A year after the start of the war, Zelenskyy Putin defied all odds
By Tom Balmforth
KIEV (Reuters) – How long can he keep this up?
Night after night, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivers rousing video addresses, rallying his troops to fight the Russian invaders and trying to draw world attention to his nation’s plight.
He has successfully begged the West for arms, breaking taboo after taboo – first by the West sending deadly aid of all kinds, and more recently by Western shipments of main battle tanks that could help Ukraine launch a counteroffensive.
Zelenskyj, now 45 and in power since 2019, is not letting up.
So did Russian President Vladimir Putin, who launched his “military special operation” in Ukraine on February 24, 2022 and appears to be preparing for a long war.
As Russian troops poured across the border, few foresaw the transformation into Zelenskyi, a former TV comedian whose trust ratings had eroded as public anger mounted over widespread corruption, economic malaise and poor governance.
Leading up to Russia’s massing of troops on its borders, he had slammed foreign embassies and companies for leaving Ukraine, saying they would hurt the economy and – publicly at least – seemed to downplay the threat of a major invasion .
Today he is known worldwide, a symbol of the Ukrainian resistance. In Ukraine, its popularity ratings have almost tripled and are unusually stable.
Easygoing and relaxed when meeting newcomers at his heavily fortified headquarters, dressed in military khaki, whether meeting royalty or visiting soldiers near the front lines, Zelenskiy conveys an image of steadfastness and steadfastness.
He still has major milestones to overcome. He has yet to secure supplies of the sophisticated western warplanes he says will be needed to push back Russian troops, or promises of accelerated European Union membership. Joining the NATO military alliance still seems out of reach.
But despite sometimes having a puffy face and wrinkles under his eyes, there’s no indication he’s running out of breath, and last month he launched a government reshuffle to quell public outcry over a corruption scandal.
“Zelensky surprised many people… They underestimated his leadership abilities,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, a Kiev-based analyst who said Putin misjudged Zelensky.
“(Putin) was preparing a special operation, not a full-fledged war…because he thought Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian army were weak and they wouldn’t be able to resist for long. That turned out to be a mistake.”
With the fate of Ukraine hanging in the balance early in the Russian invasion, Zelenskyy filmed himself using a mobile phone to declare that he and his country would keep fighting.
“Ya tut,” he said, meaning “I’m here.”
It was the start of a social media blitz that he has maintained throughout the war by delivering a simple message: “We will win.”
Reuters reporters saw Ukrainian soldiers weep in a dugout near the battlefront as he delivered a rousing New Year’s speech.
“This is the year Ukraine changed the world. And the world discovered Ukraine. We were told to surrender. We decided to counterattack!” Zelenskyj said.
In contrast, Putin often appears dejected and isolated, issues threats to the West or Ukraine from within the Kremlin, and is rarely seen in public except at choreographed events.
A steady stream of foreign leaders, dignitaries and celebrities have made the long train journey to Kyiv to meet Zelenskyy at the presidential headquarters overlooking Kyiv. Billions of dollars in foreign aid have flowed in.
Aides describe a packed schedule that has included 377 phone calls with other leaders and heads of international organizations, 41 addresses to parliaments and foreign publics, 152 meetings and dozens of other addresses since the day of the invasion.
“NOW IS NOT THE TIME”
Zelenskiy, a Russian-speaking Ukrainian from a Jewish family in the steel town of Kryvy Rih, began his career as an actor.
He is known for starring in the TV series Servants of the People, which struck a chord with Ukrainians fed up with corruption.
In it, he plays an honest schoolteacher who finds fame after a class talk about corruption goes viral on the internet and becomes president in order to outwit corrupt lawmakers and businessmen.
Then, in 2019, life imitated art. Zelenskyy was elected president after pledged to fight corruption during a campaign that relied on quirky social media posts as a foretaste of his strong online reach during the war.
In video taken shortly after the Russian invasion, he quoted intelligence agencies as saying that Moscow had made him target number one and his family – his wife Olena Zelenska and their two children – target number two.
Anton Grushetsky, deputy director of the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, put the public’s trust in Zelenskyy at 70 to 80 percent.
“The stability of this level of trust is unprecedented in Ukrainian history,” he said.
His main competitors have been largely excluded from decision-making, and some foreign diplomats privately say they are concerned about the concentration of power in the hands of his team.
The political truce has held and Zelenskyy has been able to launch a campaign to weed out officials suspected of corruption, including some close to his own power base.
Former President Petro Poroshenko, whom Zelenskyy defeated in the 2019 election, said an assessment of Zelenskyy’s wartime performance during the conflict was inappropriate.
“Since February 24, 2022 I have not been the leader of the opposition because both Zelenskyy and Poroshenko are soldiers. And all Ukrainians should unite not around personalities, but around Ukraine,” Poroshenko told Reuters.
“After our victory, the people will not evaluate the work of Zelenskyj and Poroshenko.”
For now, he seems to have popular support.
“He stayed here, he didn’t panic,” said Anton Fedorenko, a unit commander named Mazda serving in eastern Ukraine.
“He immediately launched a series of actions and deeds. He drew public attention to Ukraine, which is also very important. He brought this problem to the world.”
(Edit by Timothy Heritage)