Five days before the Russian invasion, Volodymyr Zelensky took the stage at the Munich security conference. He was wearing another suit. He asked why Western democracies hardly supplied defense weapons to his country, while Russia had gathered a force on the Ukrainian border, had been at war in Europe for eight years and had occupied a peninsula. Desperately, he asked, “Will the world hear me in 2022?”
On Wednesday, Zelensky was given a hero’s welcome in Washington. President Biden gave him one of America’s best anti-aircraft systems and promised him unconditional military support worth tens of billions of dollars. European countries also send weapons. Twenty-five EU leaders visited Zelensky in Kiev this year (only the leaders of Malta and Cyprus did not come).
The world has heard Zelensky this year, to the credit of the 44-year-old president himself. When Russia invaded on the night of February 24, the young commander-in-chief of the army left the defense of his country to his generals. Zelensky had little understanding of military affairs. He had even evaded his national service. However, he—the TV comedian who had become president—had a talent for public speaking. And he had an iPhone with internet.
Intervene or look away?
Instead of focusing on the battlefield, during this war Zelensky turns to you, citizens and administrators of the wealthy, democratic West, who have a choice: intervene or look away?
“Prove that you won’t let us down, prove that you are indeed Europeans,” Zelensky said via video link at the European Parliament in the first week of the war. “Then shall life triumph over death and light over darkness.”
Zelensky called from the then heavily besieged Kiev. He hadn’t fled from one of the world’s largest armies, which Western intelligence said had selected him as its number one target. On the first day of the war, Russian assassination squads launched two attacks on the presidential complex, told Zelensky’s team later. The gunfights could be heard inside. Zelensky was given a bulletproof vest and an automatic rifle by his security guards. His wife and children were still inside.
Zelensky declined an evacuation offer from the Americans. On day two of the war, when the missiles flew over Kiev, he and his team stood in front of his office and took out his phone. “We’re all here,” he said into the camera. “We are protecting our independence and our country, and we will continue to do so.”
The face of courage
Zelensky is the face of Ukrainian courage and intransigence. It earns him complimentary comparisons from Europeans to Winston Churchill, the last fearless war leader they ever had. But Zelensky would rather not be compared to a leader of an imperialist empire – Ukraine has been trying to defend itself against that for centuries. And now again.
When Zelensky has a moment to himself, for example on his way to the front, he reads a few pages in a book about Stalin and Hitler, the previous dictators who targeted Ukraine. Such moments are rare. When he gets up, he calls his generals and asks what they need. He spends the rest of the day looking for the requested items. He calls world leaders, addresses parliaments, receives journalists. In between, often only in the evening, he informs the Ukrainian population in a video message.
But Zelensky knows better than anyone that people outside Ukraine tend to zap or scroll after a while. So he has opened the doors of his bunker to people who can help him keep his attention. Hollywood actors Sean Penn, Ben Stiller and Jessica Chastain dropped by (Penn left his Oscar with Zelensky). Zelensky gave an interview to American presenter David Letterman in a subway station, a journalist from the magazine said Time move into the presidential complex.
His message has remained unchanged. “Your money is not charity. It is an investment in global security and democracy,” Zelensky said before the US Congress on Wednesday. He received a standing ovation. He said the same thing in Munich in February, but there was no applause.
It’s Christmas, also in Ukraine (the Ukrainian Orthodox Church also celebrates it on December 25 this year instead of January 7 to move away from the Russian calendar) and the country is “alive and alive”, as Zelensky said in the US. But his latest journey also shows that he is taking more and more risks. Last month he already entered the central square of Kherson, which had been liberated just three days earlier and was still within shooting range of the Russians. Last Tuesday he turned up among the soldiers in Bachmoet, the most heavily fought-over city at the moment.
Some Ukrainians consider the risks irresponsible – after all, Zelensky seems to have become irreplaceable. But Zelensky doesn’t back down. The journeys are crucial in its main mission: to keep you from dropping out.