Ukraine's Zelensky has been catapulted to worldwide fame as a wartime leader

From a reality star and comedian to the most famous president in the world right now - who are you, Volodymyr Zelensky?

 Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks alongside other Ukrainian officials in the governmental district of Kyiv, confirming that he is still in the capital, in Kyiv, Ukraine February 25, 2022 in this screengrab obtained from a handout video. (photo credit: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks alongside other Ukrainian officials in the governmental district of Kyiv, confirming that he is still in the capital, in Kyiv, Ukraine February 25, 2022 in this screengrab obtained from a handout video.
(photo credit: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has become the heroic center of Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s invasion.

An unlikely hero for many reasons, Zelensky has been catapulted into a major spotlight even as he has remained in Kyiv amid the battle and what looks like it could become a Russian siege of the city.

A proud Jewish politican

The president has shown a personal flair for humble resilience in the face of overwhelming Russian odds. As cruise missiles and ballistic missiles pound Kyiv, he has taken to the streets and shared videos of a Kyiv that is still standing and resisting.

His predecessors have been targeted by Russia for assassination or have even been sent to prison by previous pro-Russian governments in Ukraine. He knows the fate that awaits him if Ukraine loses.

Zelensky is also one of the world’s most high-profile Jewish politicians and leaders of a state. He is proud of his Jewish identity and history. Reports say relatives were killed in the Shoah and others served in the resistance against Nazism.

 Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is seen during a televised address to the nation, in Kyiv, Ukraine February 14, 2022. (credit: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS) Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is seen during a televised address to the nation, in Kyiv, Ukraine February 14, 2022. (credit: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS)

There are no shortage of headlines describing how this happened, so rather than try to reinvent the story, it’s easier to let it speak for itself.

From playing at being president to the real thing

“Three years ago, he was playing a president in a popular television comedy,” says NBC. “Today, he is Ukraine’s president, confronting Russia’s fearsome military might. Volodymyr Zelensky is leading his country during an invasion that threatens to explode into the worst conflict in Europe’s post-World War II history.”

Zelensky, who has a wife and two children, was born in central Ukraine, but also speaks Russian. Trained as a lawyer, he was previously an actor and only recently entered politics. Prior to the outbreak of war, there were questions about how he was handling the crisis. He appeared to downplay the chances of war and although he had visited the frontlines in the past, he was not seen as a militant or particularly tough president.

Certainly in a world where Russian President Vladimir Putin was seen to be a grandmaster of geopolitics, meeting the world’s heads of state and holding court in imperial rooms of the Kremlin, Zelensky didn’t look up to the challenge.

“The heroic figure at the center of this war is none other than Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a former actor and comedian who rose to prominence playing a character on a popular TV show who accidentally becomes the Ukrainian president,” notes CNN. “Zelensky then parlayed his success into politics, running for office in 2019 on the back of a political party named after his show, Servant of the People.”

A prayer for peace at the Western Wall 

Zelensky came to Israel in January 2020, when he met with then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Ukrainian President Zelensky told prime minister Netanyahu about his family, which survived the Holocaust,” Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry noted at the time.

Netanyahu praised Zelensky, and noted that Israel and Ukraine were two democracies that could work together on various bilateral forms of cooperation.

According to a report in UkrInform reprinted in The Kyiv Post, Zelensky visited the Western Wall where he placed a prayer for peace. “Peace is the main thing that Ukraine needs,” Zelensky said. “It is important that prayer for peace be heard in such holy places.”

According to the report, the “prayer was read out by Chief Rabbi of Kyiv Moshe Reuven Azman, Rabbi Shalom Arush, and Chief Rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinovitch.” He attended a memorial event marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

A new, untested face

Zelensky was elected in April 2019 with 73% of the vote to Petro Poroshenko’s 24%. Poroshenko had guided Ukraine out of the 2014 crisis when Russia first annexed Crimea, and backed separatists after Ukrainian protests forced the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych from power.

Ukrainians seemed to want a new and untested face. Poroshenko won a majority in only one large administrative area in western Ukraine.

“I will never let you down,” Zelensky told celebrating supporters at the time, according to the BBC.

There was hope that he might work on peace talks with Russia, and Moscow said it hoped to forge some progress with him. Reports at the time called him a kind of accidental president, a comedian who suddenly found himself a new job, and it was often noted how he had actually played a president in a comedy with a plotline similar to the one he was playing as a real president.

Soon after his election, the Foreign Policy Center ran a profile that asserted Zelensky was carving out a new type of leadership. He would be tough on Russia, but he had a new vision for Ukrainian national identity that would embrace Ukrainian and Russian speakers in the country.

He was critical of attempts by the Right to name too many things after Stepan Bandera, a controversial Ukrainian nationalist leader and Nazi collaborator during World War II.

“Zelensky’s balanced approach to questions of history and identity was on full display when he celebrated Victory Day by sharing a photo of himself with two UPA and Red Army veterans, locked in a symbolic handshake,” the report noted. “Similarly, Zelensky, who has declined to align himself unambiguously with the Kyiv Patriarchate’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church as Poroshenko did after its establishment last December, recently met with the heads of Ukraine’s rival Orthodox churches and arranged for Ukraine’s religious leaders to send a joint ‘message of peace’ to the residents of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.”

Looking West, not East

In December 2019, he sat down with Time Magazine for a long profile interview. This came amid the impeachment of then US president Donald Trump by Congress over his treatment of Ukraine, and accusations that he conditioned military aid on Zelensky's efforts to dig up dirt on the Biden family.

Zelensky did not want to be dragged into the bizarre US drama. In his talks with Time, he indicated that he did not yet feel comfortable in the presidential offices allotted to him. It was “like in a fortress that I just want to escape,” he said.

Indeed, he now had to deal with world leaders like Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron as they talked with Putin about key issues involving Ukraine.

He was asked about pushing the separatists out of the Donbass. “I won’t do it,” he told Time. “I cannot send them [troops] there. How? How many of them will die? Hundreds of thousands, and then an all-out war will start, an all-out war in Ukraine, and then across Europe.” Indeed, he seemed to understand the consequences then of what Ukraine is facing today.

Last February, Zelensky said he would like to ask new US President Joe Biden why Ukraine was not in NATO yet. He predicted then that if Ukraine were in NATO, there would be no escalation with Russia. Instead fighting continued in the Donbass where Russia was backing separatists.

Zelensky tried to navigate between the US administration and Russia. He also understood that if war came his allies would be the common people and social media.

He spoke with The Economist in June and repeated his earlier comment to Time, that “I still don’t feel comfortable here.” Time commented that Zelensky “is still, it seems, more used to a studio than a palace.”

The report noted that “in a country where politics has long been dominated by oligarchs and treated as a means for personal gain, the victory of a man whose only asset was his popularity seemed a miracle.”

A "brittle" security architecture

On the eve of the Russian invasion, Zelensky spoke to the Munich Security Conference on February 19 and said that “the security architecture of our world is brittle. It is obsolete... Some countries are committing crimes while others resort to indifference — the indifference that turned them into accomplices.”

He went on to note that countries had appeased Putin for years. “Here three years ago [in 2019] Angela Merkel said, ‘Who can pick up the pieces of the world’s puzzle? Only all of us together,’ she said, to a rush of audible excitement in the room, which stood up to applaud,” Zelensky said. Unfortunately, the collective ovation failed to transform into collective action. So now the world is talking about the threat of a big war.”

Indeed, Merkel opposed Ukraine’s membership in NATO, and supported Russia’s Nord Stream 2 project. Today Merkel is gone and Germany is trying to support Ukraine more than in the past.

Zelensky received warnings from the US about a likely Russian invasion. Nevertheless he went back to Ukraine after the Munich conference and did not appear to be concerned.

The invasion began five days later at 4 a.m. on February 24. Zelensky has held out against overtures from Moscow for talks. He knows that talks could offer Ukraine a respite but they could be a trap.

He has been careful in his management of the war effort so far, and has sounded the right notes. But if the fighting stops and Ukraine cannot get the Russians to leave or obtain funds to rebuild his damaged country, he will face questions. At the same time, if Russia grabs large swaths of Ukraine, even at great cost to itself, he could end up with a country in ruins, which he has always tried to avoid.