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Opinion: Zelensky’s biggest test yet

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Editor’s Note: Michael Bociurkiw (@WorldAffairsPro) is a global affairs analyst currently based in Odesa. He is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former spokesperson for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He is a regular contributor to CNN Opinion. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.



Odesa

CNN

 — 

Less than a year into his term as president of Ukraine, Volodomyr Zelensky’s skills as negotiator were put to the test in his first face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Michael Bociurkiw

It was 2019. And the successful TV comedian turned commander in chief had traveled to Paris for a summit to negotiate a peace deal with Putin. Despite the doubts of many, Zelensky managed to walk away giving few concessions.

Already, there were clues as to the type of leader who earlier this month was named TIME magazine’s “Person of the Year.

In Paris at the time, I witnessed how Zelensky pulled up to the Élysée Palace in a modest Renault, while Putin motored in with an ostentatious armored limousine. (The host, French President Emmanuel Macron, hugged Putin but chose only to shake hands with Zelensky).

Zelensky, like his persona in the comedy series “Servant of the People,” was the type of populist leader who favored riding his bicycle to work.

A prisoner swap with Russia shortly after the summit seemed to favor Zelensky, who said at the time it was a first step towards ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which had started in 2014 and claimed the lives of over 14,000 people.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin's first in person meeting, Paris, December 2019.

Fast forward to 2022 and Zelensky is the instantly recognizable wartime president in trademark olive green; as adept at rallying his citizens and stirring the imaginations of folks worldwide, as naming and shaming allies dragging their feet in arming his military.

But almost 10 months into Russia’s full-scale invasion, and with Putin’s forces clearly on the back foot, Zelensky’s biggest test is yet to come.

As the war grinds into a new year, Zelensky faces a fresh dilemma. How to balance growing pressure from outside for a ceasefire and negotiations with Russia, and expectations within Ukraine for a full Russian withdrawal to pre-2014 lines.

Failure to demonstrate further progress on the battlefield with billions of dollars worth of military kit could stir unease among Western backers. But capitulation to Russia would be a political death sentence.

In a new book looking at the Ukrainian president’s speeches, the Economist’s Eastern European editor, Arkady Ostrovsky, describes Zelensky as “an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances.”

However, that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Zelensky’s upbringing in the rough and tumble neighborhoods of Kryvyi Rih in central Ukraine shaped him into a scrappy kid who learned how to respond to bullies.

“After the full-scale invasion, once he got into a position of being bullied by someone like Vladimir Putin he knew exactly what he needed to do because it was just his gut feeling,” Yevhen Hlibovytsky, former political journalist and founder of the Kyiv-based think tank and consultancy, pro.mova, told me.

This, after all, is the leader who when offered evacuation by the US as Russia launched its full-scale invasion, quipped: “I need ammunition, not a ride.”

It is perhaps easy to forget that Zelensky honed his political muscles earlier in his career standing up to another bully in 2019 – then-US President Donald Trump, who tried to bamboozle the novice politician in the quid pro quo scandal.

Amid the fog of war, it all seems a long, long way since the heady campaign celebration in a repurposed Kyiv nightclub where a fresh-faced Zelensky thanked his supporters for a landslide victory. Standing on stage among the fluttering confetti, he looked in a state of disbelief at having defeated incumbent veteran politician Petro Poroshenko.

Already, we were wondering how this new president might handle the giant aggressor on his border.

In the days leading up to Russia’s full-scale invasion, Zelensky was in a steep, downward trajectory in popularity ratings from the all-time high in the first days of his administration.

As Russian troops began to amass on Ukraine’s borders in the weeks preceding the February assault, around 55% of Ukrainians said they didn’t trust Zelensky to lead them into war. It was a rating likely influenced by him not keeping some of his campaign promises, especially failing to launch an effective fight against corruption in the judiciary.

The war appears to have turned his ratings around. Just days after the invasion, Zelensky’s ratings approval surged to 90%, and remain high to this day. Even Americans early in the war rated Zelensky highly for his handling of international affairs – ahead of US President Joe Biden.

It is difficult to calculate how much the carefully managed stagecraft of the president’s inner circle has contributed to Zelensky’s popular image both inside and outside Ukraine – but it certainly can’t hurt.

His bubble includes many people from his previous professional life as a TV comedian in the theatrical group Kvartal 95. Even in the midst of the war, a press conference held on the platform of a Kyiv metro station in April featured perfect lighting and curated camera angles to emphasize a wartime setting.

As for his skills as comforter in chief, I remember well the solace his nightly televised addresses brought in the midst of air raid sirens and explosions in Lviv.

Beyond the man himself, there is Zelensky the brand. It’s almost impossible these days to dissociate the Ukrainian leader from his olive green t-shirts; worn when meeting everyone from Vogue journalists to military commanders and world leaders.

“By wearing T-shirts and hoodies, the youthful, egalitarian uniform of Silicon Valley, rather than suits, Zelensky is projecting confidence and competence in a modern way, to a younger, global audience that recognizes it as such,” Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, a fashion historian and author of “Red, White, and Blue on the Runway: The 1968 White House Fashion Show and the Politics of American Style,” told NPR.

“He is probably more comfortable than Putin on camera, too, both as an actor and as a digital native,” she added. “I believe both of them want to come across as relatable, not aloof or untouchable, although Zelensky is definitely doing a better job balancing authority with accessibility.”

With Zelensky effectively grounded in Ukraine, his wife and first lady, Olena Zelenska, has become a powerful ambassador for the brand abroad.

Then-presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his wife Olena Zelenska, March 2019.

Journeying to where her husband can’t, Zelenska has shown herself to be an effective communicator in international fora – projecting empathy, style and smarts. Most recently, she met with King Charles during a visit to a refugee assistance center at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family in London. (Curiously, TIME magazine did not include Zelenska on the cover montage and gave only a passing reference in the supporting text).

Despite the strong tailwinds at Zelensky’s back, there are subtle signs that his international influence could be dwindling. For example, last week, in what analysts called a pivotal moment in geopolitics, the G7 imposed a $60 a barrel price cap on Russian crude – despite pleas from Zelensky that it should have been set at $30 in order to inflict more pain on the Kremlin.

Within Ukraine, the economy continues to stumble from the impact of war and persistent missile and drone attacks on critical power infrastructure – including at least 76 strikes on Friday. As winter bites, millions of Ukrainians are enduring long periods without heat, electricity and water. (However, indicative of the resiliency that Ukrainians have displayed since the start of the war, many say they are prepared to endure such hardship for another two to five years if it means defeating Russia).

All this adds up to a complex path ahead for the Zelensky administration, especially if liberating Crimea from Russia is part of the definition of victory envisioned by most Ukrainians. For the time being, and true to form, the tough guy from Kryvyi Rih shows no sign of backing down.

“Paradoxically, Zelensky achieved the thing that Putin most wanted to achieve but failed … to rally support domestically with a patriotic war in order to deflect and distract from his abject failures at home. In Putin’s mind, to be shown up by a mere ‘decadent’ comedian must be excruciatingly painful for him,” New York-based geopolitical and business analyst Michael Popow told me.

Victory will surely depend on the West maintaining a united front against Russia. Zelensky and his envoys abroad have done an enviable job of warning Western leaders that if they don’t support Ukraine in pushing Putin back completely, their own nations’ security could be caught in the crosshairs of Russian aggression.

As Zelensky said in a recent nightly video address: “No matter what the aggressor intends to do, when the world is truly united, it is then the world, not the aggressor, determines how events develop.”

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