With a serious-but-exhausted look on his face, a two-day beard, and wearing a military shirt and green fleece jacket, Volodymyr Zelenskiy looks straight into the camera. “Tonight, on all fronts, the enemy will use all available forces to break our resistance,” he says, in a message to the nation recorded after the first day of attacks launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Ukraine.
Some 24 hours before, when the worst predictions had yet to come true, he addressed the Russian people and called on them to stand in the way of the assault on his country. “Listen to the voice of reason,” he said in Russian. “The Ukrainian people want peace.”
The strategy was unsuccessful. Over three days, the head of the Kremlin ordered an offensive against Ukraine via land, sea and air, on the basis that the country is fictitious, the result of historical and diplomatic stitches.
A former comedy actor and self-made businessman, Zelenskiy debunks much of the Kremlin’s propaganda about Ukraine and its government, which has been described as a “bunch of drug addicts and neo-Nazis,” as well as being a place where speaking Russian is forbidden and the citizens of the Donbas region are the victims of “genocide.”
Zelenskiy was born 44 years ago in Kryvyi Rih, a city in the Dnipro region. He was part of a “Soviet Jewish” family, as he described it once – that’s to say, not so religious in a regime where religion was repressed.
He spoke about this to Russian citizens this week in another of his emotional messages, in which he called for the attack to be called off. He also spoke about his grandfather, Semyon Ivanovich Zelenski, a veteran of the Red Army during the Second World War.
Since the outset of Russia’s invasion, Zelenskiy, who had lost popularity among voters due to his sometimes-erratic policies and corruption cases among his allies, has grown as a leader. The former actor, who is an expert when it comes to managing the language and staging of television and social media, has taken a major step in terms of the information he is conveying to Ukrainians, the emotional videos that he has been publishing online, and the patriotic messages that have seen his popularity return. “We will fight for as long as is necessary,” he said on Saturday, after the Kremlin threatened to step up its attacks.
He has also repeatedly highlighted the fact that European leaders have abandoned Ukraine to their fate in the face of Putin’s threats. “If you, my beloved world leaders, leaders of the free world, do not help Ukraine forcefully now, tomorrow the war will be on all of your doorsteps,” he warned in one of these speeches.
If you, my beloved world leaders, leaders of the free world, do not help Ukraine forcefully now, tomorrow the war will be on all of your doorstepsUkrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy
The Ukrainian president has presented the opposite arguments to the narratives from the Kremlin, and has compared Russia with Nazi Germany. “Our countries are on different sides of world history,” he said. “Russia is on the path of evil.”
Zelenskiy was initially perceived as a political lightweight and an easy target for Putin. But now he embodies the commander of a country at war, who is resisting a tough offensive by a nuclear state and whose troops and resources easily outrank his own.
Ukrainian and American secret services have been warning that one of the main objectives of the Kremlin is to overthrow the Ukrainian government and replace it with a puppet regime from Moscow. And to do that, Zelenskiy must be ousted. The United States advised him to leave the country, or at least, the capital. But the Ukrainian leader has insisted that he and his family will be staying in Kyiv.
Zelenskiy was victorious in the presidential elections of 2019 throughout the country when he ran against Petro Poroschenko, a businessman who had taken an unwavering stand against Moscow. He did so with anti-corruption policies and a certain anti-establishment attitude. He promised to bring an end to the war in the east, against the pro-Russian separatists being supported by the Kremlin. Poroschenko, his predecessor, had promised to win the conflict.
Zelenskiy came up with some brilliant policies at the start of his term in office. His government, which had a comfortable majority, opened the market of agricultural land, executed a huge digitalization campaign, and inaugurated a massive road-building program to renew rural routes, which were in a very bad way all over the country.
However, his problems with the media, the lack of organization among his teams and a number of controversies saw the confidence that the public had in him erode. Despite the reforms put in place, Ukraine is still the third-most-corrupt country in Europe, after Russia and Azerbaijan, according to Transparency International.
Zelenskiy also got caught up with the policies of Donald Trump. The then-US president made a call to the Ukrainian leader that led to the impeachment of the former. Trump, who had for some time put the sending of defense material to Ukraine on hold, called on his opposite number for the favor of opening an investigation into Hunter Biden and his father, Joe Biden, who was then the Democratic candidate for the 2020 presidential race.
A ‘weak’ president
At the time, Zelenski appeared weak, and the episode worried many at the start of the Russian crisis, when Putin began to send troops to the Ukrainian borders and ramped up the threats against Kyiv given its intentions to enter NATO.
The Ukrainian president has also been harshly criticized by part of the political opposition due to his management. These criticisms, however, have been shelved for now – apart from a group of pro-Russians – and have made way for support in a bid to force more sanctions against Russia from allies as well as the supply of weapons.
Meanwhile, Zelenski has been addressing his citizens, whom he has been encouraging to come out onto the streets to defend the country – whether they use Molotov cocktails, weapons or whatever they have at their disposal. “Be prepared to support Ukraine in the squares of our cities,” he said.