In 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky – a comedian and actor with no political experience – won a landslide victory in Ukraine’s presidential election.
Now, two years later, he finds himself facing down Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and the threat of invasion by one of the largest armies in the world, and he has taken a defiant stance against the Kremlin.
Zelensky’s only previous political role was in TV show ‘Servant of the People’ playing a history teacher who is unintentionally elected as the president, after a video of his character giving an anti-corruption rant goes viral.
Like his character, Zelensky in 2019 ran on an anti-corruption campaign, and trounced the pro-Russia leaning incumbent Petro Poroshenko by taking 73 percent of votes. Poroshenko lost to the television star across all regions of the country, including in the west where he traditionally enjoyed strong support.
It was an extraordinary outcome to a campaign that started as a joke but struck a chord with voters frustrated by poverty, corruption and a five-year war.
At his campaign HQ, as the exit polls came out, Zelensky said: ‘I will never let you down. While I am not formally president yet, as a citizen of Ukraine I can tell all post-Soviet countries: ‘Look at us! Everything is possible!”
But despite his landslide victory, uncertainty remained about how Russian-speaking Zelensky would lead Ukraine, and tackle its biggest threat across the border in the from of Russia and its president.
In 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky (pictured) – a comedian and actor with no political experience – won a landslide victory in Ukraine’s presidential election. Now, he is facing his biggest test as leader, as Ukraine is pulled in multiple directions by different, vying powers
Zelensky’s only previous political role was in TV show ‘Servant of the People’ (pictured) playing a history teacher who is unintentionally elected as the president of Ukraine, after a video of his character giving an anti-corruption rant goes viral
Since taking power in 2019, he has had to manage forces pulling his country in drastically different directions.
On the one hand, Ukraine has been developing is relationship with the US, NATO and the European Union. On the other, Russia and Putin have been desperate to stop the former Soviet state slipping further away.
All the while, he has been seeking to keep his countrymen calm, and has displayed measured leadership in the fact of growing challenged.
But in recent months, he has faced the biggest challenge of his premiership – the threat of a Russian invasion – and has also seen the widespread support he enjoyed in 2019 all-but dissolve.
Just yesterday, as if to show defiance, Zelensky declared Wednesday would be a ‘day of national unity,’ calling on the country to display the blue-and-yellow flag and sing the national anthem.
Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and some 14,000 people have been killed in fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russia separatists in the country’s east, which continues to this day.
And now, Ukraine is effectively surrounded on three sides by military forces from Russia, with around 130,000 troops ready to invade at a moments notice on Putin’s orders, according to US and Western intelligence.
While he has made efforts to keep the US on his side, Zelensky has also found himself downplaying the threat to avoid panic among his own citizens.
In his campaign, Zelensky vowed to reach out to Russia-backed rebels in the east who were fighting Ukrainian forces, and make strides toward resolving the conflict. The assurances contributed to his landslide victory.
However, Putin has made no secret of his displeasure over Ukraine growing closer to to the West, while distancing itself from Russia and its Soviet past.
The Russian president was angered when Viktor Medvedchuk – Ukraine’s most prominent pro-Russia politician – was placed under house arrest and charged with high-treason.
What’s more, Medvedchuk’s three TV stations have been blocked for allegedly spreading misinformation. The oligarch is close Putin, who is the godfather of one of his daughters.
Pictured: Ukrainian comedian, and Presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky reacts at his campaign headquarters following a presidential elections in Kiev, Ukraine, on April 21, 2019
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky holding the Bulava, the Ukrainian symbol of power, during his inauguration ceremony at the parliament in Kiev on May 20, 2019
But while Zelensky makes efforts to reduce the influence Russia has on Ukraine, the country’s large pro-Russian population cannot be ignored.
To make matters worse, the incumbent whom Zelensky defeated in 2019 has boldly returned to the country to face charges of treason and stir up opposition to him.
Analysts, meanwhile, suggest that Moscow is seeking to bolster support among pro-Russia politicians in Ukraine and that the buildup of Russian forces near Ukraine’s border is aimed partly at destabilising the country’s politics.
Britain’s intelligence services claimed last month that Russia was seeking to overthrow Zelensky’s government and replace him with the leader of a small party that opposes Ukraine’s ambitions to join NATO and the European Union.
Zelensky tried to calm the political turbulence Sunday by downplaying the stepped-up warnings from the U.S. about the imminent possibility of a Russian invasion.
‘We understand all the risks,’ Zelensky said, adding that if anyone has any ‘information regarding a 100 percent certain invasion, beginning on the 16th,’ they need to come forward.
The manoeuvrings and the dismay among ordinary Ukrainians present a significant challenge for a country where democracy has been shambolic for decades.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky attends drills held by the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine in the settlement of Kalanchak near the border with Crimea, February 12, 2022
Pictured: Battle Tanks from the Russian Army take part in a military drill in St. Petersburg, Russia on February 14, 2022, amid the looming threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine
In the past 20 years, Ukraine has endured two significant uprisings – one that forced the rerun of a fraud-ridden presidential election and the mass, bloody protests that drove the Kremlin-friendly president to flee the country in 2014. Fistfights have broken out in parliament. Political alliances often shift and parties morph into new entities.
‘The biggest risk for Ukraine and the biggest risk for the sovereignty of our state, is destabilisation within our state,’ Zelensky said last month.
But Ukrainians have little confidence that Zelensky can ensure that stability.
According to a January poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, only 30 percent of the country’s people want Zelensky to run for a second term and even fewer – 23 percent – would vote for him.
The continuing conflict in the rebel east and the prospect of a full-scale war aren’t the only factors in his declining support.
‘Zelensky promised to end the war and defeat corruption, but this did not happen,’ said Anatoly Rudenko, a 48-year-old driver in Kyiv. ‘Prices are rising, corruption has not gone away and we have begun to live even poorer.’
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for a meeting on Ukraine with German Chancellor at the Elysee Palace, on December 9, 2019 in Paris
By far the biggest threat that has loomed over Ukraine, long before Zelensky took power, has been the Kremlin and President Vladimir Putin (pictured on February 11)
‘The miracle did not happen. The situation is only getting worse,’ said Tatyana Shmeleva, a 54-year-old economist.
‘Zelensky made a mistake by starting a confrontation with all the oligarchs of Ukraine at once, who control the main political forces, parties, TV channels. This is a very dangerous, very risky game,’ said Vladimir Fesenko, head of the Penta analytical centre.
A poster for ‘Servant of the People’, in which Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky played the leading role
Among the oligarchs Fesenko mentioned are Petro Poroshenko, the confectionery tycoon who preceded Zelensky as president and now faces treason charges for allegedly facilitating coal sales that financed the eastern rebels.
Another is industrialist Rinat Akhmetov, from Ukraine’s east who controls an opposition faction, and a third is Viktor Medvedchuk.
These oligarchs are not unified – Medvedchuk and Akhmetov are affiliated with rival opposition factions, while Poroshenko’s presidency was marked by strong antipathy toward Russia.
But many observers believe Moscow is trying to exploit any opposition to Zelensky.
‘There are no open pro-Russia forces that are able to legally come to power in elections, which means that the Kremlin must look for hidden allies and conduct secret negotiations with several Ukrainian players at once,’ Fesenko said.
Russia ‘is pulling economic, energy, political strings, trying to find `flexible’ political forces.’
‘What does Putin want? His task is very simple – it is the destabilisation of our state. Can he do it militarily? No, he cannot. To do this, he needs internal destabilisation,’ Ukrainian Security Council head Oleksiy Danilov said.
However, analyst Volodymyr Sidenko of the Razumkov Center said ‘the scenario of collusion between one of the Ukrainian oligarchs and the Kremlin looks unlikely, since there are no conditions for the formation of stable Russian-Ukrainian business chains.’
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (left) and Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk (right), leader of the Ukrainian Choice public movement, visit the New Jerusalem Monastery in the town of Istra, Moscow in 2017
People participate in a Unity March to show solidarity and patriotic spirit over the escalating tensions with Russia on February 12, 2022 in Kiev, Ukraine
Ukraine’s next parliamentary election will be held in 2023 and all opinion polls show that the ruling pro-presidential Servant of the People party may lose control of parliament. This would complicate Zelensky’s ambitions for another term in 2024, so the political landscape could change drastically.
But the current tensions may even work in his favour in the long term.
‘Threats from Russia can paradoxically help Zelensky – he is just trying to unite everyone who stands for an independent and European Ukraine,’ said Grigory Khoronenko, a programmer in Kyiv.
‘There may not be a war but Zelensky has already received military and financial assistance from the West, which will go to support morale.’
The British intelligence report – that claimed Russia could seek to install politician Yevheniy Murayev as Ukraine’s president – gave no scenario about how that plan might work.
Murayev once was part of Medvedchuk’s opposition party, but split and formed a party of his own that has no seats in parliament.
And even Zelensky’s strongest critics acknowledge his landslide victory is proof that democracy is still functioning, despite the rampant corruption.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visits the front-line positions of Ukrainian military in Donbass, Ukraine in December
The U.K. report sparked wide speculation about Russia’s possible nefarious intent, but many Ukrainians brushed it off as far-fetched.
‘I perceive the British version about Murayev with scepticism; this may be something Russia deliberately threw in … to create a fake smokescreen and hide the real players that the Kremlin is oriented toward,’ Fesenko said.
But despite his waning popularity, Zelensky is still president, and on Friday, Ukraine’s national security council imposed a five-year sanction against a television channel owned by Murayev.
William Taylor, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, told the Los Angeles Times that if Ukraine’s political and business leaders were called to Zelensky’s office, ‘they would come’.
‘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,” Taylor said.