Volodymyr Zelensky: from actor to military leader and political leader

(ORDO NEWS) — Wearing a khaki T-shirt, tired features, stubble and regular media appearances, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky has become a symbol of Ukrainians’ determination to defeat Russia‘s massive military arsenal.

Weeks before the Russian invasion on February 24, his presidential term, which he began three years ago, was losing some momentum, as the former comedian was struggling to fulfill his electoral promises in a country plagued by poverty and corruption. It was easy for his opponents to say that the scale of responsibility he assumes is greater than a comic actor, and Western countries regret that the new Ukrainian president at the time seemed unable to implement reforms.

“Before the war, many people treated Ukraine as a failed state and Zelensky as a weak president,” says political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko.

And when, on the dawn of February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, Moscow was convinced that its offensive would be short and that the weakened Ukrainian power would collapse.

“We are all here”

All major Ukrainian cities were subjected to heavy bombardment, Kharkiv, Lviv, Dnipro and Odessa, and the Russian army headed to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

“There were rumors that (the Ukrainian president) would flee,” Fesenko recalled.

However, the reality was different. Zelensky attracted attention after he appeared in a video clip recorded in front of the buildings of the Presidential Administration in the center of Kyiv, and his advisers surrounded him.

His eyes staring into the camera lens, he said, “We are all here, our military is here, the citizens, the community, we are all here, to defend our independence, our state.”

More than nine months after the start of the war, exhaustion is evident on his face and his beard has grown, but every evening his determination is the same, which he directs to the residents in videos posted on social media.

Meanwhile, Zelensky and his army inflicted surprising defeats on Putin’s army: in April, the Kremlin retreated from entering Kyiv, in September it lost control of the Kharkiv region, and then in November it lost Kherson, the capital of the region of the same name.

The Financial Times, which awarded Zelensky the title of Man of the Year, did not hesitate to compare him to former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who led the war against the Nazis.

In Russia, on the contrary, Zelensky is presented as the leader of a neo-Nazi genocidal clique or the leader of drug addicts, even Satan.

“The Russian Orthodox Church must officially announce that Zelensky embodies the arrival of the Antichrist,” political analyst Arayik Stepanyan said on Russia 1 last week.

But Zelensky, 44, is also the leader of the media battle. He has previously appeared on the cover of the fashion magazine “Vogue” with his wife Olina, as well as in the southern city of Kherson, which Ukrainian forces regained control in November, chanting the national anthem and surrounded by soldiers.

Resilience and resistance

These scenes contrast with those showing Putin operating isolated in the Kremlin.

Zelensky has also used his popularity and the suffering of Ukrainians to extract more weapons and more funding from his Western allies.

For this purpose, he always presents his country as a bulwark against Russian imperialism and as a defender of democratic values, as he did in June when he told Czech deputies that Moscow is targeting “a vast area from Warsaw to Sofia and from Prague to Tallinn.”

And he adopts a tough approach towards leaders who ask him to make concessions to Moscow, such as French President Emmanuel Macron.

He received in his office the leaders of Western countries who visited Kyiv successively, as well as Hollywood stars.

Zelensky, who grew up in the industrial city of Kryvyi Rig in a predominantly Russian-speaking region, did not expect to play this role.

Before entering politics, he made a successful career as a comedian, in Ukraine as well as in Russia, where the same TV channels that insult him today would invite him to appear on their screens.

As of 2015, he plays an honest but naive history professor who accidentally becomes the president of Ukraine, in a hit series.

However, the fantasy became reality with his election in 2019 by Ukrainians fed up with a corrupt political class, including their billionaire president, Petro Poroshenko.

“Zelensky turned out to be a real patriot, fighter, president,” says Volodymyr Fesenko.

As winter sets in in Ukraine and Russian missiles destroy the country’s energy facilities, Zelensky will have to keep his citizens and his allies resilient.

Visenko believes that Zelensky must “preserve society’s will to resist and (…) support the West,” because “war fatigue is a real challenge.”

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