Escorted by fighter jets, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky flew into a locked down Italian capital on Saturday May 13, where he was received with full honors by the President of the Italian Republic Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. The last official meeting of the day was at the Vatican, where he was received by Pope Francis.

Sergio Mattarella, whose role as president is largely ceremonial, reiterated Italy’s position towards Ukraine: “We are fully at your side,” he said to Zelensky.

The face-to-face meeting between Zelensky and Italian leader Meloni at Palazzo Chigi (the seat of the Italian government) took place in English without interpreters. At the end of the meeting, a working lunch was extended to the Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, Defense Minister Guido Crosetto and the Italian ambassador in Kyiv, Pier Francesco Zazo.

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“At the end of February, I was in Kyiv. Last April 26 we held a major conference in Rome for the reconstruction of Ukraine to demonstrate that our nation wants to play a leading role in the reconstruction and that we are betting on Ukraine’s victory,” Giorgia Meloni said at the end of the meeting with the Ukrainian president.

“Europe is very important to us, we will respect all the indications required to join the EU,” Zelensky added.

The conversation between Pope Francis and the Ukrainian President lasted 40 minutes, following the strict Vatican protocol. The two exchanged gifts. The Pope gave Zelensky a small sculpture representing an olive branch, a symbol of peace. The Ukrainian leader gave the Pope an icon of the Madonna painted on the remains of a bulletproof vest.

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Zelensky drew parallels to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which led to years of conflict and eventual US involvement.

In the evening, Zelensky was interviewed on television by the dean of TV journalists, Bruno Vespa, on the terrace of the Vittoriano, the Altar of the Fatherland in Rome, dedicated to the fallen of wars. During the program Porta a Porta, one of Italy’s most popular late-night talk shows, Vespa invited the directors of the main channels and newspapers in Italy.

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He personally asked a question about the dialogue between the Ukrainian president and the Pope. “It was an honor for me to meet His Holiness, but he knows my position: the war is in Ukraine and the plan must be Ukrainian. We are very interested in involving the Vatican in our formula for peace,” the Ukrainian president replied.

Asked if he would be willing to talk to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Zelensky said: “You can’t mediate with Putin, we know him, he kills. He defends his seat and kills not only our people but his own people as well.”

On the danger of Putin’s use of nuclear weapons, Zelensky believes, “Putin will not use nuclear weapons. No one can know what’s going through the Russian president’s mind.” Yet he underlined that “Putin has a great desire to live, and he will try to do everything to live.”

The Ukrainian leader confirmed that the solution to the war in Ukraine “is the counteroffensive: when we reach the border with Crimea, support for Putin within Russia will decrease and he will have to find a way out. Not long now.”

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Regarding the support offered by Italy to the war effort, Zelensky said that without “the defense of our skies thanks to anti-aircraft systems, like the SAMP-T, there would have been more victims” and he thanked Italy and also France for the decision to send the anti-missile system.”

When asked directly about the drone attack on Moscow in recent days, the Ukrainian president replied: “We have not launched any drones on the Kremlin, [Putin] wants to show it. He has less and less motivation for his society, he needed to hit us in some way and so he did.” He added: “we are not bombing the civilian population, we can only use weapons on occupied territories, not beyond.”

Zelensky also stressed how Putin’s off-ramp hinges on his ability to spin Russia’s inevitable defeat into a perceived victory: “Not everyone understands what happens inside Russia’s information sphere. Putin totally controls the media space in order to have the support of society in the war in Ukraine, and he will make sure to communicate through propaganda that he won anyway. Our task is to put pressure on him every day, not only on the battlefield but also through sanctions.”

When asked about his concept of victory, the Ukrainian president affirmed: “There are different interpretations of ‘victory.’ I don’t know what victory means for people who have lost their children in battle. They are old people who buried young people and children who went to fight and die for our nation.” For this reason, he continued, “victory is not just the territories. We want justice, we demand it, and we want peace, but we want a just peace. For many people it is important to achieve this,” Zelensky concluded.

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After this intense Italian visit, Zelensky went to Berlin overnight to discuss air defense, reconstruction, the European Union and NATO with German Chancellor Scholz.

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