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Zelenskyy's Fierce Resistance Makes Him International Icon


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy poses after an interview with Reuters in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 1, 2022.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has become a major figure on the world stage in the days since Russian forces invaded his country, declaring his intention to remain in Kyiv, even as tens of thousands of Russian troops converge on the capital city.

His notable answer to a U.S. offer to evacuate him and his family after the invasion began – "The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride" – has become an emblem of the Ukrainian people's fierce resistance to invading Russian troops.

Zelenskyy's video addresses, delivered from the streets of Ukraine's threatened capital, and his calls on the European Union and other international bodies to support his nation's resistance to the Russian invasion, have put his face on screens all over the world. But until recently the former actor and comedian was not well-known outside his native country.

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy shows himself speaking to a camera in Ukraine after a Russian attack, and vowing to stay and fight on, Feb. 26, 2022, in this screen grab taken from a video made available on his Facebook account.
President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy shows himself speaking to a camera in Ukraine after a Russian attack, and vowing to stay and fight on, Feb. 26, 2022, in this screen grab taken from a video made available on his Facebook account.

Zelenskyy, 44, took office in spring 2019, with 73.2% of the vote, defeating former President Petro Poroshenko. His election was a case of life imitating art, as Zelenskyy, prior to the election, had been best known for playing a high school history teacher who gets elected president of Ukraine in a hit television show called "Servant of the People."

The premise of the show was that Zelenskyy's character rockets to popularity after a viral video captures him ranting against rampant corruption in Ukraine. In 2018, a new political party in Ukraine, named after Zelenskyy's television show, nominated the TV star for president on an anti-corruption platform similar to that of his fictional presidential character.

Native of eastern Ukraine

Zelenskyy was born in Kryvyi Rih, a city in a Russian-speaking region of south-central Ukraine which was, at the time, a part of the Soviet Union. Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, has said that his extended family suffered severely during the Holocaust. His grandfather lost his own father and three brothers to the Nazis, and he served in the Red Army during the war.

Zelenskyy received a law degree from what is now Kryvyi Rih National University, but rather than pursue a legal career, he began working in comedy and was one of the founders of Kvartal 95, which became a successful television production company.

Among Zelenskyy's more unusual accomplishments was his victory, in 2006, in the Ukrainian version of the television program "Dancing with the Stars," in which he was partnered with a professional dancer.

FILE - Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukrainian actor and then-presidential candidate, hosts a comedy show at a concert hall in Brovary, Ukraine, March 29, 2019.
FILE - Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukrainian actor and then-presidential candidate, hosts a comedy show at a concert hall in Brovary, Ukraine, March 29, 2019.

Between 2009 and 2018, Zelenskyy had starring roles in a number of films, primarily romantic comedies.

Zelenskyy married screenwriter Olena Kiyashko in 2003. They have a 17-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son. All three are believed to be in Kyiv with Zelenskyy.

Took office during conflict

When Zelenskyy took office in 2019, his country was already five years into a low-level conflict with separatist militias in Luhansk and Donetsk, two provinces that make up a region commonly known as the Donbas. The militias, with support from Russia, controlled portions of both provinces and frequently traded fire with Ukrainian troops. In addition, Russia remained in disputed possession of Crimea, which it seized in 2014 and claims to have "annexed" as part of Russia.

FILE - Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy casts his ballot as his wife, Olena, stands nearby at a polling station during a parliamentary election in Kyiv, Ukraine, July 21, 2019.
FILE - Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy casts his ballot as his wife, Olena, stands nearby at a polling station during a parliamentary election in Kyiv, Ukraine, July 21, 2019.

For many Americans, their first introduction to Zelenskyy came in 2019, when he was caught up in the events that led to the first impeachment of former President Donald Trump.

Because of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, U.S. lawmakers had approved $400 million in military aid for fiscal year 2019. Throughout the spring and summer of that year, the Trump administration refused to disburse the aid, without providing a clear reason why.

Trump impeachment

In a July 2019 conversation with Zelenskyy, which did not become public until months later, Trump replied to the Ukrainian president's request to be allowed to purchase more anti-tank weapons with the phrase, "I would like you to do us a favor, though." He proceeded to ask Zelenskyy to launch an investigation into the business dealings of the Biden family.

At the time, Joe Biden was seen as a challenger to Trump in the 2020 U.S. presidential contest. Biden's son, Hunter, had served on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company.

The call was the basis for Trump's impeachment in the House of Representatives, with Democratic lawmakers charging that he had withheld aid from Ukraine to pressure Zelenskyy to damage his chief political rival.

Zelenskyy said that he had not felt pressured, and made it clear that he did not want to become part of a political disagreement in the U.S.

Low popularity

Zelenskyy's performance in the days since Russia invaded his country has made him extremely popular internationally and, to the degree it can currently be measured, within Ukraine. Even opposition party politicians who regularly criticized him prior to the invasion have lavished praise on his efforts to rally the country.

FILE - Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy walks under a camouflage net in a trench as he visits the war-hit Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Dec. 6, 2021. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)
FILE - Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy walks under a camouflage net in a trench as he visits the war-hit Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Dec. 6, 2021. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

However, in the years following his initial election, Zelenskyy's popularity among Ukrainians had faded considerably. In a country where corruption remained a major problem, he was seen as having done too little to keep his promises about bringing integrity to the country's politics.

In January, public opinion polling showed Zelenskyy with the support of only about 30% of the Ukrainian population.

Discounted warnings of invasion

Zelenskyy has also faced criticism for his apparent unwillingness to believe U.S. intelligence reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin was determined to invade Ukraine.

In the weeks leading up to the invasion, Zelenskyy worked hard to build support among other leaders in Europe and around the world, hoping to pressure Putin to pull back troops. However, he frequently met U.S. warnings of an imminent invasion with public expressions of disbelief and even ridicule.

Critics have said that his frequent insistence that Putin was bluffing and would not actually enter Ukraine may have left his citizens less prepared for the invasion than they might have been if he had taken U.S. warnings seriously.

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