They sit across a long table, each at one end. They both have their arms resting on the table.
Z – We will not surrender.
P – How many more people you think will be killed?
Z – That’s up to you, isn’t it?
P – If you put down your arms, there will be no more deaths.
Z – But there will be no freedom.
P – Explain to me what that means.
Z – Letting people be who they wish to be.
Putin smiles dismissively.
Z – By your reaction I can tell you’ve never known it yourself.
P – I can have what I want when I want.
Z – At the expense of others. Others who have been too intimidated to revolt against you.
P – They don’t revolt because they like what I give them.
Z – Thousands of Ukrainians and Russians dead? Cities destroyed? Millions of people displaced? Is that your gift to your people? It will take us years to rebuild. I don’t think Russians are stupid.
P – I see you spend much time reading American propaganda.
Z – The Americans and you fought a long war against Nazi Germany. Now you say America is supporting a Nazi government in Ukraine and that I am a Nazi. Who do you really think believes that?
Those who choose to believe such lies have no minds. So you, sir, have managed to make them dumb politically. It happens to people when they are not free to express themselves. When they’re not free to think.
But all is not lost. I am sure one day there will be freedom in Russia. Just not under you.
P – But maybe under Alexei Navalny?
Z – Yes. And you don’t have the guts to let him out of prison and run against you in free elections because he will beat you soundly.
P (amused) – I have a very high approval rating…
Z – From non thinking people, but Navalny is another matter. You’re so afraid of him that you tried to kill him.
P – More American propaganda…
Z – German doctors established you used a nerve agent against Navalny, nearly killing him.
P – I did nothing of the kind. Navalny is in prison because of fraud he committed. And he will stay in prison. But let us not waste time on that. How is it that you think you can win a war against our superior army?
Z – We will beat you because we are fighting for our lives.
P – All of you?
Z – The great majority of us.
P – It is very sad… and very grandiose of you, to think you can stand up against me.
Z – Is it sad and grandiose to fight for what you believe?
P – There is still time… I can guarantee your safety and your family’s… but you must leave now. If not, I cannot promise anything.
Z – We will not surrender.
P – You say you are a comedian… but where is your sense of humor? Makes me wonder if you were any good.
Z – Excuse me. I am the president of a nation at war. A nation that will beat your army and boot you out of our territory.
Putin shakes his head slowly, growing irritation barely disguised.
P – You are sadly mistaken to think I will let you win. Listen carefully. I do not like wasting my time. I cannot lose this war. My whole existence depends on it. And I have the guns for it. I have the planes. I have the bombs. I have my people willing to sacrifice for a greater Russia.
Z – A greater Russia?
P – Do not interrupt me.
They stare at each other for an instant.
P – So far, out of a sense of compassion for your people…
Z – Compassion?
P – Yes…
Z – Compassion in Bucha? In Mariupol? In the bombing of a theater sheltering children, with clear markings saying so?
P (angrily) – What is the matter with you? Can you not listen? Do you not understand how much more brutal I can be?
Z – Oh, yes, I can. There is no end to how brutal you can be.
P (Pausing briefly as he restrains himself) – Mr Zelensky, I am a patient man, but you are pushing me.
Z – And you do not understand me. We will not surrender.
P (more calmly) – I will do whatever it takes to win this war.
Z – Whatever?
P – Yes.
Z – You will use nuclear weapons?
P – If you force me to.
Z – Force you to?
P (frustrated) – Do you want me to flatten Kyiv… leave it uninhabitable from radioactivity? Do you want the same for Lviv… Kharkiv…? Do you want to have that on your conscience for the rest of your life?
Z – My conscience but not yours?
P – Not mine… for I have a great union to rebuild, a union of republics destroyed by careless leaders… and the task to build a greater Russia is worth every sacrifice. I have been planning for this a long time. And now is the moment, now that the Americans are in decline and that China is on the rise. And we will rise like them, too.
They stare silently at each other for an instant.
Z – I grant that Russia has a distinguished history in all fields of endeavors… except one…
P – Which one?
Z – Politics. In that area it’s been all about terror, misery, control and enslavement. You gave us the Czars… serfdom… then followed with communism, a form of systematized dehumanization and poverty. So, what is it you’re trying to rebuild?
P (impatiently) – A union of republics to be feared by all in the world…
Z – Feared… but not respected?
P (sharply) – Stop being insolent!
Z – You’re speaking to the president of a free nation. I am not one of your many puppets.
Z – One thing is to have rockets, another to have economic development. You mention China. Just when do you plan to catch up?
You have almost three times the population of South Korea but about the same GDP. Even though you are the 2nd largest oil producer in the world. What has gone wrong?
P – We are distributing the wealth from our oil and gas and our wheat and aluminum and nickel…
Z – Amongst your favorites… whom you have made ultrarich, but there’s not enough initiative in your people… not because they’re not talented, but because you have squashed it with your political and economic repression.
Putin frowns, a little lost.
Z – There’s no freedom in your land… and the lack of it has atrophied something in the Russian spirit. You set out to tame your people and you have won.
P – Russians like having one leader… like the Chinese…
Z – No, they don’t like it, they’re being forced to like it. But unlike you, the Chinese have had enough economic freedom to make their markets appealing to the west, although that is now changing.
In your zeal to control others, you have damaged the development of Russian minds and hearts. With all your natural riches, your people have been underperforming in the world stage… and you like it that way.
Now you want to do it to us.
Putin eyes Zelensky with disdain.
P – Do you think that the Americans will come to your aid if I drop nuclear bombs on you?
Z – I do not know.
P – They won’t.
Z – You don’t know that.
P – I have made it clear to them that I’m ready for a nuclear confrontation.
Z – Yes, and president Biden made it clear to you that you cannot use chemical weapons on our people. Who knows what he’ll do if you do.
P – His generals won’t let him. The business sector won’t let him. Congress won’t let him.
Z – You don’t know that. With Taiwan they have a policy of ‘strategic ambiguity,’ to keep the Chinese guessing. So maybe with you they’re being deliberately ambiguous also.
P – They wouldn’t dare.
Z – I wouldn’t challenge them.
P – Do you not see that they’re using you?
Z – Using us?
P – Of course. Using you to try and overcome their differences. And America wants Europe to buy oil from them instead of us. It’s all about the dollar. About expanding their markets and reducing ours. They don’t give a damn about you. It’s all a show. That’s what they’re good at. Deception. Show business. When the time comes, they’ll stab you in the back and hand you over to me. But I’m giving you a chance right now to surrender and come to our side and spare the lives of thousands of your people.
Z (a faint smile) – If our defense of freedom has helped the west be more unified, I am proud of that. I am not naïve. The west has its problems, its contradictions, its injustices, but I can do battle with those so long as I have freedom. With you, I will be a slave.
P – Idiot! How dare you! You are nothing! Ukraine is nothing! You mean nothing to the world and I will destroy you.
Z (looking Putin in the eye, calmly) – Why are you so bent on our destruction if we mean so little? Why are you sacrificing so many Russian lives, if we are nothing?
Putin drops his face in his hand and rubs it slowly. He’s reached his limit. He looks up at Zelensky.
P – I’m giving you one last chance. You’ve been brainwashed by the west. I’m trying to help you. The future is ours… here in the east. And you can be part of it. America is dying and I can smell the stench. And so can China.
We are extending our reach all over the world, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East… they like us in those countries. America’s corruption is massive. They talk about freedom but it’s all bogus. They just care about themselves…
Z – And you care about Ukrainians?
P (angrily) – Do not interrupt me! This is my last offer. Surrender now or you’ll pay with your life!
Z – I do not believe a word you say. Sir, you are not a free man… you have never been one… for if you had, you wouldn’t have ordered your troops to come and slaughter us, you wouldn’t have asked young Russians to die because you felt threatened by having a democratic nation so close to you.
And I do believe the west has welcomed us to their side. I know it in my heart.
P – How naïve you are.
I am sad to say that there will be no more peace negotiations.
Ours is a fight to the death.
Z – It’s been that way from the start.
P- This is the last time we meet, Mr Zelensky, for you will pay with your life.
Z – You may pay with yours.
P (shaking his head, frustrated) – Still believing in those fairy tales about what the Americans and Europeans will do for you. Brainwashed you is what they’ve done.
Z – Perhaps, but remember, just as we’re having to bury our brothers and sisters fallen in combat, so will your soldiers be returning to Russia in body bags.
(and leaning forward on the desk)
History, sir, will be kinder to me than to you.
They both rise and exit the room by separate entrances.
Oscar Valdes oscarvaldes.net, medium.com, anchor.fm, buzzsprout, apple and google podcasts