As he looked at the missing limbs and grief-stricken faces of wounded Ukrainian soldiers being treated in a US hospital, President Volodymyr Zelensky had one word for Russian leaders heading to a key UN summit: “terrorists.”
Zelensky arrived in New York on Monday to address the United Nations General Assembly and plead for more aid as Ukraine painfully pushes ahead with a high-stakes counteroffensive to wrest back territory from Russian forces more than 18 months into the war.
Before meeting world leaders, Zelensky headed to Staten Island University Hospital, where a group of Ukrainian soldiers are receiving prosthetic arms and legs and rehabilitation services.
In a large hospital room, the Ukrainian president watched as several soldiers in khaki uniform practiced walking and lifting weights with newly acquired prosthetic legs and arms.
Zelensky chatted with the soldiers and shook their hands — if they had them.
Even as he tried to lift the soldiers’ spirits, the Ukrainian leader was visibly shaken.
“Is it tough?” Zelensky asked one soldier.
“A little,” came the reply.
Another soldier, who hails from the Zaporizhzhia region in southern Ukraine, the site of intense fighting, tried to put on a brave face.
“How are you doing? Is it difficult?” Zelensky asked.
The soldier paused, then answered: “It’s okay.”
“Stay strong,” Zelensky implored.
Nine Ukrainian soldiers are currently undergoing treatment at the hospital. The clinic has helped a total of 35 servicemen over the past year, according to hospital staff and the Ukrainian-American NGO Kind Deeds which supplies prostheses for war amputees.
Kyiv does not disclose war casualty figures, but US officials estimate that the number of dead and wounded Ukrainian soldiers is nearing 500,000, the New York Times reported last month.
“Get home soon, thank you for your service,” Zelensky told the soldiers as he left the room.
In another room, Zelensky, flanked by medical staff, told a different group of soldiers that their American doctors were amazed by the Ukrainian servicemen’s resilience and dedication.
“He said ‘I’ve never seen people who have such a strong desire to return home,'” Zelensky said of one physician. “We all will be waiting for you to come back home, we absolutely need every one of you, every strong Ukrainian fighter in order to defeat our enemy. I am convinced that it will certainly happen.”
Zelensky then presented some soldiers and hospital staff with Ukrainian state awards.
Asked by a journalist about the possibility of ending up in the same room with Russian representatives during the General Assembly, Zelensky turned somber.
“It is, for us, very important that all our words, all our messages, are heard by our partners,” Zelensky said. “If in the United Nations still … there is a place for Russian terrorists, the question is not to me — I think it’s a question to all the member states.”
Zelensky posed for photos with soldiers, including one who had prosthetics for both arms and appeared deeply traumatized. After the photo was taken, Zelensky helped the soldier sit back down.
Due to address the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, Zelensky headed off.
“I wish you victory and to come back home,” he told the soldiers.