Ukraine’s TV Comedian President Finds His Role as Wartime Leader
(Bloomberg) -- Volodymyr Zelenskiy may be among the least likely wartime leaders the world has known, yet he’s winning praise in the role just when his political fortunes had been dwindling.
A Russian-speaking former television comic of Jewish background, Zelenskiy was elected as Ukraine’s president just under three years ago on a promise to bring peace. On Friday, he was at war in the capital Kyiv, accused by President Vladimir Putin of leading a fascist regime guilty of “genocide” in the east of the country.
Western leaders dismiss those claims as fabrications — “ridiculous,” said German Chancellor Olaf Scholz — but with Russian troops attempting to fight their way into Kyiv on Saturday, there was little sugar-coating the desperate situation for Zelenskiy and an independent Ukraine. Putin has declared he wants Zelenskiy gone.
The Defense Ministry called on ordinary citizens to make Molotov cocktails in preparation for urban warfare. It said “thousands” of volunteers were signing up to fight, with 18,000 rifles handed out in Kyiv alone.
Unshaven and dressed in khaki, Zelenskiy addressed the nation in a video, warning that “saboteurs” tasked with his assassination were closing in. The “enemy has marked me down as the number one target” as they seek Ukraine’s political destruction, Zelenskiy said. “I will stay in the capital.”
Ukrainian have put up fierce resistance to slow the advance of Russian invaders with overwhelming advantages on land, sea and in the air, and Zelenskiy has seemed to reflect that spirit. Twice, amid Russian attempts to punch their way into Kyiv overnight, he posted selfie videos outdoors to dispel disinformation that he had fled or ordered a surrender.
"I'm here. We won't lay down our arms. We will defend our state," he said on Saturday morning. The clip had 4 million views within two hours of posting.
On Thursday, the 44-year-old even summoned the spirit of Winston Churchill, echoing the British wartime leader’s 1946 Iron Curtain speech, seen by some historians as marking the start of the Cold War with the former Soviet Union.
“What do we hear today?” Zelenskiy asked after Thursday’s onslaught, again appearing in a khaki T-shirt. “It’s not just rocket explosions, fighting and the roar of aircraft. This is the sound of a new iron curtain lowering and closing Russia off from the civilized world.”
He hasn’t always been so adept. Zelenskiy won election with 73% of the vote in 2019, as Ukrainians briefly united around a political novice who seemed to offer an end to the carousel of corruption that has blighted the country since gaining independence 30 years ago.
The star of his own show about a teacher who ends up president by ranting against corrupt politicians, Zelenskiy had also promised peace, for which many Ukrainians were desperate after five years of conflict with Russia-backed separatists in the Donbas region. He quickly met with Putin and the leaders of France and Germany, in the hope of finding a way to implement the 2014-2015 Minsk accords.
Yet by last year, the peace talks and relations with Putin had broken down. Covid struck the population and economy as hard in Ukraine as elsewhere. Living standards, already among the lowest in Europe, were squeezed further by a combination of slower growth and rising inflation.
Zelenskiy’s own anti-corruption credentials became tarnished. An October release from the so-called Pandora Papers — leaked data concerning offshore shell companies — connected him and partners in his TV comedy production company, Studio Kvartal 95, to 10 entities registered in Belize, the British Virgin Islands and Cyprus. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Many saw Zelenskiy as relying too much on a tight circle of equally inexperienced friends from his TV days, including his top aide, Serhiy Shefir, and Intelligence Service head Ivan Bakanov, both of whom were named in the Pandora Papers report. An average of four opinion polls taken in mid-December showed Zelenskiy’s popular support had fallen to 25%.
He also faced questions in the lead up to war after hitting out at U.S. predictions that Russia would use the massive force accumulated against Ukraine’s borders to invade. The mixed messages — from allies and leader — were unhelpful, according to Dmytro Razumkov, Zelenskiy’s presidential campaign manager and former speaker of parliament.
“Society needs to understand what is happening in the country, they (the government) need to communicate with people,” Razumkov, who broke with Zelenskiy last year, said in an interview in Kyiv before Russia invaded. Reached on Friday, Razumkov said such quibbles were now irrelevant.
“Today, everyone is united in the fight against the enemy: the parliament, the president, the cabinet,” Razumkov said.
Since Zelenskiy accepted that conflict was imminent, his response has resonated with many Ukrainians, including a Feb. 19 speech at the Munich Security Conference in which he thanked western allies for their aid and support, but also berated them for not doing more for a country fighting on behalf of their security and values, too.
That directness struck a chord among Ukrainians left to fight a vastly more powerful neighbor alone.
“I want to express support to our president,” Olga Golubovska, a doctor critical of Zelenskiy for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic told her 90,000 Facebook followers. “The president who didn’t flee. To the president, who for the first time told our ‘respectable’ Western partners everything that we all had long suspected, to put it mildly. A president who, for the first time in many years, dared to have an opinion.”
That bitterness became more acute as Western allies hesitated to impose the strongest available sanctions against Russia, such as blocking it from the SWIFT system for international financial transactions, even after a full invasion had begun.
When Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi — who sought an exemption from European Union sanctions against Russia for luxury goods — said he hadn’t been able to reach Zelenskiy by phone, the Ukrainian leader’s response on Friday was public and tart.
“Today at 10:30 am at the entrances to Chernihiv, Hostomel and Melitopol there was heavy fighting. People died,” he said in a Twitter post. “Next time I’ll try to move the war schedule to talk to##MarioDraghi at a specific time. Meanwhile, Ukraine continues to fight for its people.”
Zelenskiy’s speeches, aimed at Russia as well as Ukraine, have won fans for their human touch, too, especially when compared with the angry historical lectures Putin delivered to his people as he prepared them for war.
“Try to keep life normal, as far as life can be normal,” Zelenskiy told his nation on Feb. 24, even as he called on them to take up arms and fight. “Take care of your neighbors and your friends.”
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.