After another sleepless night under Russian attacks and bombardments, Volodymyr Zelensky was unshaven and looking haggard. But in his video speech this Saturday morning, the Ukrainian president was defiant. “I’m here,” he said simply. And so it was. Three days after Vladimir Putin’s invasion, Zelensky was in the center of Kiev. He showed that he was resisting, not going anywhere.
“Good morning everyone! Ukrainians, there is a lot of false information on the Internet that I have called our army to lay down their arms and that there is an evacuation,” he said. “I am here, we are not going to lay down our arms, we will defend our state, our territory, our Ukraine, our children; that is all I have to say; glory to Ukraine.”
The backdrop that Zelensky chose for the video broadcast on Twitter and on his Telegram channel is the House with Chimeras in the capital. Designed by Polish architect Władysław Horodecki, the style building art nouveau it is easily recognizable by its mythological figures and its elephant-headed gargoyles. Bankova Street, where the building is located, is the Ukrainian equivalent of Downing Street in London. A hundred meters below is the seat of the Ukrainian presidency.
The video-selfi with his ministers
On Friday night, Zelensky posted another video, accompanied by Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, and other government advisers. “I am housed in government offices along with others,” he said in his message.
Zelensky told his compatriots that another difficult night was likely to come, with Russian forces trying to encircle and take Kiev. “The enemy has designated me as target number one, and my family as target number two,” he said, urging citizens to resist with strength and unity.
The longer Zelensky’s resistance drags on, the more heroic he appears in the eyes of a growing number of Ukrainians. “I didn’t like him before, and I didn’t vote for him, but now I see him with a new respect,” says Olga Bileychuk, from the western city of Lviv. “He is doing a good job.”
Kristina Berdynskikh, one of the most renowned journalists in Ukraine, also had praise for him. “I have many complaints against Zelensky for his domestic politics but his behavior during this offensive of absolute evil against Ukraine is a show of true political leadership and tremendous courage,” Berdynskykh tweeted late on Friday.
Comedian turned politician
A former television actor and comedian, Zelensky won a landslide victory in the spring 2019 presidential election. He promised to bring peace to the east of the country and negotiate with Putin. Three years later he finds himself at war with Russia and leading against all odds a fight against the occupation of the Kremlin and against national extinction.
Zelensky’s popularity had plummeted just before this week’s invasion. One of the criticisms leveled at him was that he was lagging behind events. He offered a declaration of neutrality for Ukraine, for example, when it was already too late and the Russian bombs had begun to fall.
There were also disagreements with the international community about the degree of threat Moscow posed. The US government of Joe Biden had been warning for weeks that Putin had built up an invasion force on Ukraine’s borders and that he was preparing to enter. But Zelensky was reluctant. Faced with predictions of a fatal outcome, he shrugged his shoulders and criticized London and Washington for withdrawing their diplomats from Lviv. There was no reason to panic, he said.
“He is always two or three steps behind what is happening, he cannot get out of his vision,” commented a former high-ranking official in his government. “As if it were a theater instead of real events, when it is a life or death situation, a true tragedy for thousands of people.” According to that high official, Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andrii Yermak, was giving him bad advice.
Yet Zelensky has shown extraordinary courage and resilience in the dark hours since the Russian military offensive began at five o’clock on Thursday morning. The US government and, according to various sources, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, offered to remove Zelensky from Ukraine to prevent him from being captured by the Russians. He has refused to flee.
“The fight is here, what I need is ammunition, not a trip,” Zelensky was quoted as saying by US intelligence officials. for him Washington Post. The answer suggests that the president has not lost his sense of humor, visible in the videos he recorded these days with the iPhone, where he is seen with a tired smile. On Friday he said that her family had already been moved to a safe place.
Zelensky’s fate in the coming days is grimly uncertain. No one doubts that Putin is determined to take Kiev and remove Zelensky’s pro-Western, pro-NATO government. Moscow’s apparent objective is to install a puppet regime, similar to that of separatist Donetsk, and de facto annex a large area of Ukraine considered by Putin to be part of “historic Russia.”
When he sent the tanks this week, Putin said he was doing so to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine. On Friday, Putin called Ukraine’s leaders “fascists” and “drug addicts.” State Kremlin channels have suggested that the country is ruled by far-right extremists since the 2014 Maidan riots against then-President Viktor Yanukovych.
A native Russian-speaking Jew
The claim is ridiculous. Zelensky is a native Russian speaker, a skill he displayed in his emotional speech to the Russian people on Wednesday night, just hours after the invasion began. He is also Jewish. He lost relatives in the Holocaust and his grandfather fought against Hitler. His friends and his main advisers come from the world of entertainment and television.
Zelensky seems optimistic, at least for now. In his video address on Saturday, he said Ukraine had successfully resisted “enemy attacks.” “We are defending our country, our land,” he said, adding that Kiev remained under government control. “The occupiers wanted to capture our capital and place their puppets like in Donetsk, we broke their plans.”
“I want the whole world in Russia to listen to me, the whole world,” he added. “Hundreds of captured soldiers who are here in Ukraine don’t know why they have been sent here to kill people or be killed, people need to tell the government [ruso] why the war must be stopped, more people from your country will be alive.
The brute force and air power of the Kremlin may eventually win out, but Zelensky has already earned his place in history as the leader of a beleaguered nation fighting for its survival.