WASHINGTON (HPD) — A year ago, with Russian forces closing in on the Ukrainian capital, Western leaders feared for the life of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and advised him to leave. The United States offered him an escape route.
Instead, he recorded a defiant video of himself standing on a dark street outside the presidential offices with his four closest aides trailing behind him. “We are all here,” Zelenskyy said in a statement of his determination to stay in kyiv and defend Ukrainian independence.
It was a powerful political staging. Since the early days of the war, when few expected the Ukrainian army to withstand the Russian onslaught, Zelenskyy has inspired Ukrainians to fight. He has given them hope.
Night after night, he has addressed the nation with a video posted on social media. His acting-trained voice can be soothing or forceful, rising with moral outrage as he condemns the latest Russian atrocities and calls for those responsible to be punished.
He speaks of the anger and pain for the devastation of the country and the countless number of deaths. He promises that Ukraine will recover one day. He does not get tired of thanking everyone who is at the front. Through the horrors of war, he has instilled the belief that Ukraine can win.
Zelenskyy was just 41 when he was elected president in 2019, largely on the promise that he would be the kind of anti-corruption leader he had portrayed on a popular TV show. In those early years, he had a hard time convincing Ukrainians that he was up to the job, and his approval rating dipped.
War can make leaders heroes or fools. Moscow’s troubles in Ukraine have done nothing to elevate Russian President Vladimir Putin in the eyes of the world. But it is as a wartime leader that Zelenskyy has found his place. Many now compare him to Winston Churchill, the British prime minister who led his country during World War II against attacks by Nazi Germany.
“He’s been extraordinarily good at channeling a kind of broader national spirit,” Fiona Hill, a Russia specialist at the Brookings Institution who has worked on the last three US administrations, said in an interview with The Associated Press. In part, she attributes Zelenskky’s success to his training as an actor. “Sometimes, it’s literally when we say this is the role of a lifetime, there’s an element of acting to it.”
Hill noted that Churchill “was not as great a leader in peacetime as he was in war, and he was also an actor, he enjoyed amateur theater and knew he was playing a part.”
As a wartime leader, Zelenskyy began to dress like one almost immediately, swapping out his suit jackets for a full army-green wardrobe. His boyish face was filled with a dark beard. He seemed to age overnight.
Before the invasion, he looked a lot like the kindly history teacher on his TV series, “Servant of the People,” which tells the story of a man who is elected president against all odds after a student incognito tapes his full-blown tirade. of blasphemies against corruption in the government. The comedy slot, which ran from 2015 until the actual elections in the spring of 2019, was very popular.
Michael Kimmage, who worked on Russia and Ukraine policy at the US State Department under President Barack Obama, noted that part of Zelenskyy’s success in uniting the country dates back to the 2019 election, when he won with 70% of the vote and without the east-west divide of previous elections.
But to Kimmage, the leader’s “almost Churchillian characteristics” came as a surprise.
“He’s a former actor and comedian, so it’s not natural for him to play that military role. But he fit in,” he stated. “I don’t know where he came from. It’s obviously a huge consequence of the war itself, but not a quality he would have seen in Zelenskyy before the war.”
In addition to uniting the country, Zelenskyy has also been very effective in getting the world to support the Ukrainians and provide them with a steady flow of money and military aid that have kept them fighting. After dozens of speeches by video conference, Zelenskyy left the country for the first time since the start of the war in December to meet US President Joe Biden at the White House and address Congress. In early February he visited London, Paris and Brussels.
At last week’s Munich Security Conference, Zelenskyy was relentless in imploring allies to stand firm with Ukraine and not waste a minute. Russia is Goliath, he said, and Ukraine is David with the slingshot.
“There is no alternative to speed,” said the president. “Because it is on speed that life depends.”
His call to send more and more powerful weapons to the country has been grinding down resistance. He recently was rewarded with long-range missiles, advanced air defense systems and modern battle tanks that will help his government try to retake territory as the war enters its second year.
Despite Zelenskyy’s obvious power, his adviser Mykhailo Podolyak, one of the four men who appear behind him in the video of the start of the war, qualified the praise.
“It puts me in a bit of an awkward position, because on the one hand, of course, I see a president who is in his place,” Podolyak told the HPD. “It is very cold. He has a temper of steel, a will of iron, a fantastic will to take responsibility and so on.
But, according to Podolyak, the conflict has shown that Ukraine has many people with the same iron will: “That is, this country cannot be broken because there are many people who will always be against being broken, and who will never kneel down.” , who will always be ready to assume responsibilities”.
Hill noted that Zelenskyy is not the only one who has stepped up during the war. Unlike Russia, where the operation is directed from the top down, for Ukraine it is an existential struggle.
“Actually, I think that all Ukrainians, for the most part, have also stepped forward,” he said. “Think of all the people who have gone to the front lines, all the people who have basically had to deal with this every day. This is a national effort.”
Before taking office, Zelenskyy traveled to his hometown, Krivoy Rog, to visit the grave of his grandfather, a Red Army officer who fought against the Nazis in WWII. A family friend, Oleksandr Krizhov, a 73-year-old dentist, told the HPD that he asked the president’s father, a university professor, why he had done it.
“It was a promise to his grandfather: ‘You won’t be ashamed of me,’” he said.
Associated Press journalists Hanna Arhirova in kyiv, Ukraine; Samya Kullab in Krivoy Rog, Ukraine, and Aamer Madhani and Tracy Brown in Washington contributed to this report.