Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has emerged as a hero to his nation’s citizens and far beyond as the former actor and comedian first elected in 2019 remains in his country at great personal risk during its bombardment by Russia.
Zelensky, who agreed on Sunday to talks at the Belarus border with Russia to end the military conflict, has been his country’s man in the capital city of Kyiv, where he has issued a series of videos urging Ukrainians to resist the invasion.
“I am here. We will not lay down any weapons. We will defend our state, because our weapons are our truth,” he said in one clip filmed outside his office in Kyiv.
“Our truth is that this is our land, our country, our children and we will protect all of this,” he added, according to a translation posted by Al-Jazeera.
“This is what I wanted to tell you. Glory to Ukraine!” he said.
Zelensky was previously perhaps best known in the United States for the role he played in the controversy surrounding former President Trump’s first impeachment. Zelensky was pressured by Trump and his allies to investigate then-candidate Joe Biden and his family for corruption.
In today’s existential crisis facing his country, Zelensky has won praise across the political spectrum in the United States for sticking at home and producing a series of videos urging Ukrainians to resist the Russian invasion.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) tweeted that Zelensky was “a bigger man than Putin” and that “even the dictator’s cronies know.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), meanwhile, tweeted video of the Ukrainian president taking to the streets to urge on his nation’s citizens.
Zelensky has done so at great personal risk, as U.S. officials have made it clear they believe Russian President Vladimir Putin wishes to knock out Ukraine’s leaders with lethal military strikes. Zelensky’s family has also remained in Ukraine.
Sources who have spoken to people on the ground in Ukraine said there is a sense of surprise among many Ukrainians in terms of how Zelensky has met the moment. The political novice won election in grand style in 2019, but polls suggested he was getting mixed reviews from the public before the invasion.
By sticking in Ukraine, he has become a leader for all Ukrainians to rally around as civilians take up arms to slow the Russian advance. And the risk to his own life is something that has resonated. Zelensky has said that Russia has “marked” him as its top target, believing that by killing the leader, support for the resistance would disappear. He pointedly noted that his family was Russian target “No. 2.”
Zelensky’s decision to stay in Ukraine also stands in contrast to the U.S.-backed leader of Afghanistan, who fled Kabul in August as the Taliban took over the city and U.S. troops left.
When the Biden administration offered to get Zelensky securely out of the country, he refused, asking for ammunition instead.
Zelensky has also emerged as a leader to those opposed to the Russian invasion around the world, including in Russia itself. Online tributes compare Zelensky favorably to Biden and Trump as well as Putin.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), during an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, noted that there has been extraordinary unity behind Ukraine, characterized by 40 rallies being held around the United States in solidarity with the country, including one he planned to attend in Ohio.
“The world is standing up, frankly, in ways I haven’t seen since 9/11,” he said.
Samuel Charap of the RAND Corporation in an interview with CNN compared Zelensky to Winston Churchill, who rallied international opposition to the Nazis as his country was bombarded.
“He, to a certain extent, is alone, and it’s clear the Russians have put a target on his back” he said. “You need a real Churchill-type leader to excel in a moment like this. I think he is scrambling and trying to find the right message.”
Updated at 12:16 p.m.