Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy posted a social media video Friday evening to reassure Ukrainians that he and other top government leaders were still in Kyiv amid Russia’s attack on the capital city.
He warned in a subsequent message that the fighting could soon become severe, with Russian troops attacking the city in a “vile, cruel and inhuman” manner.
“We have to persevere tonight. The fate of Ukraine is being decided right now. The night will be hard, very hard, but there will be a morning,” Zelenskyy said, according to a translation by Financial Times reporter Max Seddon.
Russian troops are believed to be hunting for the Ukrainian leader, who has been in hiding since troops converged on Kyiv. Zelenskyy said Thursday that he is “target No. 1” for the Russians, but has declined offers from the United States to help evacuate him to safety.
In the social media video, apparently filmed on a city block lit by streetlights, Zelenskyy said his party’s leader and the country’s prime minister numbered among the four men surrounding him.
“Our troops are here, citizens are here,” he said, according to a translation by The Telegraph. “All of us are here protecting the independence of our country, and it will continue to be this way.”
Thursday evening, Zelenskyy reportedly told European Union leaders on a conference call, “This might be the last time you see me alive.”
He has said that Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a special task force to find and likely kill him and his family members, along with other top government officials. A U.S. State Department spokesperson concurred, telling CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer on Friday that Zelenskyy “does, in many ways, represent ― even personify ― the democratic aspirations and ambitions of Ukraine, of the Ukrainian people.”
He would therefore be “a prime target for Russian aggression,” the spokesperson said.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told The Washington Post that American officials have been advising Zelenskyy on the evolving security threat against him for weeks.
“We stand ready to assist him in any way,” Schiff said, adding, “I’m deeply concerned with the threat to his life and well being.”
Russia’s slow-burning encroachment on Ukraine’s eastern border escalated into a full-scale invasion this week, with more than 100,000 troops attacking by land, air and sea. Bombings have been reported in cities all across the country.
U.S. officials are reportedly worried that Kyiv could fall into Russian hands within days.
President Joe Biden managed to speak with Zelenskyy from his hideout on Friday, directly following a meeting between NATO leaders, the White House confirmed. The American leader commended “the brave actions of the Ukrainian people” fighting to defend their country and pledged “economic, humanitarian and security support” from the United States.