Hero in the Making Ukrainian President Zelenskyy Standing Tall in the Face of Danger

Before Volodymyr Zelenskyy became president of Ukraine, he was a television comedian. Only very few took him particularly seriously. Russian President Vladimir Putin vastly underestimated him.
By Christina Hebel in Moscow
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a still from his video address recorded on Feb. 27.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a still from his video address recorded on Feb. 27.

Foto: Ukrainian Presidential Press Office / dpa

They shook their heads about Volodymyr Zelenskyy back in early January, when he was skiing in the Carpathian Mountains, filming himself on Instagram. By then, the Americans had already begun urgently warning him about a potential invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Many mocked Zelenskyy, the former comic. They said he wasn’t up to the task of being president.

Now, amid the Russian attack, that criticism has almost completely evaporated. On the contrary: Zelenskyy is more beloved than ever. In times of military escalation, people often rally in support their leadership, but in the case of Zelenskyy, who until recently was a frequently mocked political neophyte, there is far more to it than that.

Clear Messages for his People

In a video on Sunday evening, an unshaven Zelenskyy dressed in an olive-green T-shirt looks exhausted. But the 44-year-old speaks with a firm, decisive voice. "I don’t want rockets, airplanes, helicopters to attack Ukraine from Belarus.” He says he had had a long phone conversation with Belarusian ruler Alexander Lukashenko, to whom he hadn’t spoken to for two years, adding that he had agreed to send a Ukrainian delegation to the border of Belarus to negotiate with the Russians. But the president calmly explains in the video that he doesn’t really believe the meeting will succeed, but that it’s worth a try. He wants to ensure that no Ukrainian has doubts he will try anything to stop the war.

Zelenskyy speaks in short, succinct sentences – a clear message to his people followed by words of praise for the soldiers in battle. He promises those soldiers a "decent” pay equivalent to 3,000 euros per month, which would be a fourfold increase of their previous pay.

In his video address a few hours earlier, Zelenskyy had also spoken about the "anti-war coalition” he had formed – a smartly chosen phrase meant to show that the Ukraine is no longer on its own in its fight for peace. Shortly after the first Russian attack on the country, he complained that Ukrainians had been left to defend their country alone – and that "the most powerful forces in the world are watching.”

Now the country, Zelenskyy said, is receiving "weapons, medication, food, diesel and money” – and goes on to recite the list of assistance his country has already received and from which countries. He tells his fellow citizens that Russian banks have been cut off from SWIFT, the international payment system and that EU countries have closed their airspace to Russian airlines. It is Russia, says Zelenskyy, that has chosen the path of evil.

Comeback in Wartime

People in the Ukraine say his speeches bring them comfort after anxious hours hiding in homes and shelters, the few hours of restless sleep. They call Zelenskyy a "worthy” president, one who will not be intimidated by Vladimir Putin, despite the fact that the Russian president has a larger and more powerful army.

Amid the war, Zelenskyy seems to be striking the right tone in a comeback of sorts that goes far beyond his election victory over two years ago. According to a recent poll, more than 90 percent of Ukrainians surveyed support him – a record figure.

Even sharp critics like Igor Mosiychuk, the former vice commander of the far-right Azov Regiment, are demonstratively backing Zelenskyy. Now a member of parliament, Mosiychuk says the president has "demonstrated steely freedom and character.”

"Zelenskyy is now getting stronger with each passing day of this war,” writes investigative journalist Mikhail Tkach, who has often criticized the president for his ties to oligarchs. "We are all watching this man resist from a different reality and a different life.” And it is all being broadcast live. "In the morning and in the evening. Around the clock.”

The Ukrainian leader posts his speeches on social media, where they are viewed millions of times. "Keep it up, Chancellor @OlafScholz,” he wrote when the German government announced it would deliver anti-tank weapons and surface-to-air missiles to the Ukrainian forces after all.

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Unfulfilled Expectations

An entertainer and comedian in his previous life, Zelenskyy was surprisingly voted into the presidency in 2019 with over 70 percent of the vote. It was an incredible story: a man who plays a sometimes clumsy, hard-working and, above all, incorruptible president in a popular TV show called "Servant of the People” had become a real-life head of state.

But Zelenskyy initially wasn’t entirely convincing as president. Many people had hoped the political neophyte would be a refreshing change at the top, but he was too hesitant in his dealings with the oligarchs and his connections to the billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky remained nebulous. In Donbas, after some brief ceasefires and prisoner exchanges, shooting quickly resumed. Zelenskyy’s promised peace did not come. And he quickly lost popularity.

In the final weeks before the war, he seemed helpless and he frustrated the Americans by continually dismissing their warnings about the Russian troop buildup as "hype” so as not to sow panic in the country. As a result, he only ordered the mobilization of all able-bodied Ukrainians aged 18 to 60 after Putin’s invasion had begun – too late, some argued, because the move left many of the men now fighting with barely enough weapons.

"The President is Here. We Are All Here”

Now people are seeing a different Zelenskyy, a president who stands resolutely against increasingly aggressive Kremlin propaganda, as Russia denies attacking civilian sites in Ukraine. "Power plants, hospitals, kindergartens, apartment buildings – all of these are attacked every day,” Zelenskyy says while directly accusing the leadership in Moscow of lying.

When Russian media began speculating that Zelenskyy had left Kyiv, he immediately posted a selfie video showing himself outside the presidential administration in the capital together with advisers, the prime minister and the leader of his party’s parliamentary group. "The president is here. We are all here,” he says to the camera. "Our soldiers are here. We are defending our independence.”

Zelenskyy and other top Ukrainian officials in a still from a Feb. 25 video released to counter Russian lies that he had left Kyiv.

Zelenskyy and other top Ukrainian officials in a still from a Feb. 25 video released to counter Russian lies that he had left Kyiv.

Foto: ZUMA Wire / IMAGO

The video spread through international media and highlighted the contrast between the Ukrainian president and Vladimir Putin, who seems to be slipping ever further into his own world. Not only did Putin issue a convoluted, long-winded declaration of war, but, in a blatant misreading of the situation, called for Ukrainian soldiers to stage a coup against Zelenskyy. The Russian president also described Zelenskyy’s government as "a gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis” that had taken the Ukrainian people "hostage.”

"Fight for Us. Fight for the War”

Most Ukrainians, however, back their president, who remains in Kyiv against the advice of U.S. President Joe Biden and others.

Having brought his family to safety, Zelenskyy does not want to leave the capital. He knows his own life is at risk if Russian troops capture the city. By all indications, Putin aims to take control of Kyiv, then arrest the Ukrainian leadership he despises and bring about regime change. Zelenskyy said: "My job as president is to protect our state.”

Many, even outside of Ukraine, have been impressed by his appearances countering Putin’s slanders: threatening retaliation, but level-headed and without hostility. He also addressed people in Belarus and Russia in his native Russian, calling on people there to protest Putin’s war: "Fight for us. Fight against the war.”

Zelenskyy is hoping for pressure from Russian society. That, though, is limited as state-sponsored repression is ratcheted up. Many are afraid to demonstrate or speak out publicly and thousands of Russians have been arrested for protesting Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Zelenskyy nevertheless keeps trying: "How could I be a Nazi?” he asked in Russian. "Explain that to my grandfather, who fought the entire war in the infantry of the Soviet army and died a colonel in an independent Ukraine.” Zelenskyy is a Jew. Three of his grandfather’s brothers were murdered in the Holocaust.

Ukrainians and Russians are different, he said, but that is no reason to be "enemies.”

Mitarbeit: Katja Lutska, Kiew
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