3 years ago Zelenskyy was a TV comedian. Now he’s standing up to Putin’s army.
Three years ago, he was playing a president in a popular television comedy. Today, he is Ukraine’s president, confronting Russia’s fearsome military might.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy is leading his country during an invasion that threatens to explode into the worst conflict in Europe’s post-World War II history.
On Friday, as Russian troops reached Kyiv, he posted a defiant handheld video to social media showing him next to the presidential palace in the heart of the Ukrainian capital, surrounded by members of his Cabinet.
“We are all here,” he said. “We are defending our independence, our country.”
The message capped a head-spinning transformation of a man whose job used to be making jokes on television into a wartime leader. Who is this man at the helm as Ukraine faces the gravest of challenges?
Zelenskyy, 44, who was elected president in 2019, was educated as a lawyer, but found his true calling as an entertainer.
Married to Olena Zelenska, with whom he has two children, he was born in the central Ukrainian city of Kryvyi Rih in the then-Soviet Union to Jewish parents.
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His family’s story tracks his homeland’s and the continent’s bloody history: He has said three of his grandfather’s brothers were killed by Nazi occupiers, while his grandfather survived WWII.
Raised during communism, Zelenskyy went into politics months before the 2019 election with no prior experience or solid policies. Instead, he ran on a promise to inject integrity into his country’s leadership.
Unlike many of his counterparts in the region, his past did not turn him into a dour politician in the Soviet mold. On the contrary, his public persona is encapsulated by one of his best-known quips: “You don’t need experience to be president. You just need to be a decent human being.”
As a product of the entertainment industry, he is known for his personable style and his ability to speak to people of all kinds.
“He is quite empathetic as a person. He finds good connections with people,” said Orysia Lutsevych, a research fellow at the London think tank Chatham House. “That’s why he’s successful in politics.”
A native Russian speaker, Zelenskyy used his charisma and immense popularity to win a landslide victory, supported by voters in Ukraine’s south and east — where millions of Russian-speaking Ukrainians felt disenfranchised by previous administrations. It is this alienation that Russia has tried to capitalize on by supporting separatists who have been fighting Ukrainian forces for eight years.
This week’s invasion, which came after months of Russia massing troops on Ukraine’s borders and demands from President Vladimir Putin that NATO bar Ukraine from joining the military alliance, is not the first time Zelenskyy has been thrust into the spotlight.
Just months into his presidency, a phone conversation in which then-President Donald Trump pressed him to investigate corruption allegations against Joe Biden garnered international attention. The scandal led to the first impeachment of Trump, who was acquitted in early 2020.
By this time, Zelenskyy had already disrupted the Ukrainian political system, bringing into the government people who wanted to modernize the country, Lutsevych said.
He tried to rein in Ukraine’s rampant corruption and disrupt the existing pillars of power, but “didn’t muster enough political power to crack the bone of Ukrainian corruption within the system,” she added.
At the same time, he’s been praised by many in Ukraine for keeping the country of 44 million firmly on a pro-Western path. Russia and Ukraine stayed aligned after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, but began drifting apart in the 2000s as Kyiv sought deeper integration with Europe.
In 2014, pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych was swept from power after refusing to sign an association agreement with the European Union.
The mere fact that Ukraine is a democracy has been threatening to the Kremlin, and Russian officials accuse Zelenskyy of being a Western “marionette.” He is often mocked by the Kremlin’s propagandists as being incapable.
Zelenskyy has also been criticized for not delivering on his biggest campaign promise — to end the long-simmering war between government forces and the Moscow-backed separatists in Ukraine’s east. The conflict that has left 14,000 dead became a flashpoint last week after Russia officially recognized the breakaway territories, Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic. The move paved the way for the invasion days later.
While rallying support for Ukraine as tensions rose in the run-up to the invasion, Zelenskyy chose to play down dire warnings coming out of Washington that Moscow was about to attack, saying it was hurting Ukraine’s already fragile economy and morale.
He spooked the markets and sent the foreign media into a frenzy earlier this month when — in his characteristically sarcastic style — he appeared to say in a speech that Russia would attack on Feb. 16, later clarifying he was only referring to media reports of an invasion on this date.
Many questioned his calm tone as being too relaxed, even making him the butt of a joke for American late night show hosts.
But as it became clear last week, Ukraine was running out of diplomatic options to appease Putin, and while Zelenskyy still preached calm, he took on a more serious tone. He insisted Ukraine was ready for any threat while calling for peace.
Assessing Zelenskyy’s performance in the lead-up to the invasion and as commander in chief, Valentyn Gladkykh, a Kyiv-based political analyst, told NBC News that the Ukrainian president had managed to morph into a wartime leader and, for now, Ukrainian society, including his peacetime opponents, seem to be supporting him.
“No Ukrainian president has ever dealt with a full-on invasion on his territory,” Gladkykh said. “Having encountered the unprecedented threat, Zelenskyy has shown his best side.”
But his best side may not be enough — he and Ukraine are trapped in a true David and Goliath contest. Vast nuclear-powered Russia spans 11 time zones and its army counts as one of the largest in the world, leaving the army of Texas-size Ukraine outnumbered and outgunned.
The contrast isn’t only down to size and military might. Within hours of Russia’s first strikes, the difference between Zelenskyy and his counterpart in the Kremlin could not have been more stark.
In his address to justify an incursion into Ukraine late Wednesday, a typically expressionless Putin spoke in his stern ex-KGB officer tone, invoking Russia’s nuclear arsenal and warning anyone who tries to stop him.
“No one should have any doubts that a direct attack on our country will lead to defeat and dire consequences for any potential aggressor,” he said.
A few hours earlier, a visibly exhausted Zelenskyy delivered an impassioned, last-minute plea for peace, appealing to Russian citizens directly — in Russian.
“The people of Ukraine want peace,” he said, warning about the devastation that the war would bring to both people.
“If the Russian leaders don’t want to sit with us behind the table for the sake of peace, maybe they will sit behind the table with you,” Zelenskyy pleaded. “Do Russians want war? I would like to know the answer. But the answer depends only on you.”
Even as Putin’s bombs started falling on Ukrainian soil, Zelenskyy urged Russians to speak up against the war. He thanked those who did Friday, saying “keep fighting for us.”
There is widespread speculation among observers that Putin’s endgame in Ukraine might be to topple Zelenskyy and to install a president more willing to bend before Moscow. Last month, Britain said the Kremlin was seeking to install a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine as part of its plans for an invasion.
“They want to destroy Ukraine politically by destroying its head of state,” Zelenskyy said Thursday, saying he was now “target No. 1” for the Russian forces, but vowed to remain in the capital.
Later Friday, Putin urged Ukrainian soldiers to overthrow their government, even as he suggested he might be willing to enter talks while his forces continued their advance across the country.
But Zelenskyy is left with few options as the Russian offensive intensifies. He could concede ground to Moscow, a move that is likely to be unpopular with many Ukrainians, or hold his position and face the full wrath of the Russian army.
For now, he remains defiant.
“It will continue like this,” he said in the video posted Friday. “Glory to our defenders, glory to Ukraine.”