There were snickers when he became President, a comedian who had been elected to lead Ukraine. There were also whispers, primarily from those who believe this country should be led by a Ukrainian speaker, that Volodymyr Zelensky, who speaks Russian as a first language, was somehow in the service of the Kremlin.
But as Mr. Zelensky remains in the centre of Kyiv, keeping the spirits of this country up by broadcasting defiant videos while Russian troops close in and missiles smash into this city, nobody is laughing any more.
The supposedly pro-Moscow Mr. Zelensky has become a heroic symbol of Ukrainian resistance – and a surprisingly worthy rival of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Good morning to all Ukrainians,” Mr. Zelensky said in a video posted to social media on Saturday morning, giving a tired smile and moving his cellphone camera around to show that he was standing in front of the Presidential Administration building in Kyiv. Then he tackled, for the second time in 12 hours, the rumours that he had fled the country.
“Lately there has been a lot of fake information online that I am calling on our army to lay down their arms and to evacuate. Listen. I am here,” he said in the video, which received three million views on Instagram in an hour. “We are not going to lay down anything. We will protect our country. Our weapon is truth. And the truth is that it is our land. Our country. Our children. And we will protect it. That is it. That’s what I wanted to tell you. Glory to Ukraine.”
A few hours earlier, The Associated Press reported that the U.S. government had indeed offered to evacuate the 44-year-old Mr. Zelensky, with concerns for his safety rising as Russian troops closed to within a few kilometres of his office. His reply, as related by an unnamed U.S. intelligence official, is now legend in Ukraine: “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
Mr. Zelensky has himself acknowledged that he is likely the primary target of the Russian assault on Kyiv. “The enemy marked me as a target No. 1 and my family as the target No. 2,” he said on Thursday. The Russian plan, he said, was “to destroy Ukraine politically by destroying the head of state.”
Iuliia Mendel, a former spokeswoman for Mr. Zelensky, said the President is sincere about wanting to remain in Kyiv. “Once he told me that as a leader he will stay with the people to the end. And he wasn’t acting, there were no cameras. He meant that,” she said.
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Ms. Mendel said during media trips to the southeastern Donbas region – where the Ukrainian army had been fighting a Moscow-backed militia even before Russia launched a larger invasion – Mr. Zelensky never avoided the front line. “He was never afraid to go to where our soldiers were being shelled. … Even if the guards didn’t allow it, that didn’t stop him. So I knew the President would stay with the people in Kyiv until the end.”
The transformation from TV comic to wartime leader and national hero has been as astonishing as it has been rapid.
Mr. Zelensky first entered the Ukrainian national consciousness as part of a comedy troupe that he told an interviewer was inspired by Monty Python, but which wound up closer to Benny Hill-style slapstick to appeal to Ukrainian audiences.
His big breakthrough came with the show Servant of the People, in which Mr. Zelensky played a high school teacher who suddenly rose to become President of Ukraine. After four years of playing the role on TV, Mr. Zelensky announced in 2019 that he was running for the job in real life.
Mr. Zelensky’s entry into politics came at a time when populist forces around the world were on the rise. In Ukraine, there was a fatigue with all the usual politicians – in particular the incumbent Petro Poroshenko, who had risen to power following the country’s 2014 pro-Western revolution.
Five years of grinding war, pitting the Ukrainian army against a Moscow-backed militia that controlled Donbas, killed 14,000 people and undermined the revolution’s promise of a better, more European lifestyle. People were ready for something else, and Mr. Zelensky was swept to power with 73 per cent of the vote. A few months later, his “Servant of the People” party – named after his TV show – won a majority of the seats in Ukraine’s parliament.
Mr. Zelensky suddenly had complete control of the political stage, and some in Ukraine’s pro-European camp were worried about what he’d do with it. Many Ukrainian speakers were instinctively suspicious of a politician who hailed from the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine. There were whispers about his connections to billionaire oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, whose media empire made Mr. Zelensky into a star.
One of his key electoral promises was to try and make peace in Donbas, a pledge that worried Ukrainian nationalists who feared Mr. Zelensky would make a deal with Russia that would compromise Ukraine’s constitutionally enshrined goals of seeking membership in the European Union and NATO.
But after an initial meeting in 2019 that saw Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Putin – under a negotiation format known as the Minsk process – agree to a prisoner swap in Donbas, Mr. Zelensky ran into the same problem Mr. Poroshenko had: Mr. Putin didn’t want peace, he wanted control of Ukraine.
The Minsk protocols, which were agreed to by Mr. Poroshenko in 2015 at a time when the Russian army and its proxies seemed poised to seize an even larger chunk of Donbas, were always a trap for Ukraine. If any president ever fully implemented Russia’s interpretation of the deal, they’d effectively be conceding the “separatist” leaders in Donbas – and their real masters in Moscow – a veto over Ukraine ever joining the EU and NATO. That would likely have led to another revolution in Kyiv.
Unable to secure what he wanted through negotiations with Mr. Zelensky, Mr. Putin has now gone to war.
Mr. Putin – a 69-year-old former spy who has ruled Russia since the turn of the century – may have calculated that Mr. Zelensky was a political neophyte who would fold under the pressure of being a wartime leader.
Mr. Zelensky initially looked lost. He took intense criticism for his “don’t panic” messaging throughout January and early February, blaming the White House and Western media for damaging the Ukrainian economy with their talk of an imminent Russian invasion.
Partially as a result, grocery shelves were full and cafés were packed in Kyiv even just a few hours before the first Russian missiles struck. The first days of war have seen Ukrainians scrambling to withdraw money from banks and to stock up on groceries, medicines and other essentials – things they might have been able to do in advance if their leader had been blunter with them about what was coming. The highways and border crossings have been clogged with people trying to flee.
“Perhaps the previous communication, before the Russian onslaught, was not 100 per cent prepared,” Ms. Mendel said. “But I’m not sure you can be prepared for such a situation.”
But Mr. Zelensky’s performances since the Russian assault began have impressed even his critics. “He’d never been tested in a serious situation before and because of his background no one was sure how he’d behave. His actions leading up to Thursday didn’t inspire confidence. But he’s been solid since then,” said Daniel Bilak, a Ukrainian-Canadian lawyer who has advised several Ukrainian prime ministers.
Mr. Bilak, like many Kyiv residents, has remained in the city despite days of aerial bombardment and rocket attacks. “Zelensky’s attitude and message are 100 per cent aligned with where the people are.”
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