Volodymyr Zelensky, a leader fit for our times
Volodymyr Zelensky, the comedian-turned-politician, has now turned to war leader in less than three years since entering political life, bewildering an entire world.
His emotional and direct addresses to the people of Ukraine, and the world, from bunkers or a besieged presidential palace in Kyiv, unshaven, red-eyed and dressed in military outfits, have revolutionised political communication and leadership as we knew it, in less than a month.
But, how has Zelensky, a young Ukrainian with Russian roots, with little to no experience in politics, managed to present such a forceful image of Ukraine, and even step up morale, allowing the Ukrainian forces and people to fend off the Russian aggression for longer than anyone could have imagined?
In juxtaposition to Zelensky, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, who has had bursts of irrational and erratic rhetoric, questioned Ukrainian statehood, blamed the country of genocide in the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk republics, and claimed that the Russian “military operation” into Ukraine was necessary, in order to “denazify” a country that has a Jewish president.
With President Putin increasingly isolated and paranoid, unknown as to whether or who is still allowed to give him counsel, the Russian government entered into a war, which it thought it would win easily. Russia presumed Ukrainian forces would surrender, or even welcome the aggressor, and then it would easily allow for a pro-Kremlin government in Kyiv to be installed.
However, more than a month later, Kyiv is still standing and Russian forces find it increasingly difficult to regroup, refuel and find survive.
Tanks are running out of fuel and are being deserted and Russian forces are experiencing grave military losses. NATO has estimated the number of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine since the invasion began at between 7,000 and 15,000. That higher estimate roughly equals the number of Soviet soldiers killed in over a decade of fighting in Afghanistan, states a CBC news report.
According to a report in the New York Times in mid-March, United States intelligence officials said they were confident that up to 7,000 Russians had been killed by that point in the conflict.
The Washington Post reported around the same time that a Russian news website posted a file — and then swiftly took it down again — claiming that up to 10,000 soldiers had been killed so far in the conflict.
So, how has Zelensky managed to rally an entire world around him and his country?
With unprecedented support from the European Union, Germany making a foreign policy U-turn and NATO and US President Joe Biden committing to aid and finance Ukraine, strengthen the Eastern flank and impose unprecedented economic, political and diplomatic sanctions on Russia, the leadership of Ukraine’s president, his emotional speeches, his accessible demeanour and powerful communications campaign, have turned the national security tide in Europe and around the world.
Zelensky’s arrival to Ukraine’s presidential palace is a story that simply shows that life not only imitates film, but that it often times outruns it.
An actor of cheesy romantic comedies spoken in his native Russian, Zelensky was a popular star on the Russian market. Then, in 2015, he started starring in a television show, “Servant of the People”, a political satire comedy about a high school teacher who unexpectedly becomes president of Ukraine. The show ran up until 2019 and the plot miraculously follows bits of Zelensky’s own political ascension.
In 2018, a party with the same name had been created, and Zelensky’s political career had officially begun. In 2019, he wins the presidential elections and is elected as the 6th president of Ukraine, with an overwhelming support, getting over 70% of the second-round vote.
Up until Russia’s invasion, Zelensky’s profile had not been a particularly outstanding one. There had been rumours that his political aspirations and career had been backed by a controversial business media mogul, Ihor Kolomoisky, who is under investigation by US prosecutors for possible money-laundering and fraud.
Kolomoisky owns the network, where some of Zelensky’s shows had run, and the Ukrainian people had been doubtful of him, thinking that he would be yet another puppet president, controlled by an oligarch, who would do his bidding, instead of work in favour of the people.
However, Zelensky had in fact proved to be more independent than sceptics thought, refusing to allow the re-privatisation of PrivatBank, which was owned by Kolomoisky before it was nationalised.
Up until the very beginning of the Russian invasion, President Zelensky had been criticised for being too soft and lenient on Russia, as Ukrainians thought this timid rhetoric would not stand a chance in front of Russia’s forcefulness.
And, then, as Zelensky’s calls for a diplomatic solution and for negotiations with Russia to resolve the tensions seemed to be going nowhere, he changed tactics. On February 19th, at the Munich Security Conference, days before Russia invaded Ukraine, President Zelensky gave a piercing account of the situation in Ukraine, a country that is the physical impersonation of the divide between East and West.
At Munich, Zelensky began describing a visit to a kindergarten in the east of the country that had days earlier been hit by a missile.
“When a bomb crater appears in a school playground, children have a question: ‘Has the world forgotten the mistakes of the 20th Century?'” he said. “Indifference makes you an accomplice”, he told the guests from the West’s diplomatic and defence elites. He reminded them of Vladimir Putin’s rejection of a US-led world order at the same conference exactly 15 years earlier, and his assertion of Russia’s resurgence. “How did the world respond? With appeasement”, said a BBC report.
Now, as the war rages on, President Zelensky seems unflinching when it comes to his mission of protecting his country and his people: Ukraine must defeat President Putin, as he said in a face to face interview with The Economist Editor in Chief, from his bunker in Kyiv, just a few days ago.
Photo source: Getty Images