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Wartime Leaders: President Zelenskiy


For those who are inclined to see history as a depressing cyclical pattern, the war in Ukraine offers very strong evidence. One difference is that the script feels lifted from the usual history narrative: an anti-Russian protest, the popular photoshopped banner with the 20th century’s most evil moustache and the “omnipotent” leader Putin. The one protagonist who is unusual in this scenario is Volodymyr Zelenskiy. 

When he came to power in 2019, few expected much. He emerged as a new face in politics, promising to be nothing like his predecessor, and that was enough to get him elected. What Ukrainians wanted at that point was a way to avoid a repeat of the events of 2014 and a “simple” promise to claim back lost sovereign land. Zelenskiy ticked those boxes. He was young, TV-friendly face, well known for his comedy and most importantly, he was not one of the recycled politicians Parliament is overflowing with. He had every opportunity to establish a new relationship with the long-serving patron of the closest neighbour, Vladimir Putin.  I must admit, I am guilty of a shallow vote. As a Ukrainian, given the chance to change the political chronicle of Ukrainian politics and lay a golden brick road towards the West, I rushed to the ballot office. The next thing I knew, I was watching his inauguration. 

His presidency from 2019 to 2021 was long, tedious and quite honestly, ineffective. He took charge of a war-torn, corruption-plagued country of about 45 million without any prior political experience. His promise was to balance the defence of Ukraine from Russian aggression with protecting the Russian speakers of his country. Only a genie could have predicted that 4 years later, this promise would have to be fulfilled. 

Initially, he was perceived not only by his own population, who was rapidly losing faith in his governance, but also globally, as a political lightweight and an easy target for Putin. Now, he embodies the commander of a country at war, resisting a tough offensive by a nuclear state and whose troops and resources easily outrank his own. On the 24th of February, Zelenskiy looked straight into the camera and stated that the enemy will use all available forces to resist the invasion. He had a serious but exhausted look on his face, wearing a military shirt and green fleece jacket.

You can draw a parallel between Zelenskiy’s current governance and the perception of Winston Churchill’s after the delivery of his“iron curtain speech”. The difference is very surreal, the whole world is now watching a war like a TV series on their phones. Politicians utilize Instagram as a policy platform, countries have Twitter accounts, and the smartphone has become the most effective weapon against Russia. Zelenskiy’s popularity grew from 4 million followers on Instagram 4 days ago, to 13 million today. While writing this article, Ukraine has signed the application to become a member of the EU, and the official Instagram post already has 500,000 likes. Meme accounts online are now timelines of events and official Twitter pages have become scandalous caricatures belittling Putin’s Russia. Backtrack nearly 80 years, and take away the iPhone, Winston Churchill was delivering the Iron Curtain Speech in Missouri. Only hours later, his popularity boomed. It helped bolster American and Western European opposition to communism and the Soviet Union. In his speech, Churchill went on to argue that strong American-British relations were essential to stopping the spread of communism and maintaining peace in Europe. Replace Britain with any country in the EU, or in reality, any political actor, and you have an equation for today’s success.

Over COVID-19 we have learnt the importance of transparency and rationality when addressing populations, and Zelenskiy has hit the nail on the head. The former actor, who is an expert when it comes to managing the language and staging of television and social media, has taken a major step in terms of the information he is conveying to Ukrainians. His emotional videos, filled with patriotic messages have attracted popularity. “Our countries are on different sides of world history,” he said. “Russia is on the path of evil”. As a response to this, and I am quoting, the emotive language used to describe him follows something along the lines of “legend” and “hero”. And that is including those, who not only didn’t vote for him but were also counting down the days to the “re-election”. 

Zelenskiy not only has set an example to those men being drafted to the army, by quite literally taking matters into his own hands and joining the force, but has also inspired confidence that politics and conflict come hand in hand. It is too early to say whether his efforts are going to be successful, but they are huge efforts nonetheless. He will make history, and it is going to be one with a more positive prospect than his counterpart Putin. 

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