Volodymyr Zelenskyy: Volodymyr Zelenskyy was an actor and a comedian, now he is the wartime President of Ukraine
“Listen to the voice of reason,” Zelenskyy said after midnight Thursday in Kyiv. “The Ukrainian people want peace.
It was a passionate attempt to save his country – and it didn’t work. Hours later, a full-scale Russian invasion had begun and Zelenskyy, a former television actor and comedian, had become a warlord. And for now, even as the Russian attack continues, the Ukrainians have rallied behind him.
His dramatic speech as well as his appearance at the Munich Security Conference last weekend, where he warned European allies against ‘appeasement’ Russia, gave Zelenskyy something that even his allies don’t. would not normally attribute to it: gravity.
He will now face the biggest crisis in his country’s modern history, even as he faces Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Putin has started a war against Ukraine and against the whole democratic world,” Zelenskyy said in a second national address on Thursday, after Russian soldiers hit targets in 16 cities across the country, including the capital, Kyiv. . “He wants to destroy our country and everything we have built. But we know the strength of the Ukrainian people.
“You are indomitable,” he added. “You are Ukrainians.
It remains, of course, deeply uncertain how long, or even if, the Ukrainians can actually withstand a much larger and superior Russian force, or if Zelenskyy will continue to play a role for which he has had no rehearsal. However, public opinion could suddenly turn against him, as was the case in mid-February when the threat of war grew. And a graver danger lurks: possible assassination — a prospect even Zelenskyy’s office raised on Thursday as Russian forces closed in on Kiev.
Maria Zolkina, a Ukrainian political analyst who works at the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, said Zelenskyy “did not choose to fight, and he is not a wartime president. But since yesterday, when it became clear from his intelligence what form the attack would take, he has been acting exactly as a president should act in wartime.
Zelenskyy came to power as a fighter against corruption, convinced at the time of his ability to broker a peace in the long-simmering conflict with Russia-backed separatists then confined to the east of the country. He won a landslide victory, with 73% of Ukrainians backing him over incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, a wealthy businessman who had taken a tough stance against Moscow.
Zelenskyy had no previous experience in politics other than playing a president on TV. He won on a populist agenda by targeting a wealthy oligarch class and promised to be a pragmatic president whose vision for Ukraine was a country that was neither “a corrupt partner of the West” nor ” Russia’s little sister”. His strongest support has come from southern and eastern Ukraine, including the conflict-ridden regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, part of which is subsumed by two separatist enclaves whose independence Putin recognized on Monday.
Since then, doubts have lingered over his preparedness to navigate Ukraine through such perilous straits and the expertise of the advisers he surrounded himself with, many of whom came from his comedy studio, Kvartal 95. While his defense and his military is highly respected, and he slowly built a meritocratic team, many of those around him arrived with little experience in government, let alone diplomacy or warfare.
Since the Russian invasion, they have been on the front line. And Zelenskyy, in his final plea to avert war, seized on this moment and all its drama in an unlikely way, giving a beleaguered people a much-needed rallying point.
When he addressed the Russian people directly, changing his language to Russian, he referred to them as neighbors and family, although he acknowledged the differences and admitted that they would probably never hear his words, given the tight grip of the Kremlin on the Russian media.
He tried to respond to the main accusations made against the Ukrainians by the Kremlin. Ukrainians were not Nazis, said Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, and his own grandfather had served in the Soviet army throughout the war. They didn’t hate Russian culture, he said.
“We are different,” he said, “but that’s no reason to be enemies. We want to determine, build our own future, serenely, serenely and honestly.
Ukraine’s parliament declared a military state of emergency and the government announced it would give arms to anyone with combat experience ready to defend the country and urged people to donate blood for injured veterans .
“The future of our Ukrainian people depends on every citizen,” Zelenskyy said Thursday.
“The enemy suffered heavy losses,” he added. “The enemy’s losses will be even greater. They came to our land. Ukraine is attacked from the north, east and south. Attacked from the air. Protective works. Today, the army and national solidarity are the pillars of the Ukrainian state. It was a hopeful statement, given the Russian firepower its soldiers face.
Zelenskyy’s journey mirrors that of his country, which has been at war with Russian-backed separatists for eight years. The past decade has seen Ukrainian national pride and the use of the Ukrainian language increase dramatically, alongside confidence in democracy and a pro-Western orientation. Trust in Russia and respect for Putin’s authoritarian government have diminished.
“He made a transformation because basically Ukrainian society made this transformation,” said Volodymyr Yermolenko, a philosopher who edits Ukraine World magazine.
The president was “a person from eastern Ukraine, a Russian speaker, who did his business in Russian,” he said, referring to Zelenskyy’s TV channel, Kvartal 95. would be expected pro-Russian policies from him, but he understands that the Russians want to do everything on their terms, push Ukraine around and deny the existence of Ukraine. Of course, he gradually became a typical Ukrainian patriot .
And Ukrainians rallied behind Zelenskyy, even as his early attempts to play down President Joe Biden’s grim prognosis of a full-scale Russian invasion caused consternation and cost the country crucial time to prepare.
“Ukrainians are uniting. We have a president,” said Daria Kaleniuk, director of the Ukrainian Anti-Corruption Action Center, an influential research institute. “He is the commander-in-chief and the Ukrainian army follows his instructions. Now we support it. He leads the country into the war, disregarding any criticism of how it could have been handled better. His role is of crucial importance now.
The unity is remarkable in a Ukraine which has been marked by a turbulent policy.
Even Zelenskyy’s predecessor Poroshenko – whom Zelenskyy’s government wanted to arrest on charges of treason and support for terrorism that many dismissed as politically motivated – supported him.
“I want everyone to see that Kyiv behaves responsibly,” he wrote on Facebook.
Some wanted Zelenskyy to make peace at all costs.
“I want our president to wave a white flag. I want us to give up as long as there is no war,” said Oksana Zymunova, a 23-year-old saleswoman frantically searching for a train ticket at Central Station in Kiev. “Just no war. I understand he’s afraid people won’t accept him,” she said, referring to Zelenskyy, “but he needs to raise a white flag.”
Zymunova, dressed in bright pink sweatpants and carrying her two cats in shipping containers, cursed the lack of ticket availability.
But most Ukrainians remained firm.
“People stay here to risk their lives because this country is more than just a territory,” said Fedir Serdiuk, 26, who runs a first aid training company.
“It united people,” he argued, adding that as tensions rose, “people were buying ammunition rather than plane tickets.”
But Kaleniuk worried that Zelenskyy had been left alone by Western allies who failed to impose strong enough sanctions on Putin and his enablers.
“What is happening now is similar to what happened in 1939,” Kaleniuk said, referring to Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland.
“Nobody believed that Germany would invade a European country. And no one believed that Putin, the new Hitler of our time, would invade a peaceful nation. The first civilians have already been killed, and there will be more suffering. We have alerted our Western partners to the fact that we must be tough on Russia; do not make peace with them. It is an invitation to more violence.