The war in Ukraine has proven just how fast long standing situations can change. In the space of 82 days Russia has irreparably weakened itself for at least a generation to come. Ukraine, previously seen as a corrupt backwater on the far eastern fringes of Europe, has now become a symbol of freedom and resistance to authoritarian rule. While the reputation of Russian President Vladimir Putin has sunk to a low from which it will not recover, that of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has soared. It is not a stretch to say that Zelensky is now the most popular world leader.
He enjoys sky high approval ratings both inside and outside the country, that other politicians can only dream about. He has also become one of the most admired. When the war began and the situation was at its bleakest, Zelensky could have fled Kyiv, instead he stayed. In the process, he became a powerful symbol of the Ukrainian people’s fight against Russian aggression. Few leaders have enjoyed such a meteoric ascent to prominence. Whatever the war’s outcome, Zelensky will go down as a textbook example of strong leadership.
A Special Talent – Defying Expectations
One of the forgotten, but most notable aspects of Zelensky’s political career was another meteoric rise. In a matter of months, he went from a comedian who starred in a hit television show, to the highest office in the land. Zelensky has made it a habit of defying expectations. In the two most famous cases – the 2019 presidential election and the current war – not much was expected from Zelensky. Those who underestimated him did so at their own peril. No less a group of disparate figures than Vladimir Putin and former Ukrainian Presidents Petro Poroshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko have all been fooled into thinking that Zelensky is something of joke, but the joke has been on them. The latter two have next to no chance of leading Ukraine again. As for Putin, he will be lucky to survive his self-instigated war in Ukraine.
Zelensky is one of those rare figures who manages to rise to the occasion under the most stressful situations. Whether in a presidential election or war, he projects an air of complete confidence. To do that without coming across as arrogant or insincere takes a special talent. This has made him a beloved figure both at home and abroad. Prior to becoming the president of Ukraine, Zelensky starred in a television show known as “Servant of the People.” In one of those uncanny cases where life and art imitate one another, Zelensky’s character on the show was a high school history teacher who ends up getting elected President of Ukraine. The role made him one of the most recognizable public figures in Ukraine before he decided to run for the nation’s highest office.
The Reins of Power – Potential & Pitfalls
Being a television star enhanced Zelensky’s chances of winning the presidential election. When Zelensky did announce his decision to run for the presidency on New Year’s Eve 2018, no one knew could have predicted he would end up winning in a landslide. Zelensky hit all the right notes for a political novice in his first campaign. He avoided specific policy proscriptions by being deliberately vague. Zelensky’s magnetic personality was enough to win almost three-quarters of the vote. After his election to the presidency, Zelensky dissolved parliament and called a snap election to take advantage of his popularity.
His energetic and youthful public persona made Poroshenko and Tymoshenko look like relics from a bygone era. In a sense they were. The two had been inextricably intertwined with powerful oligarchs, the shadow powers behind Ukraine’s economy. Along those same lines, Zelensky was thought to owe much of his rise to Ihor Kolomoisky, the oligarch who owned the television show that aired “Servant of the People.” In an interesting about-face, Zelensky distanced himself from that relationship once he was in office. Zelensky could afford to do this because he had a clear mandate to rule the country.
It is worth noting that Zelensky’s early attempts to deal with Russia and war in the Donbas were not effective. One of his worst decisions was to follow the Steinmeier Formula which stated that elections in the Donbas could go forward with Russian troops still occupying Ukrainian territory. When word of Zelensk’sy decision got out to the public, it was met by protests and widespread disapproval. He was forced to backtrack. In a later effort to be seen as a statesman on equal footing with other leaders, Zelensky pushed for the Normandy Format talks in France. This resulted in Zelensky’s first and only meeting with Vladimir Putin. Predictably, the outcome of these talks was inconclusive, though it did show that Zelensky was committed to the peace process. At that time, Putin was still negotiating from a position of strength, the opposite would be true now if he were to meet with Zelensky.
Standing for Ukraine – A Source of Inspiration
Prior to the war Zelensky had lost much of his initial popularity, reform measures had slowed and the war in Donbas was dragging on into its eighth year. When Russia invaded Ukraine during the last week of February, the situation transformed into one that played to Zelensky’s strengths as a communicator. He has been nothing short of brilliant in rallying Ukrainians to fight for their country. The fact that Zelensky had a target on his back and stayed in Kyiv during the Russia assault on the Ukrainian capital was a powerful statement. This is one of the main reasons that Zelensky’s reputation has soared into the stratosphere. Most of this is well deserved, but he is far from perfect.
There have been criticisms about Ukraine’s preparedness for the war after Zelensky downplayed the risks of a Russian invasion right up until the day it occurred. There has also been grumbling that his government failed to sufficiently support the fighters at the Azovstal Steel Plant. This line of argument states that rather than mount a rescue operation, the government left them to fend for themselves. While these criticisms do have some legitimacy, they do not take away from the exemplary leadership Zelensky has displayed throughout the war. He has been a source of inspiration, one that Ukrainians can look up to now and in the future. Whether this leads to victory in the war remains to be seen, but Ukraine and Zelensky are off to a good start.
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