Before Russia’s invasion, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky faced criticism at home. Now he is a wartime leader rising to the moment.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy is someone you may have seen or heard from a lot over the past few days.
He’s the president of Ukraine, the man now tasked with leading his country against a Russian invasion.
“It was as sudden as it was brutal and it was relentless. Ukrainians woke up to find themselves plunged into the midst of explosions and air raid sirens out here in Kyiv as Russia launched a full-scale invasion on multiple fronts in the early hours of this morning.”Channel 4 News
As Russian soldiers began to close in on Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, Volodymyr Zelenskyy knew he was “target number one”.
[Clip: Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressing his citizens]
But still, he stayed.
Refusing offers from the United States to evacuate him, he reportedly said: “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
Defiant in the face of Vladimir Putin’s formidable military force, President Zelenskyy has conjured up a spirit of resistance amongst Ukrainians and won praise from around the world for his leadership.
But less than a week ago, when a Russian invasion was still just a threat, his reputation at home was very different.
Because before Volodymyr Zelenskyy became president, his only experience of politics was fictional.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy is 44.
When he was born in 1978, Vladimir Putin was already working for the KGB, the Soviet Union’s security agency.
And by the time Volodymyr Zelensky graduated with a law degree from the Kyiv National Economic University, Vladimir Putin was Russia’s prime minister.
A few years later, you could say Volodymyr Zelenskyy caught up.
[Clip: Servant of the People]
First aired in 2015, he starred in a hugely popular TV show called Servant of the People, as a humble history teacher who became president of Ukraine.
Then came an actual election, and Volodymyr Zelenskyy decided to run.
“The Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyy has won the presidential election by a landslide, securing more than 70 per cent of the vote in Ukraine…”Good Morning Europe
Positioning himself as an anti-establishment, anti-corruption populist, Volodymyr Zelenskyy won the support of Ukrainians tired of mainstream politics.
His victory was a landslide.
But after a few years in power, some Ukrainians felt their rookie president had failed to deliver.
Last week, Tortoise heard from Olga Rudenko, chief editor of Kyiv Independent, who came to our Open News meeting on the eve of Russia’s invasion. She was critical of President Zelenskyy.
“We unfortunately have seen him not perform his campaign promises, not fighting corruption, for two almost three years.”Olga Rudenko
When he was elected in 2019 he promised to clean up politics and bring peace to the east, where Ukrainian forces had been fighting Russian-backed separatists.
“Let’s be frank, if Mr President was doing the things that he was supposed to be doing in those three years, such as fixing the corrupt court system, end corrupt institutions and so on, we might have had a stronger position right now, even talking to the West because we would be the country that is changing, that is improving ourselves… fighting corruption and so on.”Olga Rudenko
His failure to do so left some Ukrainians feeling it created an opportunity for Vladimir Putin.
And there was another problem…
“I don’t have reasons to believe that he’s getting good advice, that he’s seeking good advice… I’m inclined to believe that he’s in an echo chamber.”Olga Rudenko
Volodymyr Zelenskyy appointed the man who ran his TV production company as the head of the SBU, Ukraine’s equivalent to the FBI.
And dozens of others in his government also have links to his business or family. They have little experience in politics… like him.
But for some Ukrainians, there was no other option. Nina also came to our Open News meeting.
“We see that the patriotism is really increasing and people really go to become the Member of Terrestrial Defence or to the army and recently we see that President Zelenskyy made two quite good speeches with proper things which presidents should do.”Nina
That patriotism she spoke of less than a week ago, on the eve of the invasion, has been out in force since war came to Ukraine. Ordinary people have answered their president’s call and he is standing with them.
In 2019, Volodymyr Zelenskyy won 73 per cent of the vote. His strongest support came from southern and eastern Ukraine, including the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where those Russian backed forces had been locked in a battle with Ukrainian troops.
In early January, as a conflict with Russia loomed, Volodymyr Zelenskyy went skiing. His approval ratings fell. According to a poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, only 30 per cent of Ukrainian’s wanted him to run for a second term and even fewer, 23 per cent, would have voted for him.
But when the invasion became a reality, President Zelenskyy wasn’t skiing, he was on the streets of his capital. The comedian, who became president, was now a wartime leader, and is up for the fight.
“Listen. I am here. We will not lay down the weapons, we will defend our state because our weapon is our truth. And the truth is, that this is our land, our country, our children, and we will defend all of that. That’s all I wanted to tell you. Glory to Ukraine.”Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Sky News
Today’s story was written and produced by Imy Harper.
Nina, Thursday 24 February 2022
In the first of our Voicemails from Ukraine, Nina tells us how she found out “it” – the invasion – had begun