Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has become a symbol of resistance to the Russian invasion that is widely considered to be the largest conventional military operation since World War II, a role he assumed not long after cracking jokes and acting on the big screen.
The 44-year-old former actor and comedian, who assumed office in May 2019, is now facing the biggest challenge of his relatively short political career. Many observers believe he has risen to the occasion.
"Pun intended, coming from a comedian, I think most people saw him as a clown when he was first elected, and to see him turning into Churchill with this resolute wartime leadership I think has impressed and inspired many," Matt Kroenig, a former Defense official and current Georgetown University professor and Vandenberg Coalition advisory board member, told the Washington Examiner.
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In the weeks leading up to the war, Zelensky appeared to downplay the possibility of an invasion by Russian President Vladimir Putin. But he soon changed his tune and began pleading with global leaders for assistance. His pleas have resulted in various forms of sanctions levied against Putin, Russian elites, and financial institutions, as well as in the form of military reinforcements.
With his safety in jeopardy, Zelensky has chosen to stay in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, even though Russian forces have moved to within 16 miles of the city, a senior defense official told reporters Monday. Russia's military has faced more resistance than they expected in their efforts to reach Kyiv, the official added.
“We still believe … they have every intention of basically decapitating the government and installing their own method of governance," the official said last week, while Zelensky alleged, "The enemy marked me as target No. 1 — my family as target No. 2. They want to destroy Ukraine politically by destroying the head of state. We have information that enemy sabotage groups have entered Kyiv."
With Ukrainian forces doing their best to keep their capital, Zelensky said, “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride,” in response to efforts to persuade him to leave the country for his safety.
Zelensky’s refusal to leave his country in its time of need has ingratiated himself with his countrymen, foreign leaders, and civilians globally.
“It’s important to keep in mind that when Zelensky came into power, he was not taken very seriously. He had been an actor and a comedian,” Mark Cancian, a senior adviser for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Washington Examiner in an interview. "He has risen to the moment. He has inspired Ukrainians and become a world figure by his willingness to stay in the capital and take the personal risk involved here because we heard that the United States offered him a way out he refused."
His repeated rallying cries to the international community, as well as his own people, have aided in creating an international response that Putin was doing his best to avoid — an aligned and cohesive NATO.
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Even with a motivated NATO looking to help Ukraine, allies have refused thus far to enact a "no-fly zone" over the country because it would “essentially mean the U.S. military would be shooting down planes — Russian planes,” White House spokewoman Jen Psaki said Monday.
More than 15 years ago, Zelensky won Ukraine’s version of Dancing with the Stars, and he later gained fame for his role on the TV comedy Servant of the People, which centered on him playing a foul-mouthed teacher who becomes president after gaining popularity for a rant against government corruption, according to CBS.