Russian invasion transforms Zelensky
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has turned around his domestic political fortunes with his leadership over the past few weeks, earning the support of an overwhelming majority of the country in the face of a Russian invasion.
Zelensky, an entertainer-turned-politician, saw his approval ratings steadily decline since his election in 2019, continuing a string of displeasure with leadership within Ukraine over issues like corruption.
But his stewardship of the country and stirring calls to defend Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression have impressed even those who were skeptical of his leadership just a few weeks ago, and his approval ratings have risen to more than 90 percent, according to one recent poll.
“I would’ve given him a C last year. I think he was a mediocre president at peace, and he’s a fabulous president at war,” said Melinda Haring, who previously was editor of the UkraineAlert blog at the Atlantic Council, where she is now deputy director of the Eurasia Center.
“He’s really turned things around,” Haring said. “I’m surprised by him. I’m surprised by his physical courage, I’m impressed with his stiff upper lip.”
Before running for office, Zelensky was best known in Ukraine as an actor and comedian who had appeared in movies and on reality television. His populist campaign garnered significant support, and he won election with roughly 73 percent of the vote, handily defeating then-President Petro Poroshenko.
Prior to the invasion, Zelensky was probably best known among Americans for being at the center of former President Trump’s first impeachment, in which Trump pressured Zelensky during a phone call to investigate President Biden and his family just days after Trump ordered a hold on U.S. military aid to Kyiv.
In recent days, video clips have gone viral of Zelensky competing on the Ukrainian version of “Dancing With the Stars” in 2006 and voicing Paddington the bear in the Ukrainian version of the 2014 film “Paddington.”
Those lighthearted moments have been a jarring juxtaposition to images of a weary but resolute Zelensky delivering video messages from the city of Kyiv, vowing to stay and fight for his people.
The Ukrainian Embassy in Great Britain said on Twitter over the weekend that Zelensky had turned down an offer from the U.S. to evacuate him, saying he needed “ammunition, not a ride.”
“I am here. We are not putting down arms,” Zelensky said in a video posted over the weekend meant to dispel talk he had evacuated. “We will be defending our country, because our weapon is truth, and our truth is that this is our land, our country, our children, and we will defend all of this. That is it. That’s all I wanted to tell you. Glory to Ukraine.”
But the fascination and admiration for Zelensky overshadows the rocky footing he was on just a few months ago, with his administration facing questions about corruption, infighting and an uncertain approach to the prospect of Russian aggression.
When Zelensky gave a press conference in November as Russia was building up forces around Ukraine, journalists and activists in the country expressed frustration that the president was not responding more forcefully and was instead picking fights with the press, according to UkraineWorld, an English language service providing updates about Ukraine.
Oleksiy Haran, a scholar at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, wrote at the time that he expected Zelenksy to be “more decisive” in his message to the Ukrainian people about the threat of a Russian attack.
Serhiy Sydorenko, editor in chief of the Ukrainian publication European Pravda, wrote after the press conference that Zelensky was facing a sharp drop in his popularity and the fracturing of Ukraine “is growing again, and it’s sad”.
And Andrew Lohsen, a fellow in the Europe, Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic International Studies, said Zelensky’s trajectory since his election had steadily declined much like his predecessors, dipping to about 33 percent just a few weeks ago.
But the Russian invasion, and Zelensky’s response to it, have led to an unmistakable rallying moment for the president and his country. A poll conducted last weekend that interviewed 2,000 Ukrainians found 91 percent of respondents supported Zelensky’s actions.
“These images of him broadcasting from in front of the presidential administration when there’s reports of a bounty on his head or that he’s enemy number one, I mean, that is real courage,” Lohsen said. “So, absolutely, he’s really become respected as the leader of the country and still has the faith of the vast majority of his citizens right now.”
In a Washington Post guest column published earlier this week, Anna Myroniuk, a journalist for the Kyiv Independent, wrote about her early misgivings about Zelensky and her uncertainty that he could rise to the challenge upon being elected to office.
She did not vote for Zelensky in 2019, and she expressed concerns about his approach to corruption and his sensitivity to media criticism. But his handling of the conflict with Russia has been a bright spot for Myroniuk and others who have seen Zelensky go toe-to-toe with Russian President Vladimir Putin with the world watching.
“The actor-turned-president stumbled and did not live up to my expectations at first — but now he has demonstrated that he is not shying away from the biggest responsibility for any national leader: the protection of their people,” Myroniuk wrote.