This article was originally submitted for print on the 23rd March
The situation on the ground in Ukraine remains volatile enough that this article may serve as Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s obituary when this goes to print.
It’s a morbid thought but one that the President of Ukraine is all too aware of. The number of failed assassination attempts against him may soon rival Fidel Castro. But to paraphrase the infamous words of the IRA, ‘Russia only needs to be lucky once’. With each passing day of artillery fire and missile strikes, Zelenskyy’s beard grows scraggier, his eyes heavier and his military fatigues deeper ingrained into his psyche. Yet his resolve remains unmoved, something few allies or enemies were expecting.
Ahead of the invasion, Zelenskyy was in something of a midterm slump. Elected with 73 percent of the vote in 2019, his approval rating steadily declined as citizens gradually lost faith in him to root out corruption and find lasting peace with Russia. In the weeks leading up to the invasion, Zelenskyy downplayed the severity of Russian troop movements near the border, emphasising dialogue over conflict. It was a strategy which didn’t bear fruit but, for the former actor and Strictly Come Dancing winner, his quick-stepped transformation from Metternich to Montgomery astounded.
At once, Zelenskyy understood that as President he was the voice for his people against an autocratic, omnipotent Goliath. In Putin’s face he stood proudly, channelling the hopes and dreams of 44 million people into his anger and ambition for what he wanted Ukraine to be. Independent. Sovereign. Free.
His speeches were captivating and sincere, his honesty and unflappability morphing into a fierce determination to fight. Whereas President Ghani fled Afghanistan when the Taliban marched on Kabul, Zelenskyy wandered the streets and hospitals in understated acts of virtue, aware of his power as commander-in-chief but unwilling to bend towards the authoritarianism or cult-of-personality of other leaders. At heart, Zelenskyy is an actor playing a diplomat. One who nominally leads but mostly portrays and represents. His nightly briefings echo his earlier calls for formal conflict resolution, yet appeal to the heartstrings of the West and the East alike. His inaugural address in heady days of peacetime spoke of how ‘every one of us is the President now’, describing Ukraine as a ‘shared dream’ between Ukrainians united by strength.
In Zelenskyy sits a legitimately elected, well-intentioned individual seemingly emboldened in defiance of the gradual destruction of his homeland. The internalisation of violence – and the trauma it will leave – will not appear on Zelenskyy for now, only the wrinkles of war-induced exhaustion. His calls for a no-fly zone are understandable but unenforceable for the West, yet have not detracted from his role as an ambassador to the world for the victims of this barbaric war.
Elected as a servant of the people, the people have become Zelenskyy’s life, his blood, his purpose. To defend them means to defend the values he holds dear. The idea that ‘there’s no less of a Ukrainian or more of a Ukrainian’, that decisions should be made not by out-of-touch oligarchs and politicians, but in the heads and hearts of the people. In this war, Zelenskyy has captured the hearts and minds of those far beyond his own borders, inspiring them to rise up and support Ukraine in ways unimaginable weeks ago.
Our worlds are increasingly confrontational. Exacerbated by the ills of the internet, we live in echo chambers, reinforcing our views to points of stubbornness that make any interaction with ‘opponents’ futile, pushing us ever deeper into our binaries. Zelenskyy both transcends and confirms this trend. As the leader of a sovereign nation under attack by a malignant aggressor, he is a ‘Good’ in a vicious struggle with ‘Evil’ – all while unifying the recently divided West.
Zelenskyy was once seemingly destined to be remembered internationally as a bit-part actor in Donald Trump’s first impeachment. Now, the global camera firmly focuses on him. He has an indefinite leading role in this improvised Tragedy, playing an unfortunate soul in a dialectic that he didn’t want to audition for, let alone take on. But so compelling is his performance, Oscar nominations have missed out on recognising a performance of a generation, marked by the line between acting and reality blurring beyond recognition. Metternich or Montgomery, may Volodymr Zelenskyy never be remembered as a martyr for his cause.
Image Courtesy of Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Reuters via Flickr