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Zelensky, in Kennedy School address, says Putin plans to press ‘hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians’ into Russian forces

Ashton B. Carter, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School, hosted a discussion with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday.Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute/Youtube

The referendums taking place in Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine, likely followed by the annexation of those areas, are part of a plan by Russian President Vladimir Putin to compel hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians into military service against their own country, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told a Harvard Kennedy School audience on Tuesday.

Zelensky appeared by satellite for an hourlong session at the school’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in Cambridge where his primary focus was addressing questions from students on his personal journey into politics, his views on the future of the country he now leads during its war with Russia, and what lessons he has learned since taking office in 2019. .


“I think young people like you, ambitious future world leaders, you can make history,” he said.

One issue he addressed is what he described as the “so-called” referendums held in the eastern portions of Ukraine that have been partially occupied by Russian forces since Putin launched the war in February. The referendums, widely dismissed by Western leaders as a sham, are supposed to show that residents want to be annexed by Russia.

The voting, which has reportedly taken place under duress, has been going on over the past several days, just as Putin called for a partial military mobilization in Russia.

“They’ve had these referendums, these so-called referendums” around the same time that Russians called up 300,000 citizens into the Russian military, Zelensky said. “The call up, the mobilization, it was not by chance. They did it in preparation for the annexation, with the clear aim to also muster, to co-opt residents of those occupied territories, to force hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians to be enlisted” into Russian forces.

Experts have said the defense of Ukraine, led by Zelensky and the country’s military with arms and additional support from the United States and other countries, has resulted in the erosion of Russia’s ability to fight the war. Zelensky, who was a successful actor and producer before he entered politics, said the invasion has impacted his approach to leadership.


“Focus on your task, and never stop,” he told the audience. “The moment you stop, your enemy starts digging in, which makes everything more complex, more challenging, it will require more losses. So the war teaches us, go towards your objectives. But be true to yourself. [And] you have to be followed by people who can watch your back.”

Several students who asked Zelensky questions said they were from Ukraine. He urged them to return when the time comes for rebuilding their country.

“Infrastructure doesn’t just mean tunnels or bridges. It’s also about all sorts of infrastructure, scientific research, academic‚’’ he said. “Given the amount of damage inflicted by the Russian troops, I think there will be time and place for you with your head, with your brains, with your application.”

Zelensky spoke proudly of the Ukrainian military and its ability to learn quickly how to use the highly sophisticated weaponry coming from foreign governments.

“They can learn any kind of armament . . . and they can do it no time,” he said. “In other counties, it can be three or four months. We can do it a fortnight. It’s been proven many times.”

John R. Ellement can be reached at john.ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.