President Volodymyr Zelensky has become the face of Ukraine’s resistance against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion. But Zelensky came into power with little political experience. Before he was elected, he was best known for playing a television role as an ordinary schoolteacher accidentally catapulted into power. The show, “Servant of the People,” ran for four years, making him a household name.
After the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24, Zelensky has captured the world’s imagination, often dressing in ballistic vests as he urges people to press the fight during videos he posts to Telegram, Facebook and Instagram from the center of Kyiv. At other times, the 44-year-old has harangued Western leaders to step up their sanctions against Putin, speaking regularly with figures such as U.S. President Biden, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron, describing Russian missile strikes as terrorism.
As the Russian onslaught intensifies, with air and missile strikes widening to hit more civilian targets, Zelensky knows that he is on the top of the Kremlin’s kill-or-capture list, but insists that neither he nor his family will leave as he tries to keep his battered country intact. He is also growing frustrated with the West’s unwillingness to intervene militarily. On Friday he condemned NATO’s decision against enforcing a “no-fly” zone over Ukraine as a sign of weakness.
Zelensky was elected of Ukraine’s president in 2019, defeating the incumbent Petro Poroshenko bent on cleaning up corruption and securing better relations with Moscow. His pitch was largely based on the role he played on his TV show, where he portrayed an ordinary man thrown into the presidency to clean up the country. Even his political party was named after the show.
Early on, Zelensky focussed much of his energy toward projecting a sense of calm as Russian forces steadily built along Ukraine’s borders to eventually total as many as 190,000 troops. He said U.S. warnings of an imminent invasion were overblown and were damaging Ukraine’s economy. But after the first Russian strikes began to hit Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities on Feb. 24, he pivoted hard toward shoring up Ukraine’s defense, securing as much Western assistance as he could obtain. With Russian propaganda claiming he had already fled the country, he made a hand-shot video of himself out on the street in front of the presidential palace in Kyiv to urge on Ukrainians in their defense of the country. The video drew millions of views on Telegram and Facebook. Gone were the suits and ties, in came military sweatshirts.
Zelensky spoke frequently with Western leaders, urging them to increase sanctions on Moscow in the hope of breaking the Russian advance. As he pleaded with European leaders in a video call to take tougher action, he warned them that this might be the last time they saw him alive, according to several diplomats. “The silence in the room was impressive,” a senior European Union official said. Shortly after, the 27-nation bloc moved to significantly expand the range of measures as the West hardened its response to Moscow’s aggression.