Home / Opinion / Columns /  Ukraine’s Zelensky has shown grit and grace under fire

One can cloak it in reams of geopolitical mumbo-jumbo about supposed spheres of influence and bogus historical claims of suzerainty over a neighbour that overwhelmingly voted to leave the Soviet Union in 1991, but the invasion of Ukraine by Russia is a grim, dehumanizing sight. Images of apartment buildings in Kyiv being bombed and tens of thousands of refugees fleeing towards its borders are everywhere. Meanwhile, satellite photos of Russian military vehicles in a long convoy getting ever closer to the Ukrainian capital signal a more brutal onslaught. Yet, one man has shone with a messianic sense of purpose. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has shown rare leadership in rallying his country and galvanizing global opinion against Russia. Some days ago, after the Italian leader Mario Draghi said he was worried about Zelensky’s safety because the Ukraine president missed a call with him, Zelensky responded in unique fashion. Dressed in a military brown T-shirt and fleece, he filmed a selfie presidential communique alongside the prime minister, and other leaders. The cadences of his speech are rousing even in translation. Standing outside government buildings in Kyiv, Zelensky used the word “here" repeatedly, as if in a poem of solidarity to reassure Ukrainians that he and the government were not going anywhere. The video clip on social media lasts less than a minute. Has any war-time leader ever said so much in so few words? The New York Times (NYT) reported that Zelensky responded to an American offer to evacuate him from Kyiv with abrupt directness: “I need ammunition, not a ride."

If the unusual unity of purpose among EU leaders that has led to the unveiling of an arsenal of financial and economic sanctions against Russia seems unprecedented, Zelensky again deserves much of the credit. On 24 February, he gave an impassioned speech in a virtual summit with EU leaders that prodded them to impose harsher economic and banking sanctions than expected. These came a few days later; even a big chunk of the Russian central bank’s foreign reserves were frozen. “His intervention will be part of history… The silence in the room was impressive," a European official told the NYT.

Journalistic shorthand makes it obligatory to refer to Zelensky as a comedian-turned- president and attribute his communication successes to his former career as an entertainer.  While it’s true the former actor ran a comedy studio called Kvartal 95 before he won a landslide election in April 2019 with almost three-quarters of the votes polled, his success thus far is much more profound.

Far from sounding like an entertainer, unlike many pompous majoritarian populists, Zelensky has sounded authentic and decent. Instead of hate-mongering, he referred to Russians as family and even switched to Russian in a recent TV speech to make a direct appeal to Russians, while accepting that given the Kremlin’s control over the Russian media, there was little chance of his message reaching them: “We are different, but that is not a reason to be enemies."  By contrast, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speeches appear to have been telecast from an alternate universe. He bizarrely justified the invasion as an effort to de-Nazify Ukraine and free it from a government led by drug addicts.

Ukraine may be destined to be subjugated militarily in a matter of days, but at great cost to Russia’s reputation and economic health. The fierce resistance by Ukraine, according to military analyst Ajai Shukla, who writes the Broadsword blog, is not going to change the war’s outcome. “The Ukrainian military is not organized for operations on a day-to-day basis as the Indian army is. There’s a limit to what it can do," he told me. “Putin will inflict injuries and withdraw."

In the meantime, however, Russia’s rouble has plummeted, reaching 109 roubles to the dollar this week, a drop of almost a fifth since the invasion began, while investors in rouble-denominated bonds have almost no way to sell them, as securities depositories such as Clearstream and Euroclear announced on Tuesday that they would stop accepting payments in that currency. The tightening of the noose on Russia’s financial ecosystem, which started with barring its biggest banks from access to the Swift network, has gone much further than many expected.

Zelensky has ably cast himself and Ukraine as a David against a Goliath, but also shamed the West for initially being too passive. As Ukrainian president in a TV series a few years before he was elected in 2019, the character he played sarcastically says to the International Monetary Fund, “Feeling deep gratitude, I want to say, ‘Stick your head in your [expletive]!’"Just weeks ago, the EU was speaking in many, often contradictory voices. Today, it is acting with decisiveness not many thought it capable of. Unimaginably, Germany has announced it will re-arm.

Supposedly ‘constructive’ engagement through trade and economic ties with despotic countries such as Russia and China now seems a dangerous fairytale. This awful saga calls for a reassessment of China too, which has benefitted from the global trading and diplomatic system while seeking to undermine it. Putin’s attack has been a wake-up call, but so too has been the charisma of a Ukrainian president turned global hero overnight. In three years as president, Zelensky hitherto had an erratic record in fulfilling promises—for instance, to reduce the role of oligarchs in Ukraine’s economy. But once a catastrophe confronted his country, he seized the challenge as few leaders anywhere have in recent memory.

Rahul Jacob is a Mint columnist and a former Financial Times foreign correspondent.

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