President Volodymyr Zelensky held a press marathon with 32 cherry-picked media on Nov. 26. The President’s Office announced the event on the evening of Nov. 25. There was no usual accreditation process open for everyone: Ukrainian and international media outlets were chosen and invited by the President’s Office. Many journalists criticized the move as infringing on press freedom. A few showed up at the event to protest.
Zelensky talked with journalists for five hours. Several times, the president’s temper got the better of him, and Zelensky turned to accusations against specific journalists, questioning their motives or complaining that they were infringing on his personal life.
Here are some of the most important takeaways:
On Kremlin’s alleged coup d’etat in Ukraine
Zelensky claimed that the Kremlin was preparing a coup d’etat in Ukraine for Dec. 1. He said there’s intelligence data and audio recordings proving it.
This news came amid an ongoing buildup of Russia’s troops near the eastern border of Ukraine and intelligence reports that the Kremlin was preparing an invasion.
U.S. President Joe Biden said he was concerned by the alleged coup plot and will probably speak to both Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin about it.
On Akhmetov’s ‘war against Ukraine’
Zelensky said that in the audio recordings Ukrainian and Russian representatives discuss the richest Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov’s alleged participation in the coup.
“(According to the data), $1 billion will be spent. (Akhmetov) is being pulled into a war against the Ukrainian state, and I believe that he has started it, and that will be a big mistake,” Zelensky said.
Akhmetov responded that the information is “an absolute lie,” claiming he roots for “an independent, democratic, and united Ukraine with Crimea and his home region, Donbas.”
The comments come amid a conflict between Zelensky and Akhmetov. The conflict intensified after Zelensky signed the so-called “anti-oligarch” bill into law on Nov. 5.
The oligarch’s media started to criticize Zelensky heavily in recent weeks.
On Russian military buildup along Ukrainian border
Despite the alarming Western reports about the buildup of at least 90,000 Russian troops along Ukraine’s border, Zelensky claimed that the situation isn’t worse than in the spring, when Russia similarly amassed forces near the occupied Donbas and in Crimea. He also said the risk of Russia’s attack has always existed since its invasion of Ukraine in 2014. “We are in full control of our borders and are fully ready for any escalation,” he said.
On failed intelligence operation
Zelensky said he had not approved the infamous Wagner operation that was reportedly planned by Ukraine to intercept 33 Kremlin-backed mercenaries of the Wagner military company en route from Minsk to Istanbul in 2020.
The failed operation has been dominating the news amid allegations that someone in Zelensky’s administration sabotaged it by leaking the information to Belarus or Russia, which prevented the capture of mercenaries who had fought against Ukraine on Russia’s side in the Donbas.
Zelensky said he had asked the then-head of military intelligence Vasyl Burba if passengers could be killed as a result, and Burba allegedly said “yes.” “I’m ready to approve any operations if they are thought through and if no people suffer,” Zelensky said.
The presidential administration has been changing its narrative about the Wagner operation. First, they said Ukraine’s intelligence had never prepared such an operation. Now Zelensky says he knew about the operation but disapproved of it.
According to the Nov. 17 Bellingcat investigation, Zelensky's chief of staff Andriy Yermak delayed the sting operation. Soon after that, Belarus intercepted the mercenaries. Both Zelensky and Yermak denied ordering the delay.
At the Nov. 26 press event, Zelensky called Burba a “fraud” and accused him of selling classified information. Burba said he would sue Zelensky for slander.
On Zelensky’s chief of staff reported birthday at state residence
Zelensky admitted that he and his entourage, including chief of staff Andriy Yermak, used several State Emergency Service helicopters to fly to the state-owned residence in the Carpathian mountains, on the day of Yermak’s birthday.
Zelensky said that the group was forced to fly in emergency service helicopters because both his presidential plane and helicopter were being repaired.
However, Zelensky denied there was a birthday party for his top aide, claiming they were at the residence to prepare for an international event celebrating 30 years of Ukrainian diplomacy, to be held there in December.
Ukrainska Pravda reported about the alleged birthday trip on Nov. 24, claiming it was another instance of Zelensky breaking his promise not to use state residences.
On bribery suspect, deputy chief of staff Tatarov
Zelensky praised his deputy chief of staff Oleh Tatarov, a bribery suspect, for his alleged efforts to push through judicial reform. “At the President’s Office, it is Tatarov who’s in charge of this,” Zelensky said.
Meanwhile, anti-corruption activists have accused Tatarov of sabotaging rule of law reforms, including the selection of the chief anti-corruption prosecutor. Zelensky denied this, and Tatarov did not respond to a request for comment.
Tatarov was charged in 2020 with bribing a forensic expert. Back then, the President’s Office claimed that his functions related to law enforcement had been suspended. However, Zelensky said on Nov. 26 that Tatarov keeps overseeing law enforcement. Asked whether there is a conflict of interest, Zelensky said “probably not.”
In February, a court refused to extend the Tatarov investigation, and prosecutors effectively killed it by missing the deadline for sending it to trial.
“This history with criminal cases is over,” Zelensky said. “I’m not paying attention to this.”
On National Security and Defense Council’s sanctions
The National Security and Defense Council, headed by Zelensky, has introduced sanctions against hundreds of foreign and Ukrainian individuals, including Russia-linked high-profile Ukrainians, top smugglers, and gang leaders. "We are defending our state as best we can,” Zelensky said. Previously, the sanctions have faced scrutiny as the council’s decisions were not backed or followed by criminal investigations or court proceedings.