Thu. Jul 7th, 2022

Volodymyr Zelensky makes for an unlikely Churchill. A comic actor who played a teacher who becomes president by accident, a winner of Ukraine’s version of Strictly Come Dancing and voice of its Paddington Bear, he never aspired to be a war leader. Yet it is precisely his empathy and communication skills, teamed with exceptional guts, that have turned him into the voice of his people and their resistance, and a symbol of modern Ukrainian identity. As Zelensky will no doubt do in an online address to the US Congress on Wednesday, he is also repeatedly pricking the west’s conscience for not providing more military help.

Somewhat ironically, his presidency had been faltering before the war. His electoral pledge to end the Russian-fomented conflict in the Donbas was founded when his charm failed to sway Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Though Zelensky pushed through some big economic reforms, he struggled to overhaul the judiciary and break the hold of oligarchs on the state. He deserves credit, however, for proving less of an instrument than had been feared by Igor Kolomoisky, the tycoon whose TV network put Zelensky on a presidential path and supported his candidacy.

His ban last year on three pro-Russian TV channels and sanctions against a key Putin ally in Kyiv enraged Moscow. The president faced criticisms, too, for playing down the prospect of invasion despite US warnings. Supporters argue his army was all the time readying itself and Zelensky wisely avoided socio-economic panic that might have proved needless, or aided Russia’s invaders.

Yet while Putin’s invasions in 2014 and today have done more than anything to solidify a sense of Ukrainian nationhood and identity, Zelensky’s great wartime gift has been to give this a voice, and to personify it. While many previous candidates defined themselves as pro-western or Russian-leaning, the Russian-speaking political novice from Kryvyi Rih in central-southern Ukraine sought from the start to bridge faultlines and emphasize a broad-based Ukrainianism.

Indeed, if Putin calls Ukraine the “anti-Russia”, Zelensky has made himself the anti-Putin. The 69-year-old, ex-KGB Kremlin chief relies on rambling, menacing speeches on his TV propaganda channels. His Kyiv counterpart came of age in the post-Soviet social media era and is at home with shooting witty and defiant selfie videos on the streets of his wartime capital. Putin’s message is one of exclusion and lies: Ukraine has no right to sovereignty, is largely Russian-created, and is now run by “Nazis”. Zelensky’s is positive, inclusive, and truthful: Ukrainians are a nation but Russians’ closest kin.

The fact Zelensky is still in office, in Kyiv – and after several assassination attempts were reportedly thwarted – has made him a powerful rallying figure. But his toughest choices may still lie ahead. If an all-out Russian assault on Kyiv comes, he must balance what colleagues call an instinctive desire to fight to the last moment with the reality that he may be more useful as head of a continuing government elsewhere. With lower-level talks with Moscow showing some progressthe president may have to weigh, too, his red lines and what concessions his people, after their valor and sacrifices, can countenance.

Zelensky’s conduct continues to enhance his moral stature as he demands fighter jets and a no-fly zone from NATO leaders. Their hard logic – that the west must avoid triggering a potentially apocalyptic direct conflict with Moscow – remains correct. But if Russia steps up its brutality, stoking pressure from their own voters, it will be a position western leaders will find ever more agonizing to have to stick to.

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