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Comedian, president, wartime leader

Comedian, president, wartime leader

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has thrust President Volodymyr Zelensky onto the international stage and into the spotlight. He’s been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and honoured with an Oscar but now he needs a victory

After playing a fictional president in a TV show, Volodymyr Zelensky ran to be the actual president of Ukraine as a peacemaker who said war could be easily stopped.

But it couldn’t.

In the middle of his first term as president, Russia attacked Ukraine on the ground, in the sea and in the air. 

After occupying the Donbass region for 8 years, Russia opened a frontline more than 1,000 km long. 

Western intelligence had warned months in advance that Russia would attack and on the 19th of January, Volodomyr Zelensky asked the Ukrainian people not to panic. 

“Everyone has to breathe out. To calm down. Not to rush for buckwheat and matches.”

Volodymyr Zelensky

He said: “Everyone has to breathe out. To calm down. Not to rush for buckwheat and matches.”

He emphasised that the war had already been going on for 8 years, and that Ukraine would defend itself. He asked Western partners for more concrete aid, not just words, and promised his country that everything would be fine. 

“In April we will celebrate Easter. In May, as usual – the sun, the long weekends, the barbecue, the Victory Day.”

Volodymyr Zelensky

***

Just over a month later, Russia attacked.

“It started early this morning. The Russian assault on Ukraine began with missile attacks on key targets. This was an airport.”

ITV News

Volodomyr Zelensky imposed martial law and said that he, the Security council and the army were working and would win. 

In the first couple of days of the war, Russians occupied Kherson and entered the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. 

Social media was flooded with fake messages from Russian bots claiming the president had left the country. 

But he hadn’t, and to prove it, he went on a walkabout in central Kyiv.

“We are all here.”

Volodymyr Zelensky

As the war gained momentum, US president Joe Biden made a series of speeches urging Vladimir Putin not to escalate, but it seemed too late: Russian soldiers occupied another nuclear power plant near Zaporizhzhia and laid siege to Mariupol. They also entered Irpin and Bucha near the Ukrainian capital. Places that will forever be remembered as scenes of Russian war crimes. 

The battle for Kyiv had begun. 

***

As Russian soldiers began to close in, Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he was “target number one”.

According to Ukrainian officials, elite Russian troops tried to kill him at least three times. 

 “The US even offered to evacuate him, and he said, quote, ‘I need ammunition, not a ride’.”

The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

Despite early successes Russia failed to get target number one, failed to take Kyiv and failed in its initial plan.

Since then, Volodymyr Zelensky has only left Kyiv to visit places liberated from Russian occupation. He’s brought western politicians and celebrities to Bucha, recorded an address near a bombed building in Borodyanka and went to liberated Kherson to meet with locals and the army. 

He welcomed Boris Johnson to Kyiv a number of times, calling him his friend.

And he recorded endless video addresses to his people and to politicians in the US Congress, the German Bundestag and the UK parliament.

Along with the people of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky was nominated for the Nobel peace prize – but didn’t get it. 

Instead it went to Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian human rights activists. 

He delivered a speech to the Oscars ceremony and later got a statuette from Sean Penn – on condition that after winning the war he would go to Miami and return it to the actor in person. 

It’s a great honour for any actor to get an Oscar. But as president, Volodymyr Zelensky needs a victory.

This episode was written by Nina Kuryata and mixed by Matt Russell.