Vitali Klitschko sends a message of gratitude to Mail readers

Thanks, Mail readers, for all you’ve done for my people: Vitali Klitschko, the world champion boxer who is now mayor of Kyiv, sends a message of gratitude… and raw courage

  • Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko send thanks to Daily Mail readers for their donations
  • However, the former boxing world champion warns ‘we need more help still’ 
  • He is second most important target for  Russian troops after President Zelensky
  • Mail Force appeal has so far raised almost £8.5million for Ukraine’s refugees 

Dr Iron Fist, as he was known in the ring, folds my puny hand into his once lethal right. In the woods below us the crackle of small arms practice for citizen volunteers continues.

Further away, on the edge of this great city of which Vitali Klitschko is both civic leader and now totem of wartime resistance, the grumble of Putin’s artillery is unabated.

‘Thank your readers for what they have done for us already,’ the mayor of Kyiv tells me, in reference to the Mail Force appeal that has so far raised almost £8.5million for Ukraine’s refugees. ‘But tell them we need more help still.’

And so ends perhaps the most memorable press conference I have ever attended.

Three-time world heavyweight title-holder Mayor Klitschko is marked as the second most important target for a Russian ‘decapitation’ strike against Ukraine’s leadership, after President Zelensky.

Consequently, up until now, any media interviews have largely been conducted via Skype.

But today he wants to throw off those shackles and meet us in person. And so the Mail – and a select number of other representatives of the international media – has been invited to a necessarily clandestine, last-minute, rendezvous with the mayor and his brother, fellow former world heavyweight boxing champion Wladimir.

Just a few hours after the latest 35-hour lockdown has ended, we meet outdoors, beside the fountain of St Michael the Archangel in Volodymyrska Hirka Park.

On one side our backdrop is the golden domes of the monastery and cathedral, on the other a panoramic view across the besieged city.

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko, pictured with Daily Mail writer Richard Pendlebury, supporting The Mail’s campaign to raise money for Ukraine refugees

Then WBO heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschki holds a Ukrainian flag aloft at the London Arena following a victory over Herbie Hide in 1999

It is a charming spot. Birds sing and squirrels gambol among the landscaped gardens and ornate lamp posts. 

There is bandstand perched amid the black cherry and willow trees, still leafless though the bright weather tells us that vesna – spring – has arrived. And yet the sights and sounds of war are all around us.

The brothers arrive and the first thing you notice, inevitably, is how big they are. And how they carry themselves – stalking into the park like panthers, accompanied by their security detail.

The Klitschkos do not appear to be wearing body armour like everyone else. Their expressions are stern, watchful. 

Like boxers at a weigh-in. Vitali is 50. Wladimir the little brother – if you can describe someone who is almost 6ft 6in tall as little – will be 46 tomorrow. Yet Vitali is taller still. He is also rather more grey around the temples. 

Both speak good English and without notes. ‘The times are tough and I am responsible, as the mayor of Kyiv, to give a good life for everyone, to provide services, electricity, heating, water,’ Vitali begins.

‘Right now we guess half of the population, especially women and children, have already left.’

He turns to his brother: ‘I very much appreciate Wladimir, who uses his influential contacts with [international] business people…’

At this moment the air raid sirens begin to wail, again. There is the distant boom of explosions. But the mayor carries on as if nothing is happening: ‘…and political decision-makers regarding humanitarian help. We need support right now in this time.’

Wladimir makes some obliging comments about the journalists who are present. ‘All of us Ukrainians have a lot of respect for you, because you could be somewhere else,’ he says.

‘Some of you have been killed but it’s not stopping you. Ukraine [will have been] under continuous attack for one month soon. But our will is as strong as it could be and most importantly [so is our will] to defend our democratic principles.’ 

Cleanup continues at Retroville Shopping Mall in Kyiv today after it was destroyed by a Russian airstrike yesterday. At least eight people were killed initially and another person is dead after a second strike today

A shopping mall lies in ruins after a missile strike of the Russian troops in the Podilskyi district of Kyiv on Wednesday

Firefighters extinguish a fire at a house hit by a Russian shell in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Wednesday

The sirens swell but so does Wladimir’s oratory: ‘It’s going to be a long run and we must have patience and endurance. We are defending the world.

‘People speak about a possible world war. I believe it has already started. The whole world is against this senseless war that Russia, that Putin’s regime, has started. Ukraine is just the beginning, so we better stop them here.’

The mayor is asked what the current military threat to Kyiv is.

‘It is not top secret that the target of the aggressors is the capital of Ukraine,’ he says. 

‘They had plans three weeks ago to be here in the capital. Everybody was surprised how tough the Ukrainian army and soldiers [were]. Because we stand in front of one of the strongest armies in the world.’

‘I tell you why we are so tough and why the Russian soldiers are not so effective,’ he adds. 

‘They are fighting for their money. But we are defending our children, our families, our city and our future. We don’t want to be slaves. 

‘We don’t want to live in a dictatorship. We want to be part of the European family, [as a] democratic, modern European country. 

‘The Russians want to rebuild the Russian empire and we don’t know where that ambition ends. Maybe the border of Poland, maybe the Czech Republic, maybe Germany. But our soldiers destroyed their plans to circle Kyiv.’

It is not just the soldiers who are resolute. ‘A few days ago in Obolon district, a rocket destroyed an apartment building,’ Vitali says. 

‘An old man, over 60, came to me and said, “Mr Mayor, what do I do? My home is destroyed.”

‘I suggested he leave but he said, “I’m sorry I do not want to leave. This is my hometown. I have lived here all my life. Mr Mayor please just give me a weapon.”’

Vitali gives a smile that might be a grimace: ‘The Russians receive the same answer from all our citizens. 

‘The people want to defend their city and show the spirit of Kyiv. His message to the Russians? “Leave our homeland. Go home.”’

He said that, so far, 264 civilians have been killed in Kyiv, with another 300 in hospital. Some 80 buildings have been destroyed. 

As the press conference draws to a close, Mayor Klitschko is more than happy to shake my hand and pose with the Mail Force appeal poster.

Britain has long had a special place in his heart. It was in London in the summer of 1999 that he won his first world heavyweight title – against British WBO champion Herbie Hide.

An hour before I meet the brothers I watch a YouTube video of the fight. It doesn’t take long.

Hide enters the ring with a swagger, as if expecting an easy win – rather like the Russian army did a month ago. 

Klitschko, sporting shorts in the now iconic blue and yellow of his country’s flag, boxes technically – twice flooring his opponent. And on the second occasion Hide is unable to continue. It’s a TKO.

The sword-wielding St Michael on the ornamental fountain is also surrounded by enemies: eight cringing dragons perched on the lip of the fountain’s bowl.

This is why Mayor Klitschko has chosen it as our rendezvous. ‘This is the angel who defends our city,’ he says. ‘It is a symbolic place. This is the heart of Kyiv.’

With St Michael and Dr Iron Fist stood side by side, no wonder the Russians are struggling.

Here’s how YOU can help: Donate here to the Mail Force Ukraine Appeal

Readers of Mail Newspapers and MailOnline have always shown immense generosity at times of crisis.

Calling upon that human spirit, we are supporting a huge push to raise money for refugees from Ukraine.

For, surely, no one can fail to be moved by the heartbreaking images and stories of families – mostly women, children, the infirm and elderly – fleeing from the bombs and guns.

As this tally of misery increases over the coming days and months, these innocent victims of this conflict will require accommodation, schools and medical support.

Donations to the Mail Force Ukraine Appeal will be used to help charities and aid organisations providing such essential services.

In the name of charity and compassion, we urge all our readers to give swiftly and generously.


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