The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ukraine’s Zelensky’s message is don’t panic. That’s making the West antsy.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a news conference for foreign media in Kyiv on Jan. 28. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s leader implored his fellow citizens to ignore the rumors of an impending catastrophe with his trademark combination of frankness and emotion, amid warnings from Washington officials that Russia could attack at any moment.

“Take a breath. Calm down,” said President Volodymyr Zelensky, in a video message posted on his official website on Jan. 19. That same day, President Biden said he expected Russia to attack but will face a “stiff price” — another sharp contrast in the messaging from Kyiv and Washington.

More dangerous than anything, said Zelensky, was giving in to panic.

It was a moment that could have been lifted from “Servant of the People,” a popular Ukrainian television comedy that charted the unexpected rise of the fictional Vasyl Holoborodko, a humble, straight-talking high school history teacher who became the president of Ukraine. The show’s star was Zelensky — who, in 2019, trounced all expectations as a political newcomer to win the real presidency in a landslide.

Pro-Moscow separatists once marched in this Ukraine border city. Now it's standing against Russia.

Only this time, the drama is real, with potentially devastating consequences for Ukraine, Europe, and the geopolitical struggles between the West and Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin has amassed more than 100,000 troops and military equipment on Ukraine’s borders in what U.S. and British officials say looks like preparation for an invasion of the country.

U.S. and Russian officials accused each other of bringing Europe closer to war — an outcome President Biden said would have “enormous consequences worldwide.” (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

Zelensky’s election victory could be credited to a large degree to voters associating him with his television character. And his campaign, which was light on clear policy proposals, played up the connection. Zelensky presented himself as an everyman and political outsider who would be unafraid to battle Ukraine’s political establishment and other vested interests.

Now the 44-year-old Zelensky is enmeshed in some of the highest-stakes brinkmanship in Europe in decades.

Zelensky’s Ukraine finds itself in the crosshairs of Moscow’s attempts to reassert its influence in what it considers its sphere of influence and prevent the North Atlantic Treaty Organization from moving into the states that once constituted the Soviet Union.

Six ways Russia views Ukraine — and why each should worry the West

So Zelensky treads a fine line, knowing that Ukraine’s economy could take a major hit even if Russian forces hold back. He must speak of the threat to the country. Yet, at the same time, he seeks to avoid, as he put it, “panic in the markets, panic in the financial sector.”

“Zelensky is struggling with crisis communications,” said Orysia Lutsevych, an expert on Ukraine at the Chatham House think tank in London. “Clearly he wants citizens to remain calm, but panic may spread from conflicting or lacking information. It’s a hard task to deliver.”

But his style has also caused friction with Ukraine’s Western partners and elicited some unease at home over his ability to manage the country’s predicament successfully. Russian officials have sneeringly dismissed his trustworthiness.

A full-scale Russian attack, especially if it reaches urban centers, would be “horrific” and “terrible,” Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday.

Watch: U.S. defense aid shipment arrives in Ukraine

However, Zelensky has said — repeatedly — that he’s not convinced that a Russian assault is imminent.

This skepticism has been reflected in parts of the population. While the anxiety over a potential Russian attack is growing, it has also been a constant for many Ukrainians. Kyiv has fought Kremlin-backed militants in eastern Ukraine since 2014, a conflict that has claimed close to 14,000 lives. On the other hand, Ukrainians witnessed Russia gobble up territory by forcibly annexing Crimea in 2014.

“I don’t say there can’t be an escalation,” Zelensky told journalists at a news conference in Kyiv on Friday. “We’ve been talking about this openly for eight years.”

The buildup, he added, didn’t significantly differ from a similar one at the beginning of last year. The threat of war was a form of “psychological pressure,” he said.

“I don’t think that the situation is more tense than at the peak at that time,” he said. He added that his knowledge stemmed from the fact that he, being familiar with the reality on the ground, knew “deeper details than any [other] president.”

What you need to know about Russia's military buildup on Ukraine's border

It’s a case that Zelensky has taken to the Ukrainian people. In three video addresses, the Ukrainian leader has appealed for calm.

But top U.S. and European officials say they are growing increasingly concerned that Zelensky is failing to mobilize the country.

Instead, they say, he is expending his political energies in battling political opponents, such as former president Petro Poroshenko, who is being investigated on charges of treason and supporting terrorism. (Zelensky defeated Poroshenko in the 2019 election.)

Senior officials in the Biden administration have also expressed exasperation at Zelensky’s public remarks, including a recent tweet criticizing Biden’s comments about the U.S. response to a “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine.

“We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations,” Zelensky wrote on Twitter. “Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones. I say this as the President of a great power.”

A senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy, called the remark “mind-boggling.”

“We’re his most important ally and he’s poking us in the eye and creating daylight between Washington and Kyiv,” said the U.S. official. “It’s self-sabotage more than anything else.”

Yuriy Vitrenko, the chief executive of Naftogaz, a major oil and gas company in Ukraine, said Zelensky’s tweets clashing with Biden reflect the personal stake Zelensky places on the conflict with Russia.

“His reaction to Biden’s statements was an emotional reaction,” said Vitrenko, who speaks frequently with Zelensky and his top advisers. “When he talks about Ukraine he talks about what he has seen on the borderline with Russia. … He’s very empathetic. He feels what others feel.”

The human toll of Ukraine's battles with Russia and its proxy forces since 2014

A European diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about closed-door security concerns, said the tone from Zelensky and his team has begun to change to one of greater concern. But the diplomat also said there was lingering uncertainty whether the Ukrainians had changed their tone simply because they believed that’s what leaders from NATO nations wanted to hear.

Most recently, Zelensky’s “Servant of the People”-style directness was evident during Friday’s 1½-hour news conference with the international media.

Zelensky accused Western officials and media of causing panic and destabilization in Ukraine by insisting that, as he put it, “tomorrow there will be war.” Russia’s real intention, he also said, could be not to invade, but instead to weaken Ukraine internally.

“We could lose the economy,” he said.

At another point, he challenged NATO to make up its mind whether to admit Ukraine to the alliance. Moscow has issued a list of demands to NATO, including a guarantee that the former Soviet states of Ukraine and Georgia will never become members.

“Tell us openly we will never get into NATO,” he said.

Zelensky’s image as a political upstart has served him well so far. His opponents have repeatedly underestimated his political ability.

Zelensky has managed to maintain Ukraine’s pro-Western orientation and, shortly after his election, sidestep then-President Donald Trump’s insistence that Ukraine “do us a favor” and launch an investigation that could have damaged Biden, a political rival of Trump’s.

“There’s been just so much blind dismissal of the guy in elite Ukrainian circles and among Ukraine watchers abroad,” said Katharine Quinn-Judge, a Ukraine expert who works as a consultant with the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank.

Quinn-Judge said she has “no reason to think that he’s wrong, or more wrong” in the present situation than those who think “that he’s just this naive idiot.”

But some Ukrainian observers fear his political inexperience could prove an impediment in the crisis with Russia.

“His weaknesses: He doesn’t understand the interdependencies and complexities of global politics,” said Oleksandr Danyliuk, who served as the head of Zelensky’s National Security and Defense Council and is now a founder of a political think tank in Kyiv.

“He has an extremely simplified view of the way the world works,” Danyliuk said.

Nevertheless, Zelensky’s message has found an audience among some U.S. officials, who emphasize that it’s the Ukrainian leader and his citizens who should have the last word.

“I have listened closely to what President Zelensky has said and he reminds us time and again that there could be a way out of this short of military action,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said Sunday on “Meet the Press.”

“I hope there is,” he added. “But it’s his decision to make.”

Dixon reported from Moscow. John Hudson and Michael Birnbaum in Washington contributed to this report.