Who’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s social media star president?

Ukrainian leader has gone from political novice to wartime leader as Russian forces carry on with their all-out offensive

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy takes a selfie with supporters in Kiev on June 9, 2019. He is now posting video selfies from the beleaguered capital to the nation, calling on it to stand united. Photo: AP
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Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has emerged from the Russian war against his country as a defiant hero, vowing to never give in to the Kremlin.

Mr Zelenskyy, 44, has also identified himself as “target number one” of Russia, but he, his wife and two children remained in Ukraine, posting several video selfies from the streets of Kiev and addresses to the nation, calling on it to stand united.

Four days into the Russian offensive, Mr Zelenskyy on Sunday urged the world to scrap Russia's voting power at the UN Security Council and said Russia's actions verged on "genocide".

"This is terror. They are going to bomb our Ukrainian cities even more; they are going to kill our children even more subtly. This is the evil that has come to our land and must be destroyed," he said in a short video message, wearing olive-green military-style clothing.

Looking tired but determined, Mr Zelenskyy praised the establishment of a pro-Ukraine “international coalition”.

“I am here. We will not lay down any weapons. We will defend our state, because our weapons are our truth.”

On Thursday, when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the start of a “special military operation”, he said that his goal was to demilitarise Ukraine.

He claimed that the country hosted “Nazis, and its regime committed crimes against Russian-speaking civilians,” charges which were dismissed by Ukrainian officials as populist propaganda and fake news.

They said the Russian leader is detached from reality and is staunchly against Mr Zelenskyy’s pro-Western policies.

In Kiev, residents took shelter in the subway system, and in cellars and basements.

Ukrainian Health Minister Viktor Lyashko on Saturday said that 198 civilians, including three children, had been killed in the conflict and 1,115 wounded.

The conflict has forced almost 116,000 people to flee to neighbouring countries.

Tens of thousands more are estimated to be displaced within Ukraine, with many on the move to less affected western areas of the country.

“To be frank, I’m very impressed by our president," Oksana Potelchak, a Ukrainian translator from Kiev and a mother of two, told The National in the southern Polish city of Przemysl, about 20 kilometres from the Ukrainian border.

"I didn’t vote for him, but now I understand that, in this situation, it is very complicated. His behaviour and his decisions are great. He tries to inspire our army, our people with his personal example. Everything that he does today, it is very important for our spirit, for our army and for our country.

“They (the Ukrainian people) are proud, they are very inspired.”

Who’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy?

Mr Zelenskyy was born to Jewish parents in 1978 in the predominantly Russian-speaking industrial city of Kryvyi Rih in central Ukraine, which was then part of the Soviet Union.

A grandson of a soldier who had fought the Nazis as part of the Red Army, Mr Zelenskyy studied economics and law at Kryvyi Rih National University.

He became an actor and comedian at the age of 17, starring in different films. His political satire singled him out in 2015 to play the lead character in Servant of the People, which centred on a fictional character who won the presidency in Ukraine to launch sweeping reforms and save it from a corrupt political class.

With no prior political experience, Mr Zelenskyy was elected president on 21 April, 2019. He beat the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko, with nearly 73 per cent of the vote.

He was campaigning on an anti-corruption ticket and promised negotiations with Russia to find a solution to the turmoil in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, which has been run by Russian-backed separatists since 2014.

His critics describe Mr Zelenskyy as a “puppet” of Ukrainian business mogul Ihor Kolomoyskyy, the former billionaire governor of the key industrial region of Dnipropetrovsk.

Mr Kolomoyskyy denied providing Mr Zelenskyy with financial support.

In May last year, the US State Department designated Mr Kolomoyskyy as ineligible to enter the United States, accusing him of involvement in significant corruption and fraud during his time in office.

The scandal was a blow to Mr Zelenskyy's falling approval ratings, which had plummeted one year after his election, from 52 per cent of Ukrainians polled being optimistic of an improvement in economic conditions to 60 per cent being pessimistic.

But the offensive announced by Mr Putin on Thursday has apparently rallied Mr Zelenskyy's opponents behind him, and his calls to join the EU and Nato.

During the continuing crisis, he became a social media star, with more than 12 million followers on Instagram. Many of his admirers have shared photos from his past life as an actor as well as those with his wife and parents.

He garnered support from opposition MPs in parliament for his handling of the current crisis.

MP Kira Rudik praised Mr Zelenskyy and highlighted in tweets her willingness to fight Russian soldiers with a Kalashnikov.

She particularly supported Mr Zelenskyy's move to declare martial law and called on the army to keep up the stiff resistance to the advancing force of more than 150,000 Russian troops.

On Sunday, Mr Zelenskyy said he had spoken by phone with Belarus President and Kremlin ally Alexander Lukashenko, amid a rapidly changing battlefield situation that has already led to fierce fighting on the outskirts of Kiev.

Updated: February 28, 2022, 4:16 AM
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