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How Ukraine's Zelenskyy went from comedian to wartime hero


Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kherson, Ukraine, on Nov. 14, 2022.

Ukrainian Presidential Press Service | Reuters

When Volodymyr Zelenskyy became the president of Ukraine in 2019, it made headlines around the world.

That wasn’t because he was a political heavyweight deemed ready to resolve Ukraine’s deep-seated challenges —ranging from an economic crisis to corruption and an entrenched, powerful oligarchy — not to mention the conflict between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country.

It was just the opposite. Zelenskyy was a political novice whose closest brush with politics was playing the role of Ukrainian president in a well-known domestic TV series, before life imitated art and he decided to launch his own presidential bid on New Year’s Eve in 2018.

When he won the presidential election in a landslide victory in March 2019, no one could have guessed that the erstwhile actor, writer and comedian would become one of the world’s most recognizable and respected politicians after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on the cover of Time Magazine’s 2022 “Person of the Year” edition.

Artwork by Neil Jamieson, Photograph by Maxim Dondyuk for TIME | Reuters

But under his leadership, and with the fortitude of Ukraine’s armed forces and resilience of the civilian population, Ukraine has fought back and Zelenskyy has won plaudits (he was just named “Person of the Year” by both Time Magazine and the FT) for the wartime leadership he was thrust into.

“I think Zelenskyy has proven to be a remarkable leader, and a remarkably effective one, both as a military leader and as a public figure — in terms of building support for Ukraine internationally, and also in terms of being able to at least keep some things going domestically despite the war,” Max Hess, fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told CNBC.

“They have continued to pass legislation in line with previous reform packages for international support. And then, of course, I find the really interesting thing is just how [much of an] inspirational leader he’s been to almost everybody,” he added.

Hess said though Zelenskyy certainly had his critics when he became president, their misgivings have been disproven.

“There were plenty of people who were very critical of Zelenskyy [before the war], both in Ukraine and particularly the Ukrainian diaspora who saw him as too soft or weak or pro Russian, or primarily, potentially beholden to oligarchs … obviously, none of that has proven to be true,” Hess said.

“The reality is, I wish we had politicians like Zelenskyy in the West at this point. But to temper that, does that mean he would be the perfect non-wartime president in Ukraine, if there is peace? That’s not for me to say, that’s obviously for Ukrainians to say. But right now, off the back of the … wartime leadership he’s demonstrated, I certainly think he will have universal support there for a long time.”

‘More responsible than brave’

For his part, Zelenskyy has tried to play down his courageous stance toward Russia, telling the FT that he was “more responsible than brave” and just didn’t want to “to let people down.”

From the start of the war, however, Zelenskyy has been a visible, physically present leader in Ukraine, visiting the front line and war-torn towns and cities. He famously refused an offer from the U.S. to evacuate him and his family from Kyiv, with the Ukrainian embassy in Britain tweeting that he’d responded that he needed ammunition, rather than a ride out of the country.

Moscow was widely believed to have thought it could occupy its pro-Western neighbor without much pushback and it had reason to believe so — tepid sanctions had been imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea in 2014, and global business with Russia continued as usual despite Russia’s support for separatists in the Donbas in eastern Ukraine, where a low-level conflict had been ongoing since the annexation.

As such, the seeds of the current war had already been sown by the time Zelenskyy took office but Ukraine’s president seemed reluctant to believe his country could be thrust into war with its powerful, nuclear-weapon-wielding neighbor.

Even in late January 2022, Zelenskyy was playing down the threat of an invasion despite the presence of over 100,000 Russian troops along the border with Ukraine, saying there was no need to “panic.” He was looking to maintain economic stability amid heightened fears in the West that Russia was preparing to invade.

The United States warned in January, however, that there was a “distinct possibility” the invasion could take place in February — a prediction that proved true on Feb. 24.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy Zelenskyy enjoys high approval ratings among Ukrainians for rallying both the country’s forces and public on a daily basis.

Sergei Supinsky | AFP | Getty Images

Now, Ukraine is holding its own and fighting back against Russian forces despite the fatigue and deprivation brought about by months of war and the bombardment of swathes of the country, particularly eastern and southern Ukraine.

The country’s armed forces, armed with masses of Western-supplied weapons, have defied expectations as they continue to counterattack and defend their territory, regaining significant parts of east and southern Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Zelenskyy, has had to get used to flurries of daily, global diplomatic meetings and briefings in which he has had to plead for assistance, weapons and financial aid, as well as updating civilians on a daily and nightly basis on the war.

He’s also had to walk a diplomatic tightrope, knowing Ukraine relies on the largesse of its friends — in terms of billions of dollars worth of weaponry and the tolerance of higher food and energy prices as a result of sanctions — to keep on fighting Russia. That’s been an awkward path to tread at times.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits Kherson, Ukraine, on Nov. 14, 2022.

Ukrainian Presidential Press Service | Reuters

There was a media report in June that U.S. President Joe Biden lost his temper with Zelenskyy with the report suggesting that Biden had barely finished telling his Ukrainian counterpart that he’d just greenlighted another $1 billion in military assistance when Zelenskyy started listing all the additional help he needed and wasn’t getting, leading Biden to raise his voice and to tell him he could show more gratitude.

After the reported contretemps, Zelenskyy issued a statement praising the American public for its generosity and regularly voices his gratitude towards Ukraine’s allies for their assistance in Kyiv’s fight against Russia.

Challenges aside from the war

While the battle is far from over, Zelenskyy does face pressures on the domestic front that will have to be addressed at some point, according to Orysia Lutsevych, head and research fellow at the Ukraine Forum, Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House think tank.

The main three challenges the government faces relate to security, the economy and the health of Ukraine’s democracy, Lutsevych said in a recent Chatham House briefing.

On the security front, for example, Lutsevych noted that there is a strong demand among Ukrainians for Ukraine to be a part of NATO, but it’s extremely unlikely that Ukraine will be able to join the military alliance for years — or ever — “so this is a challenge Zelenskyy has … because there’s demand for it [NATO membership] and it’s not an easy one” to deliver, she said.

Firefighters conduct search and rescue operations after Russian forces hit a cultural center in Chuhuiv, Kharkiv Oblast, Ukraine, on July 25, 2022.

Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

“Secondly, the economy, Ukraine is facing a serious economic downfall due to Russian aggression. Its economy might fall up to 40% this year and Ukraine heavily relies on Western assistance and its own ability to collect taxes and to have its budget filled with the necessary funds so here’s there’s a question of how to sustain that economic support. To be honest, Western assistance was coming but it wasn’t enough and it was quite slow,” she added.

“Finally, on democracy, there’s a discussion about the quality of the media space [in Ukraine] as under Martial Law there’s a certain censorship and confidentiality of information, specially related to the military operation,” she said.

Lutsevych added that some TV channels affiliated with former President Petro Poroshenko had been excluded from an umbrella news channel, prompting questions over whether that was done on purpose to limit the influence of the political opposition on national debate.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kherson, Ukraine, on Nov. 14, 2022. The main three challenges the Ukrainian government faces relate to security, the economy and the health of Ukraine’s democracy, one analyst said.

Ukrainian Presidential Press Service | Reuters

Despite such challenges, Lutsevych noted that, overall, Zelenskyy enjoys high approval ratings among Ukrainians for rallying both the country’s forces and public on a daily basis.

“Over 90% [of Ukrainians] approve of his performance, they think that he has managed to mount quite a substantial opposition to withold Russian aggression in Ukraine, but has also mobilized western support in this conflict and this is comething that is highly appreciated iby Ukrainians and they believe that his personal behavior — by staying in Kyiv and not fleeing the country — was able to stabilize the country.”



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