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Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s journey from comedy to Ukraine’s President and wartime leader

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine grew up in south-eastern Ukraine to a Jewish family that spoke Russian. His father once forbade the younger Zelenskyy from going abroad to study in Israel. Instead, Mr Zelenskyy studied law at home.

After his graduation, he found a new home in movie acting and comedy — in the 2010s becoming one of Ukraine’s top entertainers with the TV series Servant of the People.

In it, he portrayed a lovable high school teacher fed up with corrupt politicians who accidentally became president.

Fast-forward just a few years, and Mr Zelenskyy is the real President of Ukraine.

Bravery and courage in face of invasion 

At times in the lead-up to the Russian invasion, the comedian-turned-statesman seemed inconsistent, berating the West for fearmongering one day, and for not doing enough to prevent an attack the next.

Play Video. Duration: 33 seconds
‘Glory to Ukraine!’: Volodymyr Zelenskyy posts a video from the streets of Kyiv.

But his bravery and refusal to leave as rockets have rained down on the capital of Kyiv have also made him an unlikely hero to many around the world.

With courage, good humour and grace under fire that has rallied his people and impressed his Western counterparts, the compact, dark-haired, 44-year-old former actor has stayed even though, he says, the Russian invaders have put a target on his back.

After an offer from the United States to transport him to safety, Mr Zelenskyy shot back on Saturday: “I need ammunition, not a ride,” according to a senior American intelligence official with direct knowledge of the conversation.

Zelenskyy once seen as too willing to compromise with Moscow

Russian forces on Saturday were encircling Kyiv on the third day of the war.

The chief objective, military observers say, is to reach the capital, depose Mr Zelenskyy and his government and install a leader more compliant with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Vladimir Putin in suits approach their seats are two men stand behind as well as flags
Volodymyr Zelenskyy meets with Vladimir Putin in Paris in 2019.(Ian Langsdon/Pool via AP, file)

Mr Zelenskyy’s bold stance on Ukraine’s sovereignty might not have been expected from a man whose biggest political liability for many years was the feeling that he was too apt to compromise with Moscow.

He ran for office in part on a platform that he could negotiate peace with Russia, which had seized Crimea from Ukraine and propped up two pro-Russian separatist regions in 2014, leading to a frozen conflict that had killed an estimated 15,000.

Although Mr Zelenskyy managed a prisoner exchange, efforts for reconciliation faltered as Mr Putin’s insistence that Ukraine back away from the West became ever more intense, with Moscow painting the Kyiv government as a nest of extremism run by Washington.

Mr Zelenskyy has used his own history to demonstrate that his is a country of possibility, not the hate-filled polity of Mr Putin’s imagination.

In spite of Ukraine’s dark history of anti-Semitism, reaching back centuries and includes Cossack pogroms and the collaboration of some anti-Soviet nationalists with Nazi genocide during World War II, Ukraine after Mr Zelenskyy’s election in 2019 became the only country outside of Israel with both a president and prime minister who were Jewish (Mr Zelenskyy’s grandfather fought in the Soviet Army against the Nazis, while other family died in the Holocaust).

Zelenskyy faces echoes of his TV past

Like his TV character, Mr Zelenskyy came to office in a landslide democratic election, defeating a billionaire businessman.

He promised to break the power of corrupt oligarchs who had haphazardly controlled Ukraine since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy can be seen small in the right corner under spotlights on a dark stage holding a microphone with his arm out
Volodymyr Zelenskyy performs a show in 2019 while he was still a presidential candidate. (AP: Emilio Morenatti, file)

That this fresh-faced upstart, campaigning primarily on social media, could come out of nowhere to claim the country’s top office was likely disturbing to Mr Putin, who has slowly tamed and corralled his own political opposition in Russia.

Mr Putin’s leading political rival, Alexei Navalny, also a comedic, anti-corruption crusader, was poisoned by Russian secret services in 2020 with a nerve agent applied to his underwear.

He was fighting for his life when he was allowed under international diplomatic pressure to leave for Germany for medical treatment. When doctors there saved him, Mr Navalny chose to go back to Russia despite certain risk.

Mr Navalny, now in a Russian prison, has denounced Mr Putin’s military operation in Ukraine.

Both Mr Zelenskyy and Mr Navalny seem to share a perspective that they must face the consequences of their beliefs, no matter what.

“It’s a frightening experience when you come to visit the president of a neighbouring country, your colleague, to support him in a difficult situation, [and] you hear from him that you may never meet him again because he is staying there and will defend his country to the last,” Polish President Andrzej Duda said on Friday.

Mr Duda spent time with Mr Zelenskyy on Wednesday just before the fighting started, one of many political leaders who have met with the Ukrainian President over the past month, including US Vice-President Kamala Harris.

President pushes back back against Putin’s claims

Mr Zelenskyy first came to the attention of many Americans during the administration of former US president Donald Trump, who in a phone call with Mr Zelenskyy in 2019 leaned on him to dig up dirt on then-presidential candidate Mr Biden and his son Hunter that could aid his re-election campaign.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a military helmet looks out at a front-line position from a shelter in eastern Ukraine
Volodymyr Zelenskyy defended the country against Russia’s accusations of genocide in eastern Ukraine.(AP: Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, file)

That “perfect” phone call, as Mr Trump later called it, resulted in Mr Trump’s impeachment by the House of Representatives on charges of using his office, and the threat of withholding $US400 million ($552 million) in authorised military support for Ukraine, for personal political gain.

Mr Zelenskyy refused to criticise Mr Trump’s call, saying he did not want to get involved in another country’s politics.

Mr Putin’s attack, which the Russian President has termed a “special military operation,” began early on Thursday.

Mr Putin denied for months he had any intent to invade, and accused Mr Biden of stirring up war hysteria when the US leader revealed the number of Russian troops and weapons that had been deployed along Ukraine’s borders with Russia and Belarus — surrounding Ukraine on three sides.

Mr Putin justified the attack by saying it was to defend two breakaway districts in eastern Ukraine from “genocide”.

With Russian media presenting such a picture of his country, Mr Zelenskyy recorded a message to Russians to refute the notion that Ukraine was the aggressor and that he was any kind of warmonger: “They told you I ordered an offensive on the Donbas, to shoot, to bomb, that there’s no question about it. But there are questions, and very simple ones. To shoot whom, to bomb what? Donetsk?”

Recounting his many visits and friends in the region, he said: “I’ve seen the faces, the eyes. It’s our land, it’s our history. What are we going to fight over, and with whom?”

Unshaven and in olive green khaki shirts, he has recorded other online messages in the past few days to bolster Ukrainians’ morale and to emphasise that he is going nowhere, but will stay to defend the country.

“We are here. Honour to Ukraine,” he declares in one.

‘A bona fide statesman’

In the run-up to the Russian invasion, Mr Zelenskyy was critical of Mr Biden’s open and detailed warnings about Mr Putin’s intentions, saying they were premature and could cause panic.

Since the war has begun, he has criticised Washington for not doing more to protect Ukraine, including by defending it militarily or accelerating its bid to join NATO.

Play Video. Duration: 40 seconds
The Ukrainian President records another video from the streets of Kyiv.

Mr Zelenskyy and his wife, Olena, an architect, have a 17-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son. He said this week that they remained in Ukraine, not joining the exodus of mainly women and children refugees seeking safety abroad.

Though he could be faulted for not carrying out political reforms quickly enough and for dragging his feet on hardening Ukraine’s long border with Russia over the last year, Ms Haring said, Mr Zelenskyy had “shown a stiff upper lip”.

“He has demonstrated enormous physical courage, refusing to sit in a bunker but instead travelling openly with soldiers, and an unwavering patriotism that few expected from a Russian speaker from eastern Ukraine,” she said.

“To his great credit, he has been unmovable.”

Source: AP

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