When US intelligence officials offered Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a chance to escape the Russian troops rapidly encircling the capital Kyiv, the 44-year-old reportedly quipped that he needed ammunition, not a ride.
On Saturday morning Zelenskyy posted a video on Twitter in front of a government building in Kyiv, to reassure Ukrainians that he had remained in the capital, leading its defences three days after Russian forces invaded. “I am here,” he says. “We are not laying down our arms.”
It’s the latest example of Zelenskyy, a former comedian and actor who was elected president in 2019, releasing short video statements trying to rally his country, and pointing out that Ukraine stood by itself against the might of Russia’s military.
He has also regularly criticised the US and other NATO countries for failing to come to Ukraine’s aid, including Friday saying his country has been “left alone.”
These viral moments have transformed Zelenskyy – who once portrayed a history teacher who found himself president of Ukraine – into a wartime hero urging Ukrainians to defend their country, and Russians to take to their streets to demand peace. It has also won him huge admiration abroad.
Like most people in Ukraine, though, Zelenskyy remains in great danger. NATO officials have warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin is currently attempting to cut off Kyiv with military forces in order to target government buildings and arrest or kill top Ukrainian leaders, hence the warning overnight Friday to flee the ongoing encirclement. But thus far Zelenskyy has remained defiant despite himself acknowledging he and his family are top Russian targets.
From a Jewish family in southern Ukraine, Zelenskyy was elected with more than 70 percent of the vote in 2019 because of his perceived lack of ties to the corrupt class of oligarchs – Russian and Ukrainian alike – who dominated the country’s politics after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, with voters deciding his lack of political experience was an asset.
He was almost immediately dragged into the first impeachment of then–US President Donald Trump, who attempted to withhold military aid unless Zelenskyy opened a corruption investigation into now–US President Joe Biden’s family.
Since then Zelenskyy had struggled politically over corruption, his government’s COVID response, and the eight-year war with Russian-backed separatist areas in the east. But that appears to have largely changed since last week’s invasion, said a NATO intelligence official working in Brussels.
“[From] physical courage alone, it's now been well established [Zelenskyy] is a real leader and person of substance,” said the official. “Kept his people calm, while making smart demands on the international community for help where he’s been witty but not bitter. The people and the army are fighting for him and the country. Putin must be a little unnerved if he’s even realised yet, but that doesn’t mean this has a happy ending.”
“The other part of being very courageous is that it can often get you killed,” said the official about the warning from the US about Zelenskyy’s safety. “He’s made a very brave and good leadership choice, but Kyiv could turn into hell.”