Ukraine continues to resist the Russian invasion, thanks in part to inspired leadership from the top.

Ukraine continues to resist the Russian invasion, thanks in part to inspired leadership from the top.


[M]: Aris Messinis / AFP (2), Maxim Dondyuk / DER SPIEGEL, ZUMA Press / dpa, Valentyn Ogirenko / REUTERS, Cozzoli / Fotogramma / ROPI, Andrea Filigheddu / ZUMA Press / picture alliance

The Role of a Lifetime Ukrainian President Zelenskyy Faces Down the Russians

Vladmir Putin thought he would roll into Kyiv almost unchallenged. But the Ukrainians refuse to give it – led by a man who seems perfectly adapted to the role history has asked him to fill: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

It often seems these days like there isn’t just one Volodymyr Zelenskyy, but many of them. The Ukrainian president can be seen addressing the European Parliament, he can be seen speaking to cheering masses of peace demonstrators from the big screen in Prague or Frankfurt, and he can be seen delivering video addresses – as he did this week – to lawmakers in Ottawa, Washington and Berlin.

And his speeches are tailored perfectly for his target audience. In London, he deployed a modified version of a quote from Winston Churchill, the World War II hero who is deeply venerated in the United Kingdom, saying: "We will fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, in the streets."

In his address to parliamentarians in the Canadian capital of Ottawa, he beseeched Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to imagine that it was his country that was being attacked: "Imagine that at 4 a.m., each of you start hearing bomb explosions. Severe explosions. Justin, can you imagine hearing it? You, your children hear all these severe explosions: … bombing of Ottawa airport, tens of other cities of your wonderful country. Can you imagine that?”

In Washington, he compared Ukraine’s situation with the trauma of the U.S. after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in World War II and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He then showed a video clip of falling bombs, of people fleeing, of dead and injured children. It was such a moving and disturbing film, that some of the members of Congress could be seen wiping tears from their eyes and the broadcaster CNN apologized afterwards for not having warned its viewers of the drastic images.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 12/2022 (March 19th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

In a video speech to the Bundestag in Berlin, Zelenskyy adopted a more severe tone and scolded Germany for its overly cozy economic relations with the Putin regime. "We saw how many ties your companies still have with Russia," Zelenskyy said. His government, he added, issued plenty of warnings to Germany that Moscow could use the natural gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 as a weapon and to prepare for war. "We heard in response that it was an economy after all. Economy. Economy. But it was cement for a new wall."

He then addressed Chancellor Olaf Scholz directly: "Chancellor Scholz! Tear down this wall. Give Germany the leadership you deserve." That, too, was a historical reference, this time to U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s famous Berlin Wall speech from 1987, when he demanded that then-Kremlin boss Mikhail Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall.

A Global Audience

Zelenskyy’s message to the West is clear: Help us. You must do much more.

In the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, meanwhile, antitank obstacles are blocking the streets of Kyiv, missiles are slamming into residential buildings and people are crowding into subway stations to find shelter from the onslaught.

Zelenskyy has become a hero essentially overnight, the David who is fighting against Goliath. Good against evil. The unlikely war president, a Churchill dressed in an olive-green T-shirt and fleece jacket, a man who was ridiculed as a political clown until just recently. Now, he has catapulted himself onto the world stage and is reaching a global audience.

Destruction in Kyiv following a Russian attack

Destruction in Kyiv following a Russian attack

Foto: Maxim Dondyuk / DER SPIEGEL

Zelenskyy is far from being the only one who is standing up to the Russian invasion. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers are fighting the invaders, including members of the Territorial Defense Forces, doctors, first responders, logisticians, cooks, helpers and an army of volunteers. There is the mayor of the country’s second-largest city of Kharkiv, under attack by Russian troops. He speaks no Ukrainian, only Russian, but he has left no doubt that his city belongs to Ukraine. There is the young administrator in the city of Mykolaiv in the country’s embattled south who has become a media star in his own right with his regular video appearances. There is the mayor of the town of Melitopol, who was taken prisoner by the Russians, only to be freed by the Ukrainians. "There is something like a collective Zelenskyy," says Kyiv-based political scientist Volodymyr Fessenko.

And then, of course, there is Vitali Klitschko, the former heavyweight boxer who was elected mayor of Kyiv in 2014. Together with his brother Vladimir, Klitschko has made clear that he will not leave the city and intends to fight to the end. He has been a constant presence in the city the Russians are striving to encircle as he visits destroyed buildings and encourages aid workers and other volunteers.

But it is Volodymyr Zelenskyy who has become the face of the resistance against Russia’s aggression. The Ukrainian president with the stature and bearing of a tenacious wrestler has become a hero of human proportions, and his gifts include the ability to project these qualities around the world. His warmth and empathy appear to have the same effect on New Zealanders as they do on Germans, Greeks or Brazilians. And Zelenskyy has tirelessly deployed his popularity to try to generate as much support for his country around the world as humanly possible, no matter what shape it might take. Money, weapons, sanctions, mercenaries, clothes, bread, solidarity, songs, love: All of it is welcome and received with gratitude.

President Zelenskyy

President Zelenskyy

The power of his appearances derives from a number of sources. In a steady stream of videos, the world of war and very real danger is combined with elements familiar from present-day television series. When he strides through the halls of his official Kyiv residence with his mobile phone in selfie mode to prove his unrelenting stamina, it exudes the authenticity of amateur videos of the kind constantly seen on YouTube or Instagram.

His message to the West is this: "If Ukraine falls, all of Europe will fall." Or, in a slightly more positive spin: "If we win, and I’m sure we will win, this will be a victory for the whole democratic world." He is the face of these times, perhaps not exactly Che Guevara, but he too will become an icon: The freedom fighter from next door, someone almost like you and me.

The Hour of the Outsider

Much has been written about this man’s unique résumé. Someone who has twice played the role of president – first as an actor in a TV comedy show, more or less as a rehearsal, and then again in real life. In the television series "Servant of the People," Zelenskyy played an unsophisticated history teacher who, through no effort of his own, was elected to the office of head of state and had to assert himself in a corrupt political system. The image of the simple President Holoborodko, who lived modestly and rode his bicycle to work, became the best publicity for Zelenskyy when he later became a candidate for president in real life.

"If we win, and I’m sure we will win, this will be a victory for the whole democratic world."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy

But as unique as his career may appear, it adheres to a certain logic. It begins not with the talent of Zelenskyy, but with the failure of an entire political class. After almost three decades of independence, including two revolutions, there was hardly a politician left in Ukraine who the voters still trusted. And with that loss of trust, it was the hour of the populist, the outsider.

What Zelenskyy meant for Ukrainian politics at the time, and just how far his image was from his current one as wartime president, is perhaps best illustrated by a memorable campaign appearance in 2019. The scene was a public debate between Zelenskyy and the incumbent Petro Poroshenko at Kyiv’s Olympic Nation Sports Complex. The site had been chosen by Zelenskyy, he was more interested a grand television spectacle than a detailed political debate – since he was clearly the underdog. There was one issue that Poroshenko pushed into the limelight: Zelenskyy, he sought to demonstrate, was unfit for wartime leadership, he was a man only fit for peace. Ukraine, Poroshenko sought to impart, could not afford such a leader.

The incumbent asked if it was possible to imagine the comedian as the commander in chief of the Ukrainian military, only to answer the hypothetical himself: "An actor, a person with talent, but without experience, cannot wage war against a Russian aggressor," he said. Zelenskyy would be "a weak head of state," he intoned, "weak because he cannot stand up to Putin’s blows."

Zelenskyy visiting a Kyiv hospital

Zelenskyy visiting a Kyiv hospital

Foto: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service / REUTERS

Poroshenko – a head taller than Zelenskyy, a generation older and far more experienced in politics – had been elected to office immediately following the Euromaidan revolt. The billionaire politician had deployed the Ukrainian army to the Donbas in 2014 to battle pro-Moscow separatists, a fight which generated significant losses to the troops and the civilian population. He knew what it meant to fight against Putin’s disguised attacks and his open assaults. Zelenskyy, Poroshenko emphasized, had avoided serving in the military during these fateful times. Many in Ukraine felt he was unpatriotic.

Nobody inside the Kyiv stadium that day could imagine that Zelenskyy would suffer far greater blows from Putin than Poroshenko – and that he would become an exemplary commander in chief. Zelenskyy perhaps least of all. His ambition was that of bringing peace to the Donbas, of bringing the ongoing war in the region to an end. He wasn't interested in the role of wartime president. He wanted to be a peacetime president. When he donned military clothing for a visit to the troops in the Donbas following his election victory, he looked very much like a civilian who had little in common with the military.

Zelenskyy's Transformation

And that is exactly what the Ukrainians wanted in 2019. They had had enough of Poroshenko’s nationalistic rhetoric, with many suspecting that the patriotic slogans were merely a veil behind which the established political elite were hiding their corruption. An overwhelming majority united behind the comedian, electing him to the country’s top office and making his Servant of the People party (named for his television show) the strongest in parliament by far.

One could also say that Ukrainian voters elected a dream instead of reality. Because the political outsider had no political platform, and instead of appearing at campaign events, he preferred to continue touring the country with his comedy crew and performing sketches. An entire people chose – to quote Poroshenko – a "pig in a poke," a man whose face was familiar from the television but whose plans were unknown.

"Everything will be okay. We will win."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy

The war had hardly begun before the transformation of Volodymyr Zelenskyy into a symbol of national resistance took place before their very eyes. On the morning of Feb. 24, Zelenskyy announced to his people in a selfie video that Russian President Vladmir Putin had sent his troops into Ukraine. Zelenskyy was still wearing a suit coat and a white shirt for that announcement. That same afternoon, though, he appeared for a briefing in olive green, an outfit that he would stick to. But he would continue to speak in a steady tone, a civilian in military clothing. He did not emulate the suit-wearing Putin, whose face contorted in hatred as he sermonized about geopolitical and historical slights. He spoke in simple, short sentences, exuding courage and offering comfort.

More than anything, though, he showed that he was in Kyiv, at his office – at a time when it was anything but a given. Putin had planned a blitzkrieg, expecting Kyiv to quickly fall. That is why the Russian president had stationed his troops in Belarus prior to the attack, with the border located just 150 kilometers from Kyiv. There were good reasons for Zelenskyy to head for safety as soon as the invasion began. Indeed, the Russians – including the spokesman of the Duma – sought to spread rumors that the Ukrainian president had fled the capital on several occasions.

On the second day of the war, Zelenskyy filmed himself together with Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, the floor leader of the governing party Davyd Arakhamia and his adviser Mykhailo Podolyak. The video was made after dark, and his office on Bankova Street is visible in the background. "Our soldiers are here," Zelenskyy says. "Our citizens and our society are here. We are all here. We are defending our independence." He seems in good spirits in the clip.

The video shows his closest circle. Andriy Yermak, the lawyer and former film producer who leads the president’s office, is Zelenskyy’s key figure in Kyiv’s efforts to round up support and assistance from around the world. At the end of the first week of war, Yermak addressed the American public with an essay in the New York Times. It carried the headline: "I’m Writing From a Bunker With President Zelenskyy Beside Me. We Will Fight to the Last Breath."

"He acts systematically and quickly."

Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation

The most visible role in Zelenskyy’s team, however, has recently been reserved for Mykhailo Podolyak. The adviser to the president lived for many years in Belarus, working there as a journalist for an opposition newspaper. Like the parliamentarian Arakhamia, he is part of the negotiating team leading direct talks with representatives from Russia. Pokolyak regularly updates the Ukrainian public via Twitter about the state of the talks. It was also Podolyak who recently provided some insight into Zelenskyy’s day-to-day activities: The president, he wrote, only sleeps between three and four hours at a time and is in touch with his staff virtually around the clock.

Denys Shmyhal, a doctor of economics from western Ukraine, completes the inner circle. He was nominated as prime minister by Zelenskyy over two years ago. Most recently, he joined Zelenskyy for meetings with the heads of government of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia.

The Ability to Reassure

As has become apparent, the president is able to maintain an overview of the situation and continue delegating tasks even in an extremely chaotic situation. "He acts systematically and quickly," Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation, told DER SPIEGEL. "He doesn’t accept no for an answer, is constantly reachable and is online 24 hours a day." Zelenskyy, says Fedorov, is not a micromanager, instead leading meetings of cabinet and smaller teams to exchange ideas and discuss what steps to take next.

Zelenskyy has taken on the role of communicator, both internally and abroad. "It snowed," he says in a video he posted on March 8. "Like the war, so too is the spring – hard. But everything will be okay. We will win." He then winks into the camera. Putin can drone on for two hours about Russia’s enemies, but not one of his speeches will have the impact of that wink. Zelenskyy’s years of experience as an actor, his perfect feel for tag lines, pauses and timing, the use of his inimitably gravelly voice – all of these skills are suddenly weapons in this war. The opponent has the second-most powerful military in the world, but Zelenskyy is still able to reassure, encourage and trigger emotions.

“Just as Che Guevara became the symbol of leftist resistance, Zelenskyy has become something like the Ukrainian Che.”

Volodymyr Fessenko, political scientist in Kyiv

One gets the feeling that this man, who has played many different roles in life – and who looked at times uncomfortable in his role as president – has now found the defining role of his life. "He has been given the opportunity to finally be himself – a human being, not a politician," says Igor Novikov, a former adviser to Zelenskyy.

Zelenskyy suddenly seems liberated from the constraints that used to pen him in. When he entered the political arena, which he had been mocking for years on television, he brought with him an almost childlike rage. He wanted to defeat a corrupt system that he hadn’t fully understood. Now, though, none of that matters anymore. The moment no longer calls for the sober negotiation of difficult compromises, but for steadfastness, humor and camera presence. "I now recognize the Zelenskyy who I used to know, the man who entered politics in 2019," says his former adviser Novikov.

Zelenskyy has become the symbolic figure of Ukrainian resistance, says Volodymyr Fessenko, the political scientist. "Just as Che Guevara became the symbol of leftist resistance, Zelenskyy has become something like the Ukrainian Che." According to a survey from March 1, fully 93 percent of Ukrainians approve of the job he is doing. The accusations of yore have been forgotten: that Zelenskyy broke with rule-of-law principles when he slapped sanctions on unpleasant oligarchs and bothersome television broadcasters, or that he long rejected American warnings of an imminent Russian invasion.

Zelenskyy was not a supporter of Ukrainian NATO membership when he entered politics. But under his predecessor Poroshenko, the goals of NATO accession and integration with the West were enshrined in the nation’s constitution. With the result that, even before the war, Zelenskyy found himself in the strange role of a NATO skeptic who was loudly demanding a path to accession – but not because he thought it was a realistic possibility, but because he wanted to shine the spotlight on Western duplicity. "We have heard for years that the doors were open, but we also heard that we could not join," he said recently.

It is the same reason why he is now demanding that NATO implement a no-fly zone over his country, knowing full well that his wish will not be fulfilled. His push for European Union membership is also related to his disappointment with NATO. It is clear that peace with Russia will only be possible if Ukraine renounces its NATO ambitions. Which makes it all the more important for Zelenskyy that the constitutionally anchored Western integration is pushed forward in a different form.

"You Will See Our Faces, Not Our Backs"

Ukraine’s reaction to this war of aggression has clearly disproven Putin’s claims that Russians and Ukrainians are a single people. But the societies are closely linked enough that Zelenskyy is able to speak directly to citizens of the neighboring country.

Even in the night before Feb. 24, as indications that Russia was about to invade were becoming impossible to ignore, the Ukrainian president turned to the Russians to trigger their consciences. In its simple, serious tone, it is a masterpiece of political speech. He destroys Putin’s arguments for invading Ukraine one by one, seeking to reach the Russians, but refusing to resort to flattery or servility. "If you attack, then you will see our faces, not our backs," he warned. "Do the Russians want war? I would like to know the answer. But the answer depends only on you, citizens of the Russian Federation."

That, too, is part of the resistance to this attack: a new self-confidence, a new tone in dealing with Ukraine’s neighbor. Zelenskyy’s words are without hate. But they show the enormous violation that Ukrainians see in Putin’s invasion – just like the alienation that has developed between the Russian and Ukrainian societies.

The Jewish son of a professor from the southern Ukrainian town of Kryvyi Rih now appears as the living counterevidence to Putin’s propaganda, according to which Ukraine is in the hands of Nazis. "How can I be a Nazi? Explain that to my grandfather, who spent the entire war as an infantryman in the Soviet army and died as a colonel in independent Ukraine," he said in his speech to the Russians.

It remains unclear how the war between Russia and Ukraine will end. It is unlikely that Putin will suspend his attack before achieving tangible results. And despite the impressive victories accomplished by Ukraine’s defenders, it is clear that the Russian military has vastly more resources. If Putin doesn’t have the power to conquer Ukraine, there is little doubt that he has sufficient force to destroy, to annihilate the cities of Ukraine.

When Zelenskyy entered office in 2019, he told parliament in Kyiv that it was not he who was becoming president, but each and every Ukrainian. It was a moving speech, and it exhibited the same powerful yet simple tone that his recent appearances have displayed. At the time, though, he was ridiculed by some. The time was not yet ripe for such pathos.

Now that Zelenskyy has become the inspiration and motivator for an entire country, that speech sounds more stirring and more powerful. For many who must now fight to resist the Russian invasion, that sentence finally rings true: They have all now become this president.

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