Why an unlikely wartime leader like President Zelenskyy instills hope for Ukraine and the world
A year ago, with Russian forces bearing down on Ukraine’s capital, Western leaders feared for the life of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and advised him to flee. The U.S. offered him an escape route.
Instead, he filmed a defiant video of himself on a darkened street outside the presidential offices with his four closest aides arrayed behind him. “We are all here,” Zelenskyy said in a declaration of their determination to stay in Kyiv and defend Ukraine’s independence.
It was powerful political theater. From the first days of the war, when few expected Ukraine’s army to hold up against a Russian onslaught, Zelenskyy has inspired Ukrainians to fight. He has given them hope.
Night after night, he has addressed the nation in a video posted on social media. His actor-trained voice can be soothing or forceful, rising in moral outrage as he condemns the most recent Russian atrocities and insists that those responsible will be punished.
He speaks of the anger and pain from the devastation of the country and the untold deaths. He vows that Ukraine will one day be made whole. He never tires of thanking all those on the front lines. Through all the horrors of the war, Zelenskyy has instilled a belief that Ukraine can prevail.
Zelenskyy was just 41 when he was elected president in 2019, largely on the promise that he would be the kind of corruption-fighting president he had played so well in a popular television show. In those first years, he struggled to convince Ukrainians he was up to the job and his approval ratings slumped.
War can take leaders and make them heroes or fools. Moscow’s struggles in Ukraine have done nothing to elevate Russian President Vladimir Putin in the eyes of the world. But it was as a wartime leader that Zelenskyy found his moment. Many now compare him to Winston Churchill, the British prime minister who famously led his country in World War II as it came under attack from Nazi Germany.
“He’s been extraordinarily good at channeling a kind of larger national spirit,” Fiona Hill, a Russia scholar at the Brookings Institution who served in the past three U.S. administrations, said. She credits, in part, Zelenskyy’s training as an actor. “Sometimes, it’s literally when we say this is the role of a lifetime, there is that performative element of it.”
Hill notes that Churchill “wasn’t this great a leader in peacetime as he was in the war, and he himself was a performer and he enjoyed amateur theatricals and also knew that he was playing a role.”
As a wartime leader, Zelenskyy almost immediately began to dress the part, shedding his trim suits for an entire wardrobe of army green. His boyish face grew a dark beard. He seemed to age overnight.
Before the invasion, he looked much like the affable young history teacher from his TV show, “Servant of the People,” about a man who was improbably elected president after a student surreptitiously filmed his profanity-filled rant against government corruption. The comedy show, which ran from 2015 until the real election in spring 2019, was hugely popular.
Michael Kimmage, who worked on Russia and Ukraine policy at the U.S. State Department during the Obama administration, traces some of Zelenskyy’s success in uniting the country back to the 2019 election, which he won with 70% of the vote and without the kind of East-West division seen in previous elections.
But Kimmage says Zelenskyy’s “quasi-Churchillian characteristics” came as a surprise.
“He’s a former entertainer and comedian, so you don’t sort of naturally put him into that military role. But it just fit,” he said. “I don’t know where that came from. It’s obviously enormously consequential for the war itself, but not a quality that I saw in Zelenskyy before the war.”
While uniting his own country, Zelenskyy also has been highly effective in getting the world to stand with the Ukrainians and provide the steady flow of money and military supplies that have kept them in the fight. After dozens of speeches by video link, Zelenskyy traveled out of the country in December for the first time since the war began to meet U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House and address Congress. He followed that up with visits this month to London, Paris and Brussels.
At the Munich Security Conference last week, Zelenskyy was relentless in imploring allies to keep standing firm with Ukraine and not to waste a minute doing so. Russia is the Goliath, he said; Ukraine is David with the sling.
“There is no alternative to speed,” he said, “because it’s speed that life depends on.”
In pleading for ever more powerful weapons, he has steadily worn down resistance. He has been rewarded recently with promises of the longer-range missiles, advanced air defense systems and modern battle tanks that will help his army try to win back territory as the war enters its second year.
Despite Zelenskyy’s obvious star power, his adviser Mykhailo Podolyak, one of the four men standing behind him in the video at the start of the war, qualifies his praise.
“You put me in a bit of an awkward positions, because on the one hand, of course, I see a president who is in his place at this time,” Podolyak said. “It’s very cool. He has an iron core, an iron will, a fantastic willingness to take responsibility, courage and so on.”
But, Podolyak said, the war has shown that Ukraine has many people with the same iron will: “That is, this country cannot be broken because many people will always be against being broken, and who will never kneel down, who will always be ready to take some responsibility.”
Hill also made the point that Zelenskyy isn’t the only one who has stepped up during the war. Unlike for Russia, where the war is being driven from the top down, for Ukraine it’s an existential fight.
“Really, I think every Ukrainian, for the most part, has been stepping up as well,” she said. “You think about all the people who have gone to the front, all the people who have basically had to face up to this every single day. This is a national effort.”
Before taking office in 2019, Zelenskyy traveled to his hometown of Kryvyi Rih to visit the grave of his grandfather, a Red Army officer who fought the Nazis in World War II. A family friend, Oleksandr Krizhov, a 73-year-old dentist, said that he asked Zelenskyy’s father, a university professor, why he had done it.
Said Krizhov: “It was a vow to his grandfather: ‘You won’t be ashamed of me.'”