In his address to Stanford University students on Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recalled the story of a boy who fled Mariupol, a city on the Sea of Azov that was devastated by the invading Russian army.
The boy managed to escape the city and seek refuge in another part of Ukraine, Zelenskyy said in his video address. Grateful to his hosts, he told them that next summer they should come to visit his family in Mariupol.
"He said, 'Yes, there's no town, but the sea is still there,'" Zelenskyy said. "This is a story about life — life always winning over death. And that matters most for everyone.
"This is a story about a human being who is still sincere and grateful in the most horrific circumstances because he is a free person. And I believe Ukrainians, who have been tested by this war, will still be sincere, grateful and free."
Wearing his signature olive green T-shirt, Zelenskyy sounded an optimistic note about the long-term future of Ukraine, even as he acknowledged the brutal reality that his nation has faced since Russia's invasion began on Feb. 24. While Ukrainian forces had repelled Russia's army in Kyiv and Kharkiv, the neighboring nations are now battling it out in the Donbas region in the east, where Russia is reportedly making steady advances. And despite Ukraine's success in Kharkiv, the nation's second-largest city continues to reel under Russia's bombardment. Two days ago, Russian bombs killed nine civilians, including a 6-month-old child.
"This is a bloody war, a fierce war and a cruel war," Zelenskyy said.
Zelenskyy had visited the Stanford campus last September, months before Russia launched its full-scale invasion. At that time, he described Ukraine as a place where "everything is possible." That, he told the Stanford crowd, remains just as true today, even though much else has changed. He contrasted the experience of Stanford students with those of their counterparts in Ukraine.
"From May of this year to September, I know this will be a difficult path, a painful path," Zelenskyy said. "And during that period the young people will not be looking at professors and at their colleagues, but they will be looking at their comrades at the trenches and at enemies that they can see through the sights of their weapon or through the UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles).
Zelenskyy was introduced to the crowd by Michael McFaul, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University and former U.S. ambassador to Russia. McFaul characterized the conflict in Ukraine as a battle between good and evil.
"In the fight between democracy and dictatorship, colonialism and independence, and good and evil, no nation in the world is doing more," McFaul said in his introductory remarks. "No nation in the world is sacrificing more than Ukrainians."
McFaul highlighted the connection between Stanford and Ukraine, noting that the university has trained about 225 Ukrainians over the past two decades, many of whom now work for the Ukrainian government. Current students have also stepped up since the outbreak of the war to help. Stanford's medical students have launched an initiative called Telehelp Ukraine that connects physicians with patients in Ukraine who need health support. And over the course of the discussion, Zelenskyy heard from a student who went to Ukraine to provide on-the-ground assistance; another who participated in Aspen Institute Kyiv, a nonprofit that fosters cultural and political dialogue in Ukraine; and another who is from Russia and who wants to do more to promote independent journalism and disseminate accurate information about the conflict.
Students greeted Zelenskyy with a standing ovation and, one after another, asked him what more they can do to help Ukraine. Responding to the Russian student, he urged her to use her social media channels and other means to penetrate Russia's "information mausoleum."
"The world is big and we have to remove the frontiers, open the borders and bring the truth in with the knowledge, with conviction, with persuasion," Zelenskyy said. "And this a mission for the leaders, for the people who sometimes unfortunately cannot see or hear the truth and take no heed. With years, we'll have more people like that.
"You can penetrate this wall. You can present the truth to them."
Zelenskyy said that he believes the war will change the relationship between Ukrainian and American people, who he said have already grown closer and have become "much closer in our feelings." Both nations, he said, have the same idea in mind when they talk about "freedom."
"Our cities and towns are devastated, our sea is blocked, but we remain free," Zelenskyy said.
Since the onset of the war, the United States has already contributed about $54 billion in aid to Ukraine, assistance that has helped the nation rebuff Russian advances and reclaim territories. But with no end in sight for the conflict in Donbas, some in the United States have argued in recent weeks that Ukraine should make territorial concessions to Russia as part of a peace agreement. The New York Times issued an editorial last week that argued that a decisive victory by Ukraine is "not realistic" and suggested that a peace agreement will require "painful territorial decisions" as part of a compromise with Russia.
Henry Kissinger, former U.S. national security adviser, also suggested earlier this month that Ukraine should accept as part of a peace deal the "status quo ante," the conditions that were in place just before the war. This would effectively concede that Crimea, which Russia had invaded and annexed in 2014, would now be accepted as part of Russia.
McFaul said in an interview after the Friday event that he strongly rejects this argument.
"The idea of giving Russia more territory to reward them for the use of military force — I don't know of cases in world history where that's worked," McFaul told this news organization. "We have a very bitter memory, a bitter history, especially in the run-up to World War II, where giving territory and legitimizing annexation did not lead to peace, it actually led to more conflict. I think these are dangerous and, frankly, naive concepts from people who do not understand Putin and his imperial intentions."
Despite the difficult situation in Donbas, McFaul said that in his view, Ukraine has already won the war.
"They have already defeated most of Putin's objectives. They thwarted him," McFaul said. "But the battle in Donbas is real and I fear it will last for a long time."
Watch Zelenskyy's full address: