Former comic book actor Zelenskiy is unlikely war leader for Ukraine By Reuters


© Reuters. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attends a press conference in Kiev, Ukraine, Feb. 24, 2022. Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS

By Matthias Williams

KYIV (Reuters) – Volodymyr Zelenskiy came to power three years ago, pledging to end a war with Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. He now faces a Russian invasion that could lead to the overthrow of his government and the end of Ukrainian democracy.

When Russia dropped missiles on Ukrainian cities, including Kiev, on Thursday, Zelenskiy appealed to all citizens to defend Ukraine and said weapons would be given to anyone who wanted them.

“Russia treacherously attacked our state this morning, as Nazi Germany did during World War II,” Zelenskiy told Ukrainians in a national speech.

“Russia has taken the path of evil, but Ukraine is defending itself and will not give up its freedom, no matter what Moscow thinks.”

It’s a disastrous outcome for Zelenskiy, a 44-year-old former comedic actor whose furious anger at Russian President Vladimir Putin over the past two years has been at NATO for admitting Ukraine, an ex-Soviet republic.

Moscow had demanded NATO’s pledge never to take Ukraine, a country of great geopolitical, historical and cultural importance to Russia, a demand rejected by the West. Putin on Monday rejected Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent state, saying it is in fact part of Russia.

In recent weeks, Zelenskiy has been praised by Western leaders for his composure and his calls on Ukrainians not to panic as Russia gathered up to 150,000 troops at the border.

He also criticized foreign embassies and Ukrainian businessmen for leaving Ukraine for security reasons, and reiterated his call on companies to stay as they risked accidentally aiding Putin’s efforts to destabilize Ukraine.

SERVANT OF THE PEOPLE

But Zelenskiy is an unlikely wartime leader. He rose to fame in a popular television series “Servant of the People”, in which he played an honest school teacher who is elected president and outsmarts rogue lawmakers and shadowy businessmen.

He won the presidency by a landslide in April 2019 and pledged to tackle the corruption that has ravaged Ukraine’s transition from communism to democracy. But Russia has always been the greatest challenge to its ambitions to build a modern, democratic and stable European country.

His Servant of the People party – named after the TV series – won a large majority in parliamentary elections in July 2019, and Zelenskiy initially implemented confidence-building measures with Russia in eastern Ukraine, including prisoner exchanges.

But that little thaw didn’t last long. Russia, which seized Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014, continued to support armed separatists fighting Kiev’s forces in the mostly Russian-speaking Donbass region of eastern Ukraine in a conflict that has so far claimed at least 15,000 lives, according to Zelenskiy. .

Risking Moscow’s wrath, Zelenskiy asked Western leaders, including US President Joe Biden, to court during talks at the White House on September 1, 2021.

“Everyone should understand… that we are at war, that we are defending democracy in Europe and our country, and that’s why you can’t just talk to us about reforms,” Zelenskiy said in an interview in June 2021.

“Every day we prove that we are more ready than most countries in the European Union to be part of the (NATO) alliance.”

‘A NEW FACE’

Zelenskiy drove a wave of public discontent with Ukraine’s corrupt political elite to victory over wealthy businessman Petro Poroshenko in 2019.

Asked by Reuters prior to that election how he differed from other presidential candidates, Zelenskiy pointed to his face and said, “This is a new face. I’ve never been in politics.”

“I haven’t cheated on people. They identify with me because I’m open, I get hurt, I get angry, I get upset… If I’m inexperienced at something, I’m inexperienced. If I don’t know something, I admit it honestly.”

But despite his promises to curb the influence of magnates in politics, Zelenskiy had to fend off suspicions that he is a puppet of Ihor Kolomoisky, an oligarch whose TV channel broadcast “Servant of the People.”

Zelenskiy was also unwittingly drawn into American politics after a phone call in which then-President Donald Trump tried to persuade him to investigate his Democratic rival Biden over business deals in Ukraine.

The Democrat-led US House of Representatives has impeached Trump after an investigation found he withheld military aid from Ukraine to influence Kiev. Trump denied wrongdoing and the Republican-controlled US Senate later acquitted him.