Russia Nearly Captured Zelensky in First Few Hours of Ukraine Invasion

Russian forces nearly captured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his family in the presidential offices during the first few hours of their invasion of Ukraine, according to a new report.

Russian President Vladimir Putin initially directed his military forces to try and seize the capital but they failed because of fierce Ukrainian resistance. However, Russian forces came within minutes of catching Zelensky, potentially to assassinate him on February 24, the day Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the invasion, TIME reported.

The TIME article includes a series of interviews with the president and his closest advisers.

Zelensky
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky takes questions at a press conference on April 23, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Russian forces nearly captured Zelensky and his family in the presidential offices during the first few hours of their invasion of Ukraine, according to a new report. John Moore/Getty

Before sunrise on February 24, Zelensky and his wife Olena Zelenska told their children—a 17-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son—that bombing had started and that they needed to prepare to evacuate.

"We woke them up," Zelensky told TIME's Simon Shuster, who spent two weeks in the presidential compound this month. "It was loud. There were explosions over there."

Zelensky said that his recollection of the first few hours of the war were "fragmented" but certain memories stood out. The Ukrainian military told the president that Russian strike teams had parachuted into Kyiv to assassinate him or capture him and his family.

On the evening of February 24, gunfights broke out in the government quarter and security shut the lights in the compound and brought bulletproof vests and assault rifles for Zelensky and about 12 of his advisors, TIME reported.

One of them, Oleksiy Arestovych, a veteran of Ukraine's military intelligence service, said that Russian troops tried to storm the presidential compound twice, while Zelensky and his family were still there.

American and British forces offered to evacuate the president and his team, so they could set up a government in exile. Zelensky reportedly said "I need ammunition, not a ride."

There was also a bunker outside Kyiv that the president could have gone to, which was secure and could withstand a long siege. However, Zelensky refused to leave Kyiv, instead taking to the streets despite nearby fighting to record video addresses to the Ukrainian people.

After failing to capture the Ukrainian capital, at the beginning of April the Russian military withdrew its forces from Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv, instead focusing its attack on the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. Western officials said that the change in military tactics gave the Russian army a chance to regroup and re-stock resources and ammunition after experiencing heavy losses.