznikov; and General Kyrylo Budanov, a former special-forces operator who was still new in the role of head of the Defense Ministry’s Military Intelligence Directorate.

There was a conversation about whether to announce mobilization in response to the latest US intelligence. But Bakanov and Reznikov said that wouldn’t be necessary, because there’d be no full-scale invasion and another incursion in the Donbas could be met this time around with Ukraine’s reformed military that it already had entrenched there.

Then Budanov, the youngest among the officials at 36 years old, stood up and quieted down the room. He spread a map across the large table in the middle of everyone before calmly and clearly delivering a message that one person present would later tell me “drained the blood from their faces.” The Russians would invade in the Donbas from the east, yes, Budanov told the group. But Putin’s army would also attack military targets across the country with missiles and rockets. Attack aircraft would follow. And ground forces would invade with tanks and other armor from Belarus in the north, Russia in the east, and occupied Crimea in the south.

Drawing his fingers across the map to show which routes the Russians would advance on, he detailed an invasion plan more ambitious than anything seen since the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. What Russia had in store would reorder the post-World War II security architecture and reshape the global order.

Extract taken from ‘The War Came to Us: Life and Death in Ukraine’ by Christopher Miller, published by Bloomsbury Continuum. Out now in hardback, priced £20.

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