How Volodymyr Zelensky Galvanized Ukraine and the World
THe President wanted to go to the trenches. He’d already walked for half an hour in his helmet through the mud, surrounded by generals and guards, and he insisted they continue. They could also see the Russian position on the other side of some power lines. These positions were well within the reach of the snipers, who killed three Ukrainian soldiers just two weeks ago. Volodymyr Zelensky insisted on stopping.
“Our guys are over there, right?” the commander in chief asked one of his generals, who was advising the group to turn back. “They’ll hear I came all this way and didn’t come to see them. They’ll be upset.” Then Zelensky tossed a glance in my direction, spun around, and continued hiking through the brush.
Illustration By Neil Jamieson for TIME
It made me think: Is this an act? We’d met for interviews before, the first time backstage at Zelensky’s comedy show in the spring of 2019, during his moonshot campaign for Ukraine’s presidency. We met again that winter in Kyiv’s presidential headquarters, which he described at the time, only half joking, as a gilded fortress he wanted to escape. But this trip to the front lines last April was the first time I’d seen him with his troops—the former actor playing the part of the generalissimo. However, it was less convincing than I expected.
But the threat was quite real. Zelensky’s election was five years after Ukraine had been in war with Russia. Nearly every night, there was shooting or shelling along the front lines. This created a rift between the once-fraught nations. The war was about to get incalculably worse. Zelensky realized that the Russian soldiers were already massing on the other side border, even though they had not yet reached the front.
Zelensky standing in front of a trench at the Donetsk war-racked region in eastern Ukraine. December 2021
Ukrainian Presidential Press Office/AP
“They want us to be afraid,” he told me at the end of the trip, as we flew back to Kyiv on the presidential plane. “They want the West to be frightened of the strength and power of Russia. There’s no big secret here.” Zelensky understood that showing his fear would play into Russia’s hands, though he admitted that the threat of an invasion scared him. “What’s frightening is that their intentions may not end” with a show of force at the border, he told me. “There could be a broader military plan.”
The Archives TIME’s April 2021 Interview With Volodymyr Zelensky on Russia
This plan was implemented by Russia 10 months later in the morning of February 24, 2014. Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, his chosen term for ousting the first Jewish President in its history and installing a regime loyal to Russia in his place. Zelensky found himself in a new position after the invasion. It was not one that seemed to be suited for him. Many of his friends and advisors told me Zelensky had thin skin. He suffers from the actor’s malady: an abiding need to be liked and applauded. “We try not to let him look at Facebook,” one adviser told me, because critical comments from strangers were liable to depress him.
As the Russian bombs started to fall upon the Ukrainian capital, troops began to surround it. The president underwent an incredible transformation. His transformation was so dramatic that we saw him embody the struggle against tyranny that many Western statemen have lost touch with, and sometimes even sacrifice our democracy to do it. Zelensky rallied the people of his country to support their homeland, encouraging them to throw petrol bombs at Russian military vehicles as well as stand against tanks. He also galvanized the world’s democracies in ways that seemed unthinkable just a week before.
It was a change.Not instantaneous. The Western leaders were divided by the time they reached an agreement on sanctions against Russia two days after its invasion. Germany, Hungary and Italy wanted to reduce these sanctions at first. Zelensky called in for their meeting. He was calm but firm, with his face covered in stubble and pale, he informed the leaders of free nations that it might be their last chance to see him. “The enemy has marked me as target No. 1,” he said in a video statement shortly after the call. “My family is target No. 2.”
Zelensky chose to remain in Moscow, a courageous act that changed the course of history. This prompted the U.S. to take unprecedented measures against Russia. The ruble crashed and much of Russia’s economy was unplugged from the rest. Germany decided that it would spend more than $100 billion on its military. It abandoned a longstanding tradition of peace and stability, which had previously frustrated other allies. Switzerland abandoned its neutrality tradition to help sanctions. E.U. Ukraine agreed to join the E.U., ending decades of internal resistance.
With top aides in a video posted on Facebook on Feb. 25; “We are all here,” Zelensky said from Kyiv
Volodymyr Zelensky—AFP/Getty Images
Zelensky made a speech by video link to European Parliament on the sixth day following the invasion. “Do prove that you are with us,” he implored through an interpreter, who seemed to choke back tears while translating the President’s words. “Do prove that you will not let us go. Do prove that you indeed are Europeans, and then life will win over death, and light will win over darkness.” As one observer noted, it was as if Charlie Chaplin had morphed into Winston Churchill.
Zelensky is now spending his days underground, in bunkers and basements, emerging every now and then to raise the nation’s spirits, often on social media. He shares one message with his troops, sharing a meal of bread, salami and sprats. His closest friends include his old colleagues, who have been there for him from the beginning, as he moved through showbusiness, to the presidency, then into war. “No one is here by accident,” his chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, wrote to me from the bunker on the seventh day of the invasion.
Born in 1978, the future President grew up in a working-class Jewish family in the city of Kryvyi Rih (“Crooked Horn”), in the shadow of Ukraine’s biggest steel mill. As many people in this region, his parents were fluent in Russian. The family, like many Ukrainian Jews, had experienced terrible losses during World WarII. Zelensky’s grandfather, who commanded an artillery platoon in the Red Army, lost his father and three of his brothers in the Holocaust.
After the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, Zelensky’s hometown became what he called a “city of bandits,” its economy in steep decline. He joined an amateur sketch-comedy group at 17 to keep him off the streets. They performed with their friends in Ukraine and Russia. Kvartal 95, the name of their neighborhood in which they were raised, was formed by the troupe. “It was a rough place, the kind that makes you desperate to escape,” says Vadim Pereverzev, Zelensky’s old friend and business partner. “That was our main motivation.”
Kvartal 95’s offices now reside on the third floor of a tall building in the centre of Kyiv. They have sweeping views of the entire city. The walls of the office are covered with posters from the films they made, mostly romance comedies starring the President. Zelensky was also the voice of the Ukrainian Paddington bear, a raspy character. As both a contestant, Zelensky won the title of producer for the Ukrainian Dancing With the Stars version.
The sitcom Servant of the People was his biggest success, first airing in 2015. It was built around a bizarre premise. A high school teacher of history, Zelensky plays, launches into an epic anti-corruption rant that one student films and uploads to YouTube. The clip goes viral on the eve of an election, prompting voters to install the teacher as the nation’s President in a rebuke to the amoral elites.
Zelensky observes his sketch comedy troupe performing in Kyiv during March 2019,
Anastasia Taylor Lind, TIME
The show was a sensation in both Russia and Ukraine, and in 2019 it became Zelensky’s springboard into politics. In a video posted on YouTube that New Year’s Eve, he stood next to a Christmas tree and announced his intention to run for Ukraine’s highest office. The campaign was unusually popular and attracted many voters. Zelensky never participated in elections or published an electoral platform. Zelensky continued his tour as a comedian, performing a mixture of comedy and vaudeville. However, it was not always the most popular of shows. Zelensky even attempted to pretend that he was playing an old Jewish song on the piano while accompanied by his penis. When the act premiered in Kyiv during the presidential race, the city’s biggest concert hall was filled to capacity, despite ticket prices that ran about as high as the average Ukrainian monthly pension. Backstage, members of the group wondered what Cabinet jobs they could get if Zelensky was elected. “I think I’d make a pretty good Defense Minister,” said one comedian, Alexander Pikalov, after pouring me a shot of whiskey in a plastic cup.
Zelensky was not interested in foreign or political issues after the show. The closest he came was this promise: “We’ll figure it out.” His production company had just wrapped the third season of Servant of the People, in which Zelensky’s character saves Ukraine from ruin. It was released on Netflix days prior to the election. That gave the voters ample time to consume the whole season before going to the polls. “There’s no way the others can compete with that,” Zelensky told me with a smile in his dressing room.
Waiting for voting results from the Ukrainian presidential election of March 2019.
Brendan Hoffman—Getty Images
He was right. He was right. Nearly three-quarters (37%) of eligible voters cast their votes for him during the final round. The campaign won almost every part of the country including regions that lean towards Russia. That May, Zelensky’s new political party, which he had named after his sitcom, took a majority in parliament, becoming the first in Ukraine’s history to control both the legislature and the executive branch.
Zelensky’s first priorityHis goal as President was to reach peace with Russia. But he faced an obstacle in Ukraine’s most important ally. Two months into his tenure, the U.S. froze aid to Ukraine worth nearly $400 million, most of it meant to shore up the nation’s military. Donald Trump demanded that the Ukrainians support his corruption claims against Joe Biden. He was also using military aid to leverage. In a phone call in July 2019, Trump asked Zelensky to “do us a favor” by announcing investigations into those bogus claims.
The blackmail attempt, which led to Trump’s first impeachment in the House of Representatives, dented Zelensky’s faith in Ukraine’s foreign partners. “I don’t trust anyone at all,” he said when we met in his office that December. He was scheduled to meet Putin for the first round of peace talks a few days later. He had low expectations, but was determined to do everything necessary to avoid an even wider war. He said that the Ukrainian soldiers who died fighting for Russia in eastern Russia were too precious. “I cannot send them there,” he told me. “How? What number of them will perish? Hundreds of thousands, and then an all-out war will start, an all-out war in Ukraine, and then across Europe.”
Zelensky and President Emmanuel Macron of France meet in Paris, December 2019, with Zelensky
Ian Langsdon—AFP/Getty Images
Talks with Putin failed to produce any results. Russia was unwilling to give up control over the east Ukrainian regions that were split from Ukraine. The Kyiv government refused to allow these regions autonomy. Zelensky was not able to secure supplies of vaccines from West allies soon after the COVID-19 Pandemic broke out. Nor would he accept an offer from Putin to provide Ukraine with Russian-made vaccines, which Kyiv saw as a weapon in Moscow’s information war. Many voters felt the opposite. Zelensky’s public support dropped to 20% by 2020 in certain surveys, compared with 70% one year prior.
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The Ukrainian government shifted its attention to political skirmishes. They went after pro-Russian politicians as well as domestic enemies. The first big target of the crackdown was Putin’s close friend Viktor Medvedchuk, who chairs the biggest opposition party in the Ukrainian parliament. The state seized the assets of Medvedchuk’s family and later placed him under house arrest. Even some of Zelensky’s closest allies were dismayed at the decision. “It certainly raises questions about the rule of law,” Dmytro Razumkov, who had led Zelensky’s presidential campaign, told me in October, hours before he was ousted as speaker of the parliament.
Putin was furious over the crackdown against his friend Medvedchuk, calling it an “obvious purge of the political field.” He responded by sending thousands of Russian troops to the border for a series of “large-scale exercises” that went on for most of 2021. The frontlines were under heavy shelling and sniper fire. U.S. warned of an imminent escalation and even invasion.
Zelensky attempted to maintain a sense calm throughout all of it. On our visit to the front lines in early April, he spent nearly an hour talking to the troops inside a system of trenches they had nicknamed Vietnam—a nod to the mud and morass of a war they had seen in the movies. General Ruslan Khomchak, then the top commander of Ukraine’s armed forces, took the President to the spot where three of his soldiers had been killed in an ambush two weeks earlier. “There was no tactical reason to attack that post,” Khomchak said. “They just shot those boys in cold blood.”
Zelensky didn’t promise revenge, surprise me. He questioned why soldiers were sacrificed to defend these muddy dugouts. That little ground had been seized by Ukraine in an aggressive push that took place in 2018 – the year Zelensky was elected. “For some, that meant we were the tough guys,” he told me before we headed back toward the armored cars. “For others it meant their sons would not be coming home.” The President had no intention of making such trades again. He said that the lives of his soldiers were worth more to him than scraps of terrain.
Evidently, his foil at the Kremlin disagreed. By early winter, the number of Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders topped 70,000. The U.S. government started to warn more about the dangers of invasion around Halloween. At meetings in Kyiv and Washington, U.S. intelligence officials and diplomats tried to convince Zelensky’s team that a Russian invasion was imminent. “They put the chances at 80%,” says one foreign policy adviser to Zelensky, who received these briefings last fall. According to the advisor, satellite imagery showing Russian hardware at the border and intercepted communications, backed up the Americans’ estimates.
Zelensky was not convinced that an invasion was possible, according to his close friends. The chances of an attack on a large scale were less likely than ever since 2014, when war broke out. “We’re talking about a black-swan event,” says Iuliia Mendel, a communications adviser to Zelensky. “Nobody could believe it was going to happen.”
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Both Zelensky and Putin appeared on TV to give their last speeches just before the invasion began in the morning of February 24, 2014. They could not be more different. Putin’s address dripped with menace, and his claims against Ukraine were detached from reality. He said he had ordered a “special military operation” aimed at the “demilitarization and de-Nazification” of the entire country. It was a pledge, in effect, to oust the government of a sovereign nation and destroy the armed forces of Russia’s largest neighbor to the west. Putin also issued a chilling threat to any “outside forces” that might come to Ukraine’s defense: “It will lead to consequences of the sort that you have not faced ever in your history.”
Zelensky opted to address the Russians in his own speech. In an attempt to stop the invasion from happening, he told the Russian people that he attempted to get to Putin the day before but was ignored by the Kremlin. After that, he attempted to defuse the Russian state TV propaganda. “You are told that these flames will bring freedom to Ukraine. But the people of Ukraine are already free,” he said. “In attacking us, you will see our faces, not our backs.”
Russian attackThe morning began with rocket attacks on cities throughout Ukraine. To overtake the capital, hundreds of troops crossed the border to the north and made a push towards Kyiv. Zelensky and his group of advisers huddled in the presidential headquarters. Yermak, his chief of staff, recalls that moment as a time of clarity. “When you realize that, despite all your efforts, the scariest thing of all has happened, then everything becomes extremely sharp and clear,” he wrote to me. “We are here, they are there. They attacked us. We are defending. Truth is on our side.”
It gave Ukraine a clear advantage in the information war, where Zelensky’s stagecraft turned into a powerful weapon. Russia was spreading lies that neo Nazis were using Ukrainian children as human shields. Zelensky responded with a torrent of social media posts, letting his followers hear his earnest voice. Zelensky seemed close to them and refused to leave the U.S. for safer grounds. “I need ammunition,” he told the Americans. “Not a ride.”
The President did not even retreat from the government quarter in Kyiv’s center. He also didn’t wear a bulletproof vest. As he lead his country from the familiar rooms of which I met him, his staff, at the beginning his tenure, photos and videos show him wearing a T shirt. The floors had been covered with sandbags, and the soldiers stood in the middle of the floor to provide a weak defense against Russian bombs.
A Russian rocket strike on an apartment building in Kyiv’s Pozniaky neighborhood, February 25, caused the destruction of an entire block.
Images of devastation reached Zelensky’s team from across the country: dozens of fatalities, including children, as artillery pounded residential neighborhoods; a missile striking the TV tower in Kyiv; another one landing on the central square of Kharkiv in the east. Every Russian barrage report was accompanied by news that Ukrainians stood their ground and destroyed columns of armored Russian cars, captured tanks, and held prisoners of war. Military experts soon realized that Putin was wrong about the Ukrainian resistance ability and will. A senior U.S. defence official stated that U.S. intelligence has concluded that Russian troops on the ground are suffering from low morale.
On the fourth day of the invasion, Zelensky sent a few of his comrades to an initial round of peace talks with Putin’s men. They agreed to only continue their talks, even though they were not able to meet Putin’s demands. As aid poured into Ukraine from the West—including shoulder-fired rockets that could take out Russian tanks and aircraft—Putin ordered his generals to put Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert.
Zelensky signed a formal request to be admitted to the E.U. on the last day in February. “Our goal is to be together with all Europeans and, most importantly, to be on an equal footing,” he said. “I’m sure it’s fair. I’m sure it’s possible.” All of a sudden, after nearly two decades of frustrating talks with E.U. Ukraine looked to be close to joining the bloc according its leaders. The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, told reporters the same day that Ukraine is “one of us and we want them in the European Union.”
Remains of Russian military equipment were destroyed in Ukraine by the Ukrainian army on February 26th.
At the beginning of the second week of war all-out, a 40 mile column of Russian military hardware formed a noose around Kyiv. Yet Zelensky’s advisers assured me that spirits remained high. “We all get what’s at stake,” Yermak, his chief of staff, wrote me. “Our freedom. “The very existence of the state. So we’re working flat out, beyond the limits of our strength.” Apart from commanding his military forces, the President’s days were packed with phone calls of support from around the world: the Prime Ministers of Japan, Norway, Israel, and India; the Presidents of Poland, France, and the U.S.; the King and Queen of the Netherlands; the Orthodox Patriarch in Istanbul; even the Pope.
Ukraine’s leader and every promise of assistance and prayer for safetykeeping seemed to have transcended their role as aggressors. Their courage was an example for all who see them. You can’t fake this kind of courage. And there is no way to know if you have it up until it is most needed. Zelensky may have experienced that moment on the second night after the invasion, February 25. He walked outside his office into the winter air, surrounded by his closest aides, and filmed a simple message on his phone: “We are all here.”
—With reporting by Alejandro de la Garza, W.J. Hennigan and Nik Popli are reporting.
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