Here is a transcript of the remarks of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, president of Ukraine, during a John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at Harvard Kennedy School on September 27. Zelenskyy spoke from Ukraine and his remarks were translated simultaneously by an interpreter in Zelenskyy’s office. The forum moderator was Ash Carter, Belfer Professor of Technology and Global Affairs, the former U.S. defense secretary who now is director of the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Zelenskyy’s opening remarks were followed by a conversation with Harvard students attending the forum. The transcript was lightly edited for length and clarity.


Ash Carter: Good day, everyone. And welcome. A special welcome to our guest, President Zelenskyy of Ukraine. I think he will be joining us here in just one moment. This is someone who truly does not require an introduction. There you are, Mr. President. [Applause and standing ovation]

President Zelenskyy: Thank you so much, it is a big pleasure. Thank you.

Carter: Mr. President, I think you can tell from that round of applause how much respect and admiration this audience has for you. Mr. President, I have a particular personal fondness for your country because in the 1990s as an assistant secretary of defense I was responsible for establishing the military and intelligence relationships with Ukraine. And so I worked with a number of your predecessors in those times. So I have a particular heart for Ukraine and therefore this meeting today and the honor of hosting you has a special meaning for me.

The president has asked that we devote as much time as possible to questions and answers so I am not even going to attempt to introduce this man. If you are not familiar with his biography, you must have been in a closet for the last couple of years. And history has moreover cast him in a Churchillian role, which we observe with wonder and amazement because of its challenges. 

What he has asked to do is speak to you for a few minutes and then we will turn to Q&A with an emphasis on the questions from you who are aspiring to public service, giving you a chance to ask one of the great public servants of our time for advice about your own transition. Mr. President, the floor is yours. 

Zelenskyy: Thank you so much, Mr. Carter. Students, professors, I am humbled and proud to be able to address you. I have a bit more than just a couple of words for you because there were a couple of topics suggested for this speech and I think it is a good proposal to start. So I will tell you a couple of things and I hope that we will have enough time to communicate and I will gladly take your questions. 

What we strive for, all of us, is peace, and leadership is what makes that happen. Today they had a beautiful blackmail statement from Moscow about the nuclear threat; Russia is trying to impose on us this feeling that they're quite capable of using nuclear arms, and they are talking that they're ready to grab more Ukrainian territories. That there is no limit to this annexation. There is also a statement about a grain corridor, obviously a way to channel the discussion about looming threat to the exports of grains from Ukraine to Asia, to Africa, elsewhere. So the question is whether Russia means what it says or they just blurt out this idea, in an attempt to make the world swallow it, to pacify with aggression, with massive hunger. The question is, do you think this is tolerable? When there is one person who can threaten the rest, who can impose hunger, who can be bold enough to steal something from other countries because his land is not enough for him? I'm sure that this doesn't look normal for you, even at the level of rhetoric. This is already amounting to a crime,  nuclear blackmail, annexation threats. The mere statements already earn some rigid action in response to prevent any such catastrophic scenario.

What are the actions that we see in connection with those Russian statements? This is the fundamental question about leadership. And you, I think in your university, Harvard University, you do know about leadership because your institute,  your university is among the top institutions that has trained lots of world leaders, and many of them have been successful, and I think they're all united by one common trait. They have been always able to move ahead first, in anticipation, when the majority could not even understand that there is time for action. And they are so afraid of deadly consequences that they pretend they don't hear anything until the catastrophe looms. 

This is like a preventive approach. The ability to prevent is the key feature in leadership. In politics, this is even more prominent. You know about safety belts you have to use while in a vehicle just to avoid any dire consequences of an accident. We are not waiting for an accident to make sure that we need those safety belts because we do trust in previous experience of previous accidents. Not everyone of us is using insurance services, say mechanism. Whenever adverse situation comes, a person may get compensated based on the insurance contract. The insurance contract starts to act even before something happens, acting as a guarantee, guarantee of protection.

 A killer is normally put behind bars in isolation after a court session. It is not just about looking, finding punishment, but it is also about preventing new killing from happening, which might happen if the killer remains at large. Not a single person wants to see another killing coming from that person. So normally a killer has been jailed after the first killing. Sometimes he can be jailed for life whenever the crime was of particular danger for the society. 

So these are realities. These are the realities of the prevention principle that follows us throughout our lives in order for us to lead safe lives. This is how the prevention principle should work with political issues, with international relations. It should work. You remember last year there were lots of discussions when the world was contemplating Russia amassing troops at the borders of Ukraine. And yes, there were ideas of going preventive, of doing something in preparation for the strike as if it has already happened, for the aggressor to feel, to perceive potential consequences already before the start of any hostility. 

But well, things happened and developments took place. When there is no prevention, there is only just one measure left: reaction. But this is a less powerful position. When preventing you are automatically taking the lead of a situation, you are defining how it will develop. Conversely, when you react, you have to first fight for the initiative, then start working towards [garble]. We are right amid this very important moment, which started with the full scale invasion in Ukraine. It's another matter of prevention. 

Prevention when we hear about the threat of nuclear strikes, still more that Russia says that such nuclear strikes [garble] So for Kazakhstan to the Baltic state, to Poland, to others, the Russian president is very open in his statement that he wants to break the neck of this grain initiative, endangering the lives of hundreds of millions people worldwide. Check the situation with nuclear power plant facilities in Ukraine for the first time in history of … Ukraine. Why Russia has been doing that? Because it clearly sees the deficit of prevention in the world.

Dire consequences should have been happening for Russia way sooner before then. Preventive action would mean that the world is not ready to swallow everything Russia wants to feed it, and it should be done the right ... catastrophic damage. Because to react after the strikes happen, it's already absorbing the strikes and finding yourself amidst a new round of escalation.  
Russia is going to announce right now their annexation of territories of Ukraine. They had those referendums, so-called ones, in those occupied territories. We know that they called up a mobilization. It was not by chance. They did it in preparation for  the annexation with a clear aim to also muster and call up residents at those occupied territories, to force hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians of occupied territories to be enlisted the army. 

When this deficit of preventive action emerges, when only a reaction comes, consequences emerge. This is what leads to the loss of time, the loss of opportunities. This leads to the way towards peace becoming suddenly longer. 

Leadership and peace are two interconnected things. We've become leaders involved. We are compelled to become those in our sheer attempt to withstand evil.

We do appreciate how the world has united around us. I'd like to take this opportunity and thank the United States of America, President Biden, all our partners there, for spearheading this support. 

Meanwhile, we have many Ukrainians who are demonstrating the newly discovered leadership skills every day on the front line. Just imagine, 30,000 Ukrainians received top national awards for bravery and leadership; and the millions of people who are standing up for their freedom and independence. We have kids collecting donations for the front line. We have kids who even simply bring water to our servicemen at checkpoints. We have wonderful healthcare professionals. We have nurses doing their utmost to help those wounded and maimed in war. 

 I can give you many more examples of leadership skills and how they demonstrate every day in Ukraine. This is, I think, a sign of our overall general leadership in this war and a component of our upcoming victory. And we have to learn how to remain leaders in peacetime. And from here, the main conclusion is prevention is the basis for lasting peace. A measure to cut short any aggression, a measure to save many more lives than you would save by reacting to something that already happened. And that would ensure a lasting peace when the prevention principle is in the framework, in the basement of the overall world policy.

This is what should work. This is what we call about. This is what is the heart of many projects and decisions. No leadership is fully workable without prevention. Without your ability to go strike even before, even teamwork cannot provide those opportunities compared with one's ability to act in a preventive mode. And I think the free world will definitely be stronger than any terrorist, and it will be better off withstanding the Russians’ aggression. The question is when it will happen. The answer is whenever we are able to act first. 

Thank you for your attention. I truly believe and hope you will become leaders in every avenue you've chosen for yourself. Thank you,  and glory to Ukraine.

Carter: Mr. President, that is the perfect note to sound with this audience. And the question I wanted to ask you really follows on that. This is an audience of people who are considering a transition to public service. They've been doing something else, been going to school, many of them have had other careers, and they're here because they're summoned in some way to the idea of public service. You yourself made that transition in your own life. Though, as I said at the top you couldn't have imagined what you would be called upon to exhibit in the way of leadership. Anyway, you made that transition. Do you have any reflections for these students here about that transition to public life, why you made it and how that transition was accomplished?

Zelenskyy: Thank you for the question. It makes for two questions. My student years and this transition to public life. My student years were brilliant--when you are surrounded by like-minded people that will go with you into the future together. We are making something out to us several times throughout our lives. Maybe this is godsend. Your first step is when you come to this world, then there is another moment when you make another transition, another step when it's university, when you are absorbing all the knowledge and experience from others in an attempt to transform yourself, to arm yourself for the future. And, really it's a pleasure and happiness for one to be a student, to be able to learn, to master something. And it's not about choosing a profession because I myself am an example. I was a law student majoring in law and international trade, and I was to become a lawyer. Then at some point I ventured into TV and then, well, maybe due to education, I was kind of pulled back, but in another iteration if you want. 

I think politics goes hand in hand with jurisprudence with laws and this is not coincidental. Though actually, after graduating, my feeling was that probably it wasn't the right thing for me to major in law. I thought that I should have chosen something else, but, well, you see, life makes corrections and my knowledge suddenly becomes relevant.

To love, your own country, to be patriotic, it's way more than just knowing your anthem or saying something that you're expected to say. It's also about being able to give back to your country something you probably owe. So yes, national anthem, flag, land, these are good things, patriotic things, but these are the things that your motherland gave to you. And at some point, the time comes when you have to save your land, to save your motherland. 

Success is a multifactorial thing. It is about your early successes. It's about people around you. And you are as successful as your capacity allows you. And at some point I felt that I can pay back my country with my knowledge, my desires, my strength, to help this country move forward. And it was the point for me when while going for president, I decided that I have to repay my country, to pay it back.

Carter: Thanks very much. For those of you who  haven't heard that, I had occasion to hear the Ukrainian National anthem many times. It's very beautiful. 

In front of us here, Mr. President, whether you can see it or not, is a bowl of sunflowers. And for those of you who don't know, that's a cash crop in Ukraine. And the missile fields of the Soviet Union--Ukraine would've been the third largest nuclear nation on earth when the Soviet Union ended, had it not given up nuclear weapons. And that's worth noting here. And I actually ran the program that destroyed the nuclear weapons on the territory of Ukraine. And in those missile fields, after we blew up the silos, the Ukrainian government planted sunflowers and they were harvested. And I have in my office here at Harvard, a bottle of sunflower from the missile fields at Pervomaisk, Mr. President. 

And that brings me to the next thing, which is the war. Obviously, we wish you and your country well in this situation of being attacked as you look ahead. And war means victory. What does victory look like for Ukraine?

Zelenskyy: Yes, thanks for this question. You started it very warmly with sunflowers. The  decision to abolish nuclear weapons wasn't done by chance. Because Ukraine and the Ukrainians had long being associated with land, with toiling the land, with skies, with sunflowers, and with what land is giving us.

And here, this topic of war. We stand, we are resilient like this sunflower. We grow on our own land from here. Partly the response, what the victory means for us for Ukraine, is about our ability to demonstrate that yes, we will stand like the sunflowers. We will go all the way up to for the sun until the last breath. And yes, we'll have to restore our territorial integrity. We'll have to restore the recognized borders and not just because it is simply just, it is our land, but we need to also feel it for ourselves that the war is over, the peace has been regained. We don't need something that we don't own. We want just our land. 

The question still remains, when we see part of the land is being kind of de-occupied; some is still in occupation. We want to become whole again. Another thing is Russia will revisit the idea of occupying our land somewhere in the future. And because of that, the moment is right when we have to pay this supreme price in this war, in this aggression time, we need to recover the whole, the totality of the country. And this is about justice. Justice comes when you have your land whole. 

Carter: Thank you, Mr. President. I'm now going to take questions from the audience, and I'm going to ask a special guest to ask the first question. But before I do that, let me just tell you what the ground rules are here. Please identify yourself, your affiliation at Harvard. And above all, no speeches. Ask a question. You've got a special guest here. Ask a question. The first questioner I'll call upon though, is General Joe Dunford. General Dunford was the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Obama administration. And then extending as is normal in our system into the Trump administration. So he served both of our most recent presidents. And let me ask General Dunford to ask the first question, please. 

Question: Mr. President, thanks very much for your presentation this morning and more importantly, thanks for your example of wartime leadership. And maybe my question is sticking with the theme of leadership for the students here. If you could share some reflections of things that you've learned in leading through a crisis over the last several months, both with regard to leading your people, in leading an army in wartime, certainly some unique challenges in a crisis. And I think you'd be uniquely qualified to talk to the students today about leading in a crisis. Thank you, Mr. President. 

Zelenskyy: Thank you for this question. Do not pay attention to something petty. Do not get offended. Focus on your task and move ahead. Never stop. Because this is war. Our land is the battlefield. The moment you stop, your enemy starts digging in, which makes everything more complex, more challenging. It'll require more resources. So the war teaches us: go towards your objective, but be true to yourself. Be just. You can have smaller army because we are smaller than the Russian army, but your army has to be highly motivated. You have to be followed by people able to watch your back. Yes, you can have less armaments, but your key weapon is people. And for people, the key commandment is courage. And they say that courage loves leaders. So if there is anything I found throughout that time of war, in terms of probably priorities, and yeah, I think it is just about priorities: everyone in Ukraine would agree. We have always loved our country. We love living here.  Yet now it is not enough just to live in Ukraine and love Ukraine. You have to be ready to give your life for Ukraine. This is the true leadership. 

Carter:  Please identify yourself. I know who you are. This is a student of mine, by the way. But identify yourself. 

Question: Mr. President, thank you so much. And glory to Ukraine. My name is Ilya Timtchenko . I am a student at the Harvard Kennedy School and also chair of the Ukraine Caucus here. My question is one of two parts. You launched a very ambitious program attracting foreign direct investment into Ukraine. And I was wondering if you have something similar that that would be a related, and please do not take this as a criticism because it's not, but related to anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine, then making sure that we don't have any spies in Ukraine so that we wouldn't have another mistake that was in the south of Ukraine. And I'm sure if you do have those kind of initiatives there are many Harvard students that would want to be involved and, and to, to help out with those.

Zelenskyy:  Thank you for the question. And let's start with corruption infrastructure. I am very glad that we've opted for the way we have, in spite of all the hardships imposed by the war, been able to adopt really important pieces of legislation. It is not just because of the requirements for candid it to the EU, but it was also, it has been because of the opportunity we have. Yes, the war takes a lot from you, but it also gives some opportunities when, for example, we're able in the parliament to move very fast, say when we have to do everything for the army. And so you learn how to avoid better things and focus on top priority. You make it in a focused way. And because of that, we adopted all pieces of anticorruption legislation. It has never been like that in Ukraine. We did it. There are also other avenues like the reform of the judiciary. But as regards that corruption thing per se, everything is operating now. So I think the matter is solved.

Yes, we have to do a lot with regard to judiciary reform. We'll have to bring it to the end. This reform that we've been struggling with through nearly 30 years for a variety of reasons, just without giving names , let me put it like this. I hope, I do hope that the Ukrainians will be able to come victorious and we will do it for ourselves, all of us. And if something remains unsolved, then we will do our be best to sort it out. So I think that we will be victorious on the frontline and with other challenges that the nation is facing. I think the key thing is to have this motivation to live and work in Ukraine. After this victory, after other victories that surely will come, everything will be better. Thank you. 

Question:  I cannot thank you enough for all of your heroic efforts. We surely appreciate it. Considering Russian nuclear attack threats to the whole humanity and the partial inability of the international organization to resist them, would you consider creating a new organization that would protect the world from terrorist states such as as Russia?

Zelenskyy: Thank you for the question. We know from Russia's actions that destroying something is always easier than building something. Definitely there should be world institutions, worldwide institutions able to do the right things. And I fully support you on that. Definitely they should be there. They should react faster, better in a preventive way without waiting for something to happen. First, in terms of nuclear blackmail, we can have different attitudes to work that some might believe in that others might not, but surely the world has to remain strong and should not be afraid of any threat from any aggressor in the world. There will be many more of those to mitigate them, to remain strong. There should be a structure, a structured reaction, even in terms of words, even in terms of some ideas that may come in in one's head. Such leaders, if they can be called leaders, they have to have it in mind that the world is resolute to never let it happen. Whether it is about nuclear threats or hunger or annexation or occupation, the world should think about how to reboot this international security domain. How to come up with strong security guarantees. 

I think the example of Ukraine can serve a lesson how this can be done. And I think young people like you, ambitious future world leaders, you can make history, worldwide history, but doing your step towards that, if we take security guarantees on the example, they can be analyzed, implemented because we see that it is about violation of social human rights. There are killings, extrajudicial one, tortures, kidnappings, nuclear threats, the taking of the nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia. So the field is very abundant to think and work on security guarantees. We have our idea of guarantees that we charted on the paper and circulated among world leaders. And that way the country perceiving some threat could receive this security in a short time, receiving necessary financial assistance from relevant institutions, necessary armaments. And we serve as a living example of this, how can it be done. So we just need to make practical tool. 

Question: Hi, Mr. President, my name is Igor and I'm from Eastern Ukraine, Kharkiv. Thank you so much for joining us today. I'm actually a Ukraine Global Scholar, a program that helps so many Ukrainians here in the United States. We're utilizing resources that are available to us here. And my question would be, what would be the best use of those resources? Because there are so many Ukrainians who are willing to come back to our home country, rebuild it, help it grow. What do you think would be the best possible outcome? What should we do so that when we come back we utilize everything we've learned, everything we've, we've gained here. Thank you so much.

Zelenskyy: Thank you Igor, indeed. Thank you for your question. Thank you for being a very vivid representative of our heroic city of Kharkiv on the American soil. It's a pleasure seeing so many young, beautiful intellectuals getting an  education. You're completely right. The key resource I would say, just borrowing from your words, the key resource of a nation ,Ukraine included, and we do understand it in Ukraine, is its people. It’s  the treasure. It's the biggest opportunity. Our servicemen on the frontline have been able to show that they're the biggest and greatest, most wonderful resource. That they're strong, they can learn any type of armament, whether native standard or other things. They can do it in no time. In other countries. The servicemen would take three, four months to master it. We can do it in a fortnight. It has been proven many times. 

And yes, you are right that this newly acquired knowledge has to transferred and used for its best, without waiting for the next generation to come. You can do it right now with your education, with your capacities. I'm sure you will come back to the country when the time to recover it comes, maybe earlier, I don't know, maybe it will be with humanitarian aid. But I think that you can well contribute to rebuild the country in terms of infrastructure, in terms of intellectual revival. And by the way, infrastructure doesn't mean just roads or tunnels or bridges. It's also about all sorts of infrastructure. Scientific research, academic.  So from here, people, the intentions and the knowledge can work together. It's like a brilliant disease, which is not disease. It's a nice infection when you can send your knowledge to someone else and this can spread and there will be a multiplying effect. You have an added value of having seen the world with your acquired knowledge; you will be able to see our country flourish. And I think that will be place for everyone willing to do it given the amount of damage inflicted by Russian troops. I think there will be time and place for you with your head, with your brains, with your education, everything. The goal is on your part of the field.

Carter: There you go. You got it right from the president of your own country. Now, not everybody here is a Ukrainian student, I trust. Up in the corner there, there's a cluster of you who's going to ask a question.

Question:  I'm a Harvard student. My name is Sebastian. I'm also a U.S. veteran, and I spent the last five months in Ukraine, providing humanitarian aid and training. It's an honor to talk with you, and it was an honor to work with your people. One of the biggest struggles that we've seen with leadership is reintegrating large populations of soldiers and infrastructure back into a civilian society. This seems to be a key factor in honoring those who serve as well as helping a nation experience stability as it transitions to peace time. Mr. President, I was wondering what challenges or solutions you see to this common problem, because I know the Americans are still trying to learn it.

Zelenskyy: At this point, I'd like to thank you for your time spent in Ukraine, assisting my fellow countrymen, Sebastian.  There are a lot of complex things and moments because  the military gets used to the situation in which he or she is needed the most, is capable the most, when he or she is the savior, then the person returns to the peaceful life. And at some point people around rejoice to see the liberator, but suddenly the servicemen can no longer find he or herself back in this peaceful life. Yes, there are programs in the United States, in the UK, in the Baltic countries. We borrow from this experience. We have many bits of these programs already working in Ukraine. Just take the point of becoming employed. Imagine a serviceman comes back from bullets and shells, the person that was giving his blood and limbs, and then the problem of just finding employment. So well, yes, we have individual programs for that. We have jobs secured for them....   This is not by the way, like they do in Russia when they force people, just call them up, uprooting them from their life. In our situation, we had queues to the draft stations of people willing to become servicemen. And yes, as long as they are so willing to defend the land we need to find a solution how to make them happy when they come back to the peaceful life. And this is really a challenge. It's a complex question to be true and frank. We’ll have to so this out. But again, there will be, there is a program of recovery of Ukraine. I am very much sure that it will provide a place and decent opportunity for everyone willing to see the country rebuilt. On the other hand, we don't want to lose the experience or the skills gained by the military in this war. 

So there also are programs being designed because Ukraine has to understand that with this war, there will be a completely different understanding of security. We cannot go back to the prewar situation. We will have another type of army. It will be more numerous, more capable, more skilled. There will be also an army of people who will work to ensure security inside the country. Things called law enforcement, police, national guards, firefighters, emergency first responders, and so on. And we'd really love to see our frontline heroes to do their best in these peace time positions.

Carter: The president has a hard stop. So this is going to be the last question.

Question: Yes. Thank you very much, President Zelensky. I know you are presiding over a very difficult period in Ukrainian history and you have dealt with it with great grace and courage. So my question to you is, what has been the most difficult part of being a public servant?

Carter: Getting invaded? It's got to be up at the top of the list.

Zelenskyy:  I would agree with you, by the way. That's sure, this is the most complex and challenging thing. I still tend to believe that probably wartime is the most complex thing for me, for the country. I do hope that being united as we are, we will find it easier to become victorious. Still the biggest challenge is the war itself for sure. The biggest challenge is to feel that we all have to survive and we have to do to the max to make it happen.

There was a breakthrough moment when we felt encircled and there was a feeling that the end may come, and not the end that we would want it to have to be. So probably such challenging moments are the hardest. But even before that, you know, it wasn't all smiles and easy. Remember the Covid time? We tend to forget it now, but before the war. Now yes, we think that, come on, Covid is just peanuts compared with what we have now. But surely, and seriously, it was a huge challenge, the Covid pandemic. It was a huge challenge for the whole world, not just for us. I do remember that from the moment I came to the presidential office, I've got that feeling that suddenly I'm in a position where they see the whole world constantly fighting something, for something, against something. I can tell you that the most complex thing is not the struggle itself, but this should be time in this process to take a new breath and to reposition yourself. We will win covid. I think we won it actually, and we will win this war as well. 

Carter: Mr. President. Everyone in this planet is challenged, but not in the way you are. We send you our blessing in this moment and our very great thanks for being with us today.

Zelenskyy: Thank you very much. I wish you all peace. Yes. I think that is the most important thing. 


Photos by Martha Stewart

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