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Zelensky says Israel-Gaza war is ‘taking away focus’ from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said the war between Israel and Hamas was ‘taking away’ from Ukraine’s fight with Russia   (AP)
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said the war between Israel and Hamas was ‘taking away’ from Ukraine’s fight with Russia (AP)

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has admitted that the war in Israel and Gaza is “taking away the focus” from Russia’s full-scale invasion as he denied suggestions that the conflict in eastern Europe had reached a stalemate.

Speaking at a briefing in Kyiv on Saturday alongside European commission president Ursula von der Leyen, Mr Zelensky said Russia wanted the focus on Ukraine to be “weakened” but added that “everything is [still] in our power”.

Mr Zelensky has offered to visit Israel, though he has admitted it is “difficult” because it depends on “what’s happening on the battlefield” in Ukraine, which he said remains “hot”.

Russia has historically supported Hamas, who carried out the 7 October attack on Israeli settlements around the Gaza Strip, but there is no evidence to suggest they were involved in, or aware of, the incursion.

Nonetheless, Russia, like Hamas, is a recipient of Iranian weaponry which has been used to kill both Israeli and Ukrainian civilians.

Pavel Luzin, an expert on Russia politics and foreign policy, told The Independent the war in Israel and Gaza had actually left Moscow in a “tricky position”.

Noting an agreement between the Kremlin and Tel Aviv not to strike one another in nearby Syria, he said that “if Russia’s relations with Israel deteriorate, it will make the Russian positions in the region worse”.

A soldier of Ukraine's National Guard 1st brigade Bureviy (Hurricane) rides an APC during combat training at a military training ground in the north of Ukraine (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)
A soldier of Ukraine's National Guard 1st brigade Bureviy (Hurricane) rides an APC during combat training at a military training ground in the north of Ukraine (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

But, he added: “Russia’s authorities have declared many times that they are going to break the existing global rules. So, they would be happy about the extended turbulence.”

In an interview on Sunday that aired on NBC News, Mr Zelensky suggested the shift in focus to Israel, coupled with a Ukrainian counteroffensive that achieved less than many had hoped for, was not necessitating peace negotiations with Russia.

“I’m not ready to speak to the terrorists because their word is nothing,” he said, speaking in English.

Mr Zelensky added that the Kremlin was aware of his demands, proposed in a 10-point peace plan last year, that Russia should withdraw entirely from Ukraine, including from Crimea.

Mr Zelensky described Vladimir Putin as a ‘terrorist’ – an old label that has taken on new weight since the Hamas attack decried as terrorism in October (AP)
Mr Zelensky described Vladimir Putin as a ‘terrorist’ – an old label that has taken on new weight since the Hamas attack decried as terrorism in October (AP)

Until that was acknowledged, he reiterated, there would be no peace negotiations.

Following concerns that US aid to Ukraine could come to an end, Mr Zelensky also used his interview to invite former US president Donald Trump, a Republican, to visit Kyiv and see the fallout of the conflict initiated by Vladimir Putin.

Mr Trump, who is seeking re-election in 2024 and is the leading candidate for his party’s presidential nomination, has been sharply critical of US support for Kyiv and has said he could end the war in 24 hours if re-elected.

Pro-Trump members of the Republican party in Congress have also attempted to hold up additional aid proposed by president Joe Biden, led by the new speaker of the lower chamber, Mike Johnson.

“If he can come here, I will need ... 24 minutes to explain to President Trump that he can’t manage this war,” Mr Zelensky said. “He can’t bring peace because of Putin.”

It comes as the Russian military said a Ukrainian missile strike on a shipyard in annexed Crimea damaged a Russian ship.

The Russian defence ministry said late on Saturday that Ukrainian forces fired 15 cruise missiles at the Zaliv shipyard in Kerch, a port on the eastern coastline of Crimea.

Air defences shot down 13 missiles but others hit the shipyard and damaged a vessel, a statement from the ministry said. They did not provide details about the extent of damage.

Ukrainian air force commander Mykola Oleshchuk said in a statement that, at the time of the attack carried out by Ukrainian tactical aviation, “one of the most modern ships of Russia’s Black Sea fleet was at the shipyard – carrier of the Kalibr cruise missiles”.

A local Crimean channel reported that the Russian “Askold” military ship was struck three times by strikes on Saturday, though that has not been confirmed.

Ukraine has increasingly targeted naval facilities in Crimea in recent months. In September, a Ukrainian missile strike on a strategic shipyard in the port city of Sevastopol damaged two Russian ships and injured 24 people.

Later that same month, a missile strike blasted the Crimean headquarters of Russia’s navy in Sevastopol.

Commenting on Saturday’s strike, the head of Ukraine’s presidential office, Andriy Yermak, said in a Telegram post on Sunday morning that “life constantly proves that there won’t be [Russia’s] Black Sea fleet in Crimea”.