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Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy misjudged by Putin

Roman Goncharenko
February 24, 2023

It's been a year since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The fierce resistance is in part thanks to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whose determination has surprised many, above all Vladimir Putin.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy attends a commemorative event
Volodymyr Zelenskyy has rallied his fellow Ukrainians to withstand Russia's war of aggressionImage: Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP/picture alliance

It's a world record. No leader before Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has managed to hold an address every single day for a straight year. The leader records video statements in his office, a bunker or elsewhere, chronicling the war against his country. The presidential addresses document how he and his country have changed since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion.

On February 23, 2022, mere hours before Russia launched its attack on Ukraine, Zelenskyy recorded a special message to his compatriots and Russian nationals, trying to avert the conflict. He called on Russians to take to the streets in protest, and — speaking in Russian — also warned that "if we are attacked, if there is an attempt to take our land, our freedom, our lives and that of our children, we will defend ourselves."

"If you attack, we will be facing you, we won't have our backs turned!" he added. This was the last time Zelenskyy faced the camera clean-shaven and wearing a suit and tie.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy wears a suit and tie and stands in front a map of Ukraine
Shortly before the invasion, Zelenskyy addressed the public for the last time in a suit and tieImage: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/REUTERS

'I need ammunition, not a ride': Zelenskyy

Following the invasion by Russia, Zelenskyy and his government remained in Kyiv, even as Russian troops closed in on the capital's suburbs. This came as a surprise.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had speculated that Zelenskyy would flee to western Ukraine or even abroad. Zelenskyy was reportedly offered help to evacuate, yet turned down the offer.

The Associated Press news agency later quoted Zelenskyy as saying, "I need ammunition, not a ride." Although the retort has become legendary, it is difficult to verify whether he really said these words. Even still, the message was loud and clear, garnering sympathy abroad and emboldening his people's fighting spirit.

In weeks prior to Russia's invasion, many Ukraine watchers had been puzzled by Zelenskyy's behavior. When Western intelligence agencies and state leaders warned of an impending Russian invasion and pulled embassy staff from Kyiv, the Ukrainian president reacted angrily, expressing distrust and criticism. Later, he revealed his reaction had been intended to stave off panic.

Then, Russia's invasion changed everything.

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Zelenskyy a media savvy leader

On the first day of the war, on February 24, Zelenskyy donned an olive green shirt. This military dress code has become his signature style, along with his five o'clock shadow. This is how the world has now come to know him; this is how he has appeared in countless interviews and on the covers of newspapers and magazines.

On day two of the invasion, he recorded his most important and famous video. The clip shows Zelenskyy along with the prime minister and other members of his leadership team outside Kyiv's presidential compound at night. It sent a strong message that everyone was still in Ukraine, willing to fight.

Initially, Zelenskyy signaled openness to making concessions toward Russia, for instance regarding potential NATO membership. But when reports of Russian war crimes and the annexation of Ukrainian territory began surfacing, Zelenskyy hardened his stance, knowing most Ukrainians backed him.

President Zelenskyy is seen outside, winking, sandbags visible behind him
Zelenskyy's signature look in his daily updates has been his olive green outfitImage: Ukranian Presidential Press Ofice/AP/picture alliance

Over the last year, Zelenskyy has focused on what he does best: communicate. The camera is his sharpest weapon — he has shot videos in Kyiv, spreading hope, finding the right words and coming across as very authentic. He has repeatedly visited the front lines, meeting soldiers in places like liberated Izium, or besieged Bakhmut. Some of his clips feature footage recorded in Ukrainian cities devastated by the Russian army.

Zelenskyy's approval ratings, which had plummeted before the invasion, shot up once fighting began and are currently hovering around 80% to 90%.

How could Putin underestimate his Ukrainian counterpart so dramatically?

Not taken seriously by Russian leadership

Zelenskyy isn't a career politician, and his 2019 presidential election win came as a surprise. Before getting in politics, Zelenskyy was a successful comedian, actor and producer. He even performed once onstage in front of former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who was visiting Ukraine.

His political rise shows parallels to the satirical television series "Servant of the People", in which Zelenskyy starred as a teacher who later becomes head of state.

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It's for this reason that the Russian leadership didn't take Zelenskyy seriously, bristling when he refused to make major concessions.

As a Russian-language comic, Zelenskyy often mocked Ukrainian ways and pro-Western politicians in the country. In fact, Zelenskyy went very light on Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine's former pro-Russian president, during his time in office. Zelenskyy had close ties to Russia and earned money performing there even after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 — something that some of his compatriots found irksome.

The invasion of Ukraine, however, changed everything. Zelenskyy's critics fell silent, and he won over many skeptics by remaining in Kyiv and not fleeing. This determination could be due to his upbringing.

Zelenskyy grew up as the privileged son of a university professor in Kryvyi Rih, an industrial working-class city in southeastern Ukraine. Yet his generation faced the harsh, final years of the Soviet Union. Living though this time taught them not to shy away from conflict.

A steelworks in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine
Zelenskyy grew up in the industrial working-class city of Kryvyi RihImage: Konstantin Sazonchik/itar-Tass/picture alliance

When Putin attacked Ukraine, Zelenskyy could draw on this experience. The Russian leader underestimated his Ukrainian counterpart, treating him like an inexperienced weakling who could be easily defeated.

Not all smooth sailing

This doesn't mean it has been all smooth sailing for Zelenskyy. His government has made mistakes: some leading politicians were forced to quit, and close friends of Zelenskyy lost their posts.

The president sparked international anger when he claimed in November that a Russian missile had struck Polish territory and killed two people — yet according to US reports, the missile likely originated from a Ukrainian anti-aircraft battery.

But this remains a rare disagreement between allies. Above all, Zelenskyy regards his primary job as using media attention to attract help for his country. Over and over, he has appealed to Western politicians, asking — some would say begging — for weapons. By and large, Zelenskyy has been successful, as more arms have been delivered to his country.

And Zelenskyy is also a record-holder in terms of the number of video addresses to governments, conferences and festivals around the world, most recently addressing the assembled stars at the opening of the Berlinale film festival last week.

This article was translated from German.