Tempered in a Crucible of Violence, Zelensky Rises to the Moment

As Russian tanks rumbled into Ukraine in the predawn a year ago, President Volodymyr Zelensky recorded a simple video address to his nation: “We are strong,” he said. “We will defeat everyone because we are Ukraine.”

Amid the swirl of chaotic battles, shifting military fortunes and the thorny terrain of global diplomacy that followed, one thing remained constant: Mr. Zelensky showing up in selfies filmed on his phone, to deliver speeches and to appear in slickly produced videos beamed into foreign parliaments, his haggard, bearded but defiant appearance becoming the face of Ukraine’s struggle at home and abroad.

For years, Mr. Zelensky, a former comedic actor, had been brushed off by critics as a lightweight, new to politics, naïve about Russia and buffeted by the political headwinds of a presidential impeachment in the United States and a failed diplomatic endeavor with Russia. That is no longer the case.

After three successful counteroffensives, in which his army defeated Russian forces on the battlefield and upended long-held ideas about the balance of military power in Europe, Mr. Zelensky, 45, has grown more confident and battle-tested.

His soldiers have reclaimed nearly half of the land Russia seized in the invasion’s opening days, and for now have successfully resisted a new Russian offensive. Western nations rallied behind him in high-profile meetings this month, capped by President Biden’s visit to Kyiv on Monday.

And in much of the world, Mr. Zelensky has become a household name, representing Ukraine’s tenacity and underdog victories against Russia. Despite wearing T-shirts and having once voiced over the cartoon character Paddington Bear, Mr. Zelensky has been transformed by the war into a leader on the world stage with as much gravitas as any other.

Operating in the crucible of violence, Mr. Zelensky navigated the quickly evolving needs of his army and country. First, he had to survive. When the invasion came and he became a target for Russia, he refused to be spirited out of Kyiv for safety. Pivotal early decisions hinged on whether and when to simply go outside, to videotape his presence in the capital, risking missile strikes.

He has softened his early chiding of foreign leaders over weapons supplies, which irritated Western officials, including Mr. Biden; he was cordial and diplomatic in meetings with European leaders this month — in part because he has largely gotten what he wanted from them.

He has not bent to pressure from some Western allies to engage in peace talks, sticking to his demand that any deal must include the return of captured territory — a condition Russia would almost certainly reject.

Mr. Zelensky has also shed the second-guessing he exhibited last summer about life-or-death military decisions, and has accumulated the stature to be able to fire top officials to cleanse his administration of corruption.

“He is more at peace with himself,” said an adviser to Mr. Zelensky, speaking on the condition of anonymity to disclose private observations. “He has a clear understanding what Ukraine should do. There is no ambiguity: There is no peace with Russia, and Ukraine must arm itself to the teeth.”

As commander in chief, Mr. Zelensky decides key military questions, like the major offensives Ukraine has undertaken, but otherwise delegates to his generals. He is briefed on battlefield developments early every morning, aides say.

Mr. Zelensky has been accused by his political adversaries of exploiting his wartime authority to solidify his grip on the levers of power through martial law and through the consolidation of the media.

Television news broadcasts from several channels were banded into one, for example, controlled by the state, which critics say stifles free speech. The criticism intensified in late December when Mr. Zelensky signed a bill expanding the authority of Ukraine’s state broadcasting regulator to cover the online and print news media.

And in a country accustomed to pluralistic politics, opposition parties have seen in Mr. Zelensky’s leadership an over-personification of Ukraine’s struggle, centered on him at the expense of the thousands of other top officials and the millions of Ukrainians engaged in the war effort.

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Still, once the invasion began, Mr. Zelensky decided he would need to maintain a continual public presence, to show the country that he was confident and had no fear, the adviser said.

Mr. Zelensky is often said to lead through public relations, and those efforts became a hallmark of his outreach — to his own citizens, and to the world.

Analyses of this copious wartime output — in videos, ad-libbed comments on his cellphone and nightly addresses to Ukrainians — show he has, from the opening day of the invasion, turned to recurring themes: Ukraine will prevail through unity and patriotism, Russia is a terrorist state, and Ukraine will be blunt in asking for aid from allies.

“Sometimes, those of us who study politics tend to be very cautious of highlighting leadership,” said Olga Onuch, a political science professor at Manchester University in England and co-author of a book on Mr. Zelensky’s tenure in Ukraine, “The Zelensky Effect.” “We tend to be skeptical of politicians,” she added. “But his leadership has been hugely important” for Ukraine.

Even some in the political opposition before the invasion say that Mr. Zelensky’s publicity-driven approach to wartime leadership has been effective.

“Before the war, I was a very vocal critic,” Oleksiy Honcharenko, a member of Parliament in the opposition European Solidarity Party, said in an interview. “But I should be absolutely frank: He is doing a great job as commander in chief. He became the face of Ukraine and a face the world admires.”

Through the war, Mr. Zelensky has shifted toward a more nationalist stance, cracking down on a Russian-affiliated church that was spreading Moscow’s influence in Ukraine, for instance, and banning a pro-Russian political party.

But close observers of Mr. Zelensky’s presidency say that he did not so much change as fit, improbably, into Ukraine’s moment of need. By the time of the invasion, they say, he had already evolved — in his politics, his style and his persona — into the leader the world would only come to know once the war started.

Through 2021, Mr. Zelensky had tried, without success, to revive talks with Moscow over settling the conflict in eastern Ukraine that had been simmering since Russia intervened militarily in 2014. And, brushing off criticism of naïveté, in 2019, Mr. Zelensky even surrendered territory to Russian proxies in a policy of disengagement along the front line, in hopes of easing talks.

The failure of this initiative, and a backlash at home — with street protesters in Kyiv accusing him of treason for surrendering land — steered the Ukrainian president to a political formula in which he rejected concessions forced by Moscow.

Instead, he has bet on Ukrainians’ will to fight and the backing of allies, an approach that has so far proved successful.

Though Mr. Zelensky made a career in Russian-language cinema before entering politics, he embodied the pivot to the Ukrainian language in nearly all public settings that many people in Ukraine took after the invasion — but Mr. Zelensky began that turn at the outset of his 2019 presidential campaign and early in his presidency.

On foreign policy, Mr. Zelensky was schooled before the Russian attack through a brush with American political scandal, shaping his stance on relations with allies. Just days after his election in 2019, Mr. Zelensky was confronted with a threat of abandonment of military aid by his country’s most important ally, the United States, if he did not bend to a request from Donald J. Trump, then the president, and associates to open a politically motivated investigation of Hunter Biden.

Through this episode, which led to Mr. Trump’s first impeachment, Mr. Zelensky began speaking about the need for Ukraine, despite foreign aid dependency, to be a “subject” in talks with allies, not an object of discussion to be pushed around by the internal politics of foreign countries.

“Zelensky as a wartime president hasn’t actually changed as a leader,” said Ms. Onuch, the co-author of the academic study of his presidency. “Those who are looking for somebody born into leadership on Feb. 24, 2022, need to do their homework.”

A more forceful tone emerged when Mr. Zelensky thought it necessary — and it became a hallmark of his wartime interaction with allied governments. His relationship with Western allies has at times grown tense as he pressured them for more aid and resisted suggestions from leaders like Emmanuel Macron of France that he should negotiate a peace deal.

“Ukrainian politicians have not always spoken up and out about the pressures they face from Western allies, sometimes mistakenly, sometimes naïvely,” said Volodymyr Yermolenko, the editor in chief of the multimedia news platform UkraineWorld. “If Ukraine is to be treated as an equal, he has to make clear Ukraine’s position.”

Mr. Zelensky has repeatedly said that he is lucky to be the leader of Ukraine, a nation with a strong tradition of self-organizing and volunteerism.

“My feeling is he is led by the nation, rather than he is the leader of the nation,” said Mr. Yermolenko, referring to Mr. Zelensky’s success in channeling the country’s resilience and anger at Russia. “Zelensky is the embodiment of this resistance but not the source.”

Mr. Zelensky has worked with at least two speechwriters, Yuriy Kostyuk, a former screenwriter at his comedic television production company; and Dmytro Lytvyn, a former journalist, Ukrainian news media have reported.

Some speeches wove in elaborate theses on geopolitics or were redolent with historical references to wartime leaders of the past, including Winston Churchill; others were simple, poignant reflections on the cost of war.

“This is the story of people who lived in Borodyanka,” Mr. Zelensky said in a speech in May about a Kyiv suburb bombed by the Russian military. They “raised and kissed their children before going to bed and somehow went to sleep and never woke up again.”

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