The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ukraine’s President Zelensky: In the streets of a war-rattled city, a hero is born

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky posted a video on Feb. 26 insisting he had not called on his country's soldiers to surrender. (Video: The Washington Post)
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KYIV, Ukraine – Yuri Shuklin has never fired a gun, not a real one at least. His war experience, he said, comes from playing video games such as “Call to Action.” “Maybe it’s funny, but in some movies and video games, they have nice [battlefield] tactics,” he said.

By Saturday, he had signed up to fight the Russian forces pressing on this capital.

In Ukraine, there’s precedent for Shuklin’s screen-to-reality sense of confidence: President Volodymyr Zelensky was an actor and comedian, whose only political experience before getting elected was playing the role of Ukraine’s president in a satirical TV series. Now, those savvy communication skills, his ability to sway audiences via social media, a healthy dose of grit and defiance — and not least of all, his readiness to die if necessary — have transformed him into an unlikely champion for Ukrainians and the world.

What to know about Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s TV president turned wartime leader

Shuklin, who once never cared about politics, is among Zelensky’s devotees.

“This man did not jump away to some other country like previous presidents,” said the tall and lean 31-year-old mechanic. “He can show us the way.”

Until three days ago, when the Russians invaded, Zelensky’s political tenure was mixed, even considered by many on the decline. He was criticized for not pushing forward essential anti-corruption and judicial reforms. Ukrainians felt he was weak in his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and too quick to seek compromise with Moscow.

‘Weapons to anyone’: Across Ukraine, militias form as Russian forces near

Zelensky, 44, at times downplayed the threat of Russia crossing into Ukraine and at others warned of Russia seizing Ukrainian cities. He denounced the United States and European governments as alarmist in their repeated warnings of an impending assault. There was no meaningful effort to bolster defenses along Ukraine’s border with Russia. Nor was there preparation for evacuations and other contingencies to protect Ukrainians.

As a wartime president, however, Zelensky has risen remarkably to the challenge. His messaging has been consistent and sharply directed at Moscow. In videos posted on social media he has appealed directly to Russian citizens, gracefully urging them to protest Putin’s onslaught on Ukrainian democracy.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky posted a video Feb. 25 in which the leader said he was among those continuing to defend Kyiv. (Video: The Washington Post)

In another video, wearing a green military-style pullover, he called for Ukrainians to take up arms. “We are alone in defending our state. Who else wants to fight with us? Honestly, I don’t see anyone,” he said.

He has portrayed himself as the primary target of Moscow, describing himself as “target number one” and declaring that Putin wants to “destroy Ukraine by destroying the head of state.”

“I’ve always thought he is a person who has a profound sense of right and wrong,” said a senior adviser to Zelensky, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly. “He will never acquiesce when he thinks something is wrong.”

“Right now, he’s very focused. He’s very driven. He thinks Ukraine can prevail if everyone takes the same stand he is taking.” Asked if Zelensky was prepared to die fighting, the adviser answered without hesitation: “Yes.”

Zelensky has also astutely used imagery to his advantage. Instead of hiding in a shelter, he has shown himself walking in Kyiv or visiting with soldiers, wearing a bulletproof jacket. Virtually every day, a new video emerges on social media showing his defiance of Russia.

“For all the talk of Russian information warfare, Zelensky had proven to be a master communicator,” Colin Clarke, director of research at The Soufan Group, an intelligence and security consultancy, said in a tweet. “His messages have conveyed strength, empathy & fortitude. A case study in effective communication during war and a profile of courage on a level I can’t recall.”

“Zelensky is becoming as much of an internationally recognized hero as Putin is a global pariah. The contrast could not be more stark,” Clarke added in a subsequent tweet.

Zelensky has been unshakable diplomatically, refusing Western demands to set aside Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO, a key goal of Putin. But most Ukrainians have been impressed by an action Zelensky has not taken: He and his family haven’t fled the country, despite the threats to their lives.

That is unlike one of his predecessors, Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia after being ousted following Ukraine’s 2014 revolution and was tried in absentia.

On Friday, after the United States offered to transport him to a safe place, Zelensky retorted: “I need ammunition, not a ride.”

It’s not just Ukrainians who are impressed by Zelensky’s actions. Afghans on social media have applauded his decision to stay, bitterly noting that their former president Ashraf Ghani fled the country as the Taliban reached the capital Kabul last August.

“The war has transformed the former comedian from a provincial politician with delusions of grandeur into a bona fide statesman,” Melinda Haring, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, wrote in Foreign Affairs on Friday. “Grave as Zelensky’s failure to reform Ukraine may be, in the midst of Putin’s intransigence and aggression, the president has shown a stiff upper lip.”

On Friday, Ukrainians who have joined the campaign to fight the Russians expressed a sense of solidarity with their president.

Down several flights of stairs under a small business in Kyiv, groups of Ukrainians, young and old, sat hunched over piles of glass bottles, carefully filling each one with styrofoam and fuel to help transform it into a molotov cocktail, or petrol bomb.

Among them was Valerii Valiiev, 17, a college student who left his dormitory earlier this past week and has joined the war effort by contributing to the molotov production. He hopes that even if they can’t cause significant damage to a Russian tank, they will at least block the tank crews’ vision and harm their breathing.

Several hundred have already been crafted in this bunker alone, he said.

Helping assemble these weapons is part of how Valiiev, a law student, is contributing to the battle for Ukraine, which he said has unified civilians of all backgrounds behind Zelensky.

Before the war, Valiiev wasn’t the president’s biggest fan, worrying about corruption and who he perceived as some pro-Russian appointees.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Feb. 26 that his country should join the European Union. (Video: The Washington Post)

“But today he is the hero,” he said of Zelensky, describing him as the pride of the nation. He appeared weak before, Valiiev said. “But now he is strong.”

Shortly after taking shelter in a bunker early Saturday morning, Nazar Cherniha, 34, heard an enormous boom and screaming from outside. When he emerged from safety later, he saw that an enormous chunk of the apartment building across the street was missing. A missile had struck the building, ripping the walls off multiple apartments in the upper half of the high-rise and injuring many civilians inside.

The incident left Cherniha enraged and ready to “struggle with my hands” against the Russians, he said. “After tonight I am not scared anymore. Fear disappeared.”

Before the war, Cherniha was “not a fan” of Zelensky, he said. But now he is rallying behind him. His videos proving he is still in the capital are “a very good sign we are all together.”

Zelensky made the right choice when he decided “to be in Kyiv to stay with us and to fight for our country,” he said.

On the ground near the site of the strike, decades-old family photos were scattered on the ground. A child’s scooter sat crumpled by the sidewalk. One man knelt in the middle of the street, slowly cleaning up the debris as cars drove around him.

“I did have a lot of questions about Zelensky before, but now I can say nothing bad about him,” said Nataliya Cherniha, 61, his mother, staring at the debris. “The people have really come together, and such a unity can’t possibly be defeated.”

Shane Harris in Washington contributed to this report.