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Ukraine’s comic-turned-president finds Russia showdown a deadly serious matter

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky taking a selfie amid crowd
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky takes a selfie at the first congress of his political party in Kyiv in June 2019.
(Zoya Shu / Associated Press)
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For years, Volodymyr Zelensky was best-known among his fellow Ukrainians for cracking them up. A comedy sketch artist, he starred in the hit sitcom “Servant of the People,” about a history teacher who somehow gets elected president on the strength of a viral video of him ranting about corruption.

Now, Zelensky really is Ukraine’s president, having won a shocking landslide victory as a political outsider in 2019, and Russia appears poised to invade his country at a moment’s notice. And no one’s laughing anymore.

As he tries to figure out how to keep the U.S. on his side, his people from freaking out and Moscow from sending in the tanks, many Ukrainians are starting to wonder whether their 44-year-old president has the smarts and strength to lead them through such a perilous moment. Instead of “Servant of the People,” many here are thinking more of “The Godfather” and Michael Corleone’s decision to ditch his loyal but gentle lieutenant, Tom Hagen, in favor of a hardened “wartime consigliere” when the bullets start to fly.

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Is it time, some Ukrainians ask, for Zelensky to be “Tom Hagened,” as the catchphrase spawned by the film has it?

“Since the beginning of the current tensions last year, Zelensky lost the public’s trust,” said Maria Zolkina, a political analyst with the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, a Kyiv-based think tank.

During his first year and a half in office, Zelensky maintained a higher level of public confidence than previous presidents at the same point in their terms, Zolkina noted. But that edge evaporated after Russia’s first troop buildup began last April, and polls now show that twice as many Ukrainians don’t trust him as those who do.

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“This tells me that when the Russian threat became visible, Zelensky didn’t gain the trust from society he would have had they seen him as a wartime president,” Zolkina said.

With Russia thrusting Ukraine into a game of brinkmanship that could turn it into a bloody battleground, Zelensky is walking a tightrope amid increasingly dire U.S. warnings of Moscow’s biggest assault since the Cold War’s end, the goading of Russian President Vladimir Putin and a fragile economy ill-equipped to handle panicky investors.

The result is a rhetorical dissonance between Kyiv and its allies. As Washington and NATO continue to insist that an invasion could happen at any moment, Zelensky has counseled calm and demanded proof that a Russian attack is set to happen.

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“If anyone has any additional information about a 100% chance of an invasion, they should give it to us.… I have to speak with our people like a president and say the truth, and the truth is that we have different information,” he told reporters Saturday while observing police training exercises in southern Ukraine.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shake hands
French President Emmanuel Macron, left, winks as he shakes hands with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky after a Tuesday news conference.
(Efrem Lukatsky / Associated Press)

“And now the best friend for enemies — that is panic in our country. And all this information, it helps only for panic. It doesn’t help us.”

On Sunday, after Dutch airline KLM suspended flights to Ukraine amid news that flight insurers would no longer cover planes that enter Ukrainian airspace, the president’s office quickly jumped in, saying the government would underwrite insurance costs.

Zelensky himself has repeatedly scolded President Biden and other world leaders for pulling their diplomats out of Kyiv, saying they ought instead to act like captains who “should be the last to leave a sinking ship.”

“And Ukraine is not the Titanic,” he said at a news conference last month.

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In many ways, Zelensky is simply echoing what plenty of his compatriots are saying: that the specter of Russian aggression is nothing new. Since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and backed separatists in Ukraine’s east in a conflict that has since killed more than 14,000 people, many Ukrainians have become inured to the threats of their menacing neighbor.

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But that hasn’t stopped criticism of Zelensky as a jester-turned-king wholly unsuited to the situation at hand.

“Zelensky was right in saying you don’t need this much unbalanced media attention” about a possible invasion, said Lada Roslycky, who heads the Ukraine-focused security consultancy Black Trident. “But the fact that he was so disrespectful to Biden caused additional tension — you don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”

It’s unclear how happy his international counterparts are with him either. A cavalcade of world leaders has streamed through Kyiv to show support, and though he has demonstrated an easy rapport with them publicly, behind the scenes there have been reports of frustration over the contradictory messaging, said Olga Oliker, program director for Europe and Central Asia at the International Crisis Group.

Also, Zelensky’s team has been a frequently changing cast of both experienced and inexperienced officials.

“That makes it difficult for Western interlocutors, because it becomes a matter of ‘what happened to the person I talked to last week?’” Oliker said.

When he began his sensational election run in 2019, Zelensky, a Russian-speaking entertainer made famous by his comedy troupe, Kvartal 95, billed himself as an anti-establishment outsider. His platform centered on two main points: ending the war in the east in a way palatable to Ukrainians and breaking up corrupt oligarchs’ hold over the economy.

The details of how he would accomplish those goals, especially the former, were unclear: He participated in no debates with other candidates and gave few interviews. Still, with the public tired of the standoff in the east and the country’s floundering economy, Zelensky cruised to an easy victory over the incumbent president, candy baron Petro Poroshenko; his ragtag party — named Servant of the People, after his TV show — won a majority in parliament.

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But he hit trouble trying to deliver on his promises. Zelensky, an affable, squat man who speaks in a rapid-fire, cheese-grater voice, failed to bring peace, angering pro-Russia Ukrainians, who saw him as a more emollient figure than Poroshenko, and infuriating others who saw him as a weak man played by Putin, Zolkina said.

Although he did pass some land reforms that have been important for rejuvenating the real estate sector, Zelensky’s fight against corruption was hardly a success, said Elina Ribakova, deputy chief economist at the Washington-based Institute of International Finance.

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“The biggest disappointment is that he hasn’t changed the fundamental structure of the government in Ukraine, which is still corrupted by oligarchs,” she said, adding that he failed to create institutional structures that could independently fight corruption rather than when it was “convenient for him as president.”

Critics highlight Zelensky’s use of sanctions against media mogul Viktor Medvedchuk, one of the leaders of the pro-Kremlin party Opposition Platform — For Life. Medvedchuk is friends with Putin, who is godfather to Medvedchuk’s youngest daughter.

In May, Ukrainian authorities charged Medvedchuk with high treason, shut down his television network and placed him under house arrest.

At the same time, Zelensky sidelined prosecutors who were making trouble for Ihor Kolomoisky, a famously combative oligarch who backed Zelensky’s election bid and owns the channel that broadcast “Servant of the People.” Kolomoisky was slapped with U.S. sanctions in March because of alleged corruption, but faces no legal trouble at home.

Zelensky has also gone after Poroshenko with a bevy of charges, including treason, which some say smacks of political opportunism in a time of possible war.

Others complain about members of Zelensky’s inner circle, many of them comedy industry veterans with little experience in government, such as Andriy Yermak, a film producer and lawyer who currently heads the president’s office and who is seen as wielding outsize influence.

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Zelensky has also been prone to issuing populist decrees that might please the crowd but that achieve no substantive change, such as promising to plant a billion trees or to hand out free smartphones to Ukrainians over 60.

Still, even his most ardent critics — including former members of his staff — say his ascension to the presidency is proof that democracy is working in the country.

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“In that sense I’m not disappointed,” said one former advisor who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak freely. “But I’m disappointed that he has no real program and has not organized his team. The retinue makes the king — and he has a bad retinue.”

For all that, Zelensky still has the weight of his office behind him, which goes a long way, said William Taylor, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine under former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and acting ambassador during the Trump administration.

“I’ve asked the question ... what would happen if he were to call a meeting in his office of the leading political figures in the country — would they come? And the answer is unanimously yes, they would come,” Taylor said.

“They said explicitly, ‘He’s the president, he’s the one we’ve got right now. If there’s another election that will come in a couple of years, that will be different, but for today, he’s the one we have, and we need to support him.’”

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