He looked gaunt and unshaven after another sleepless night under Russian attack and bombardment. But Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, struck a defiant tone in a video address on Saturday morning. “I’m here,” he said simply. And he was – in the centre of Kyiv, three days on from Vladimir Putin’s invasion, unbowed and going nowhere.
“Good morning everybody! Ukrainians: there’s a lot of fake information online that I call on our army to lay down arms, and that there’s an evacuation,” he said. “I’m here. We won’t lay down our arms. We will defend our state, our territory, our Ukraine, our children. That’s all I have to say. Glory to Ukraine!”
Zelenskiy had chosen a backdrop for his Telegram channel video: the capital’s House of Chimeras. The art nouveau building designed by the Polish architect Władysław Horodecki is immediately identifiable. It boasts mythical figures and elephant-head gargoyles. The address – Bankova – is Ukraine’s equivalent of Downing Street.
A hundred metres down the road is the presidential administration building. Zelenskiy had made another video address on Friday night, accompanied by his defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, the country’s PM, Denys Shmyhal, and senior advisers. “I am staying in the government quarters together with others,” he said.
He told his compatriots that it was likely to be another bruising night, as Russian forces tried to encircle and to seize Kyiv. “The enemy has designated me as target number one, and my family as target number two,” he said, urging citizens to resist with unity and strength.
The longer Zelenskiy manages to hold out, the more heroic a figure he appears, at least in the eyes of a growing number of Ukrainians. “I didn’t like him before and didn’t vote for him. But I now see him with new respect,” Olga Bileychuk said, speaking from the western city of Lviv. “He’s doing a good job.”
Kristina Berdynskykh, one of Ukraine’s top journalists, was also praising. “I have a lot of complaints against Zelenskiy over his domestic politics. But the way he behaves during the offensive of absolute evil against Ukraine is real political leadership and tremendous courage,” she tweeted late on Friday.
Zelenskiy, a former TV actor and comedian, won a landslide victory in the spring 2019 presidential election. He promised to bring peace to the east of the country and to negotiate with Putin. Three years later he finds himself at war with Russia and leading an against-the-odds struggle against Kremlin occupation and national extinction.
In the run-up to this week’s invasion, Zelenskiy’s ratings had fallen. One critique was that he had lagged behind events – offering to declare Ukraine a neutral country, for example, once it was too late and Russian bombs were already falling. There were disagreements with the international community too over the threat from Moscow.
For weeks, the Biden administration warned that Putin had assembled an invasion force on Ukraine’s borders and was preparing to go in. Zelenskiy demurred. He shrugged off predictions of doom and criticised London and Washington for removing their diplomats to Lviv. There was no reason to panic, he said.
“He’s always two or three steps behind what is happening. He can’t get out of his square box,” one former senior government official said. “It’s like it’s theatre, not fact. The situation is life and death, a real tragedy for thousands of people.” Zelenskiy’s chief of staff, Andrii Yermak, advised him badly, the official added.
And yet Zelenskiy has behaved with courage and extraordinary resilience in the dark hours since Russia’s military offensive began at 5am on Thursday. The US government and, according to sources, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have offered to get Zelenskiy out of Ukraine to prevent his capture by Russians. He has refused to go.
“The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride,” Zelenskiy said, according to US intelligence officials quoted in the Washington Post. The answer suggests the president has not lost his sense of humour, visible in his recent iPhone videos, delivered with a weary smile. His family has been taken to a place of safety, he said on Friday.
Zelenskiy’s fate over the coming days is grimly uncertain. There is no doubt that Putin is determined to capture Kyiv and to remove Zelenskiy’s pro-western and pro-Nato administration. Moscow’s apparent goal is to install a Russian puppet regime, as in separatist Donetsk, and to annex de facto a vast area that Putin considers to be “historical Russia”.
When he sent in the tanks this week, Putin claimed he was undertaking a mission to “demilitarise and denazify” Ukraine. On Friday Putin called Ukraine’s leaders fascists and drug addicts. Ever since the Maidan uprising in 2014 against the then president, Viktor Yanukovych, Kremlin state channels have suggested the country is run by far-right extremists.
The claim is ridiculous. Zelenskiy is a native Russian speaker – something he showed off in his moving address to the Russian people on Wednesday evening, hours before the invasion began. He is also Jewish. He lost relatives in the Holocaust and his grandfather fought against Hitler. His friends and senior advisers come from TV show business.
For now, at least, Zelenskiy appears buoyant. In his video address on Saturday he said Ukraine had successfully fought off “enemy attacks”. “We are defending our country, our land,” he said, pointing out that Kyiv remained under government control. “The occupiers wanted to capture our capital and install their puppets like Donetsk. We broke their idea.”
He added: “I want everyone in Russia to hear me. Everybody. Hundreds of captured soldiers who are here in Ukraine don’t know why they were sent here to kill people or be killed. People need to tell the government why the war has to be stopped, more people from your country will stay alive.”
Kremlin brute force and air power may yet prevail. But Zelenskiy has already earned his place in history, as the leader of nation under fire, fighting for its survival.