FT Person of the Year: Volodymyr Zelenskyy. ‘I am more responsible than brave’

Nine months into a brutal struggle for national survival against Russian invaders, Volodymyr Zelenskyy looks tired, with dark circles under his eyes. What he would like to be doing instead of confronting a merciless invader is fishing with his son. “I just want to catch a carp in the Dnipro river,” he says.

For a taste of normal life, the unlikely president may still have a long wait, despite the surprising streak of battlefield successes for Ukraine’s forces. But the folksy message is characteristic of a leader who still depicts himself as an everyman with humble tastes and a deep sense of humanity, qualities that have earned him the admiration of Ukrainians and their supporters abroad.

It is the mirror image of the fictional ordinary-guy-turned-president he played in a satirical hit television series that skyrocketed him to fame. It is also the antithesis of Russian president Vladimir Putin, hidden away in the Kremlin, whose obsession with rebuilding an empire has cost tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of lives.

Written off by many Ukrainians before the February invasion as something of a joke, an amateur struggling to rise to the challenge of high office, the 44-year-old Zelenskyy has earned a place in history for his extraordinary display of leadership and fortitude.

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Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a former comic actor who won his election as president with an overwhelming majority, inherited a country that had been at war with Russia since it first invaded in 2014 © Serhii Korovayny/FT

Ukraine surprised the world by fending off the Russian assault on Kyiv and with its counteroffensives in Kharkiv and Kherson provinces. It has retaken half of the territory Moscow’s troops had seized this year. Zelenskyy’s forces now are pressing ahead in the south and the east, even as winter sets in, with the goal of liberating all Ukrainian territory, including the Donbas region and Crimea.

Just as Winston Churchill went on the radio to rally his country during the Blitz, Zelenskyy has used social media to campaign relentlessly for western military and financial support, turning the plight of his people into moral leverage over leaders in Europe and the US. He has persuaded Europeans to bear the huge costs of standing up to Putin and to offer Kyiv a path to EU membership.

Along the way, he has become a standard bearer for liberal democracy in the wider global contest with authoritarianism that could define the course of the 21st century.

Zelenskyy has also come to embody the courage and resilience of the Ukrainian people in their fight against Russian aggression. It is for these reasons that the Financial Times has chosen Zelenskyy as the person of the year.

In an interview with the FT, Zelenskyy recalls the early days of the invasion and says he is not really courageous: “I am more responsible than I am brave . . . I just hate to let people down.”

Zelenskyy’s powerful chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, recalls how three years ago he told a group of western journalists that “our president would be the most famous and strongest leader of his time”. He adds: “I won’t say I told you so, but I was right.”

A close call

Zelenskyy’s decision to remain in Kyiv at the start of the invasion rather than accept a US offer of evacuation was one of the most consequential moments in the war, galvanising Ukraine’s military and its people to resist. It was a surprise to Ukrainians and western allies, who had low expectations of the country’s political leaders.

For days before the invasion, Zelenskyy seemed in denial about the prospect of an all-out Russian assault on his country. “I’m the president of Ukraine and I’m based here and I think I know the details better here,” he told reporters after speaking to US President Joe Biden.

When the invasion started 10 days later, it was unclear whether Zelenskyy would survive the day. He was asleep beside his wife, Olena Zelenska, at the presidential palace in Kyiv as the first missiles struck and Russian tanks streamed across the border. Russia, the president would later say, had marked him “target number one” and his family “target number two”.

While Olena and their children were evacuated to an undisclosed location, the president was moved with staff and bodyguards into an underground bunker in the palace. Soon after, Russian special forces were parachuted in. Local collaborators who had infiltrated the ranks of the Ukrainian security service and quietly moved into safe houses close to the government quarter attempted to storm his office. They were unsuccessful, but it was a close call.

EU leaders were horrified when Zelenskyy told them by video link that it might be the last time they saw him alive. But later that night Zelenskyy, standing out in the open near the presidential office and flanked by his closest advisers, sent a message by video selfie that millions of Ukrainians had wanted to hear: “The president is here. We are all here. Our soldiers are here.”

Nine months later, Russian forces are long gone from Kyiv — although they continue to menace the capital with weekly missile strikes against the power network, plunging millions into darkness. At the presidential palace, no one is taking chances: sandbagged shooting positions are placed along the corridors as if Russian special forces could again storm the building.

Life imitates art

Zelenskyy was born into a Ukrainian-Jewish family in Kryvyi Rih, a steelmaking city in south-central Ukraine. In the post-Soviet 1990s it was a rough-and-tumble type of place where a youngster like Zelenskyy had to make his own luck, but his upbringing was relatively comfortable. His mother is an engineer and his father a computer science professor. He was the teachers’ pet in school, he said, because he was very dependable and funny. “Everybody loved me. I was the energy of every group,” he says.

Zelenskyy met Olena in school and they grew close at university, where he studied law and she studied architecture. They went on to form a wildly successful comedy troupe and production company. Named after the district where they grew up, Kvartal 95, it toured Ukraine and Russia, before producing a hit TV series that launched Zelenskyy’s career in politics.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy with members of Kvartal 95 in March 2019, a couple of weeks before the first round of the presidential elections © AFP/Getty Images

He announced his presidential run on New Year’s Eve in 2018, with an anti-establishment and anti-corruption platform strikingly similar to that of the character he played on TV. Less than four months later, he defeated incumbent Petro Poroshenko by a landslide, winning 73 per cent of the vote.

The political novice inherited a country that had been at war with Russia since it first invaded in 2014 and he vowed to bring peace. Ukrainians, tired of Poroshenko’s broken promises and militant attitude, saw Zelenskyy, a native Russian speaker supposedly viewed more positively in Moscow, as someone who just might be able to hammer out a deal to end the bloodshed. Putin, it turned out, was not open to any compromise.

On other fronts, Zelenskyy’s record during the first two and half years of his presidency was mixed at best. He passed important reforms, including on land sales, but made little headway in tackling corruption or reducing the influence of Ukraine’s oligarchs.

He governed via a small clique of trusted but often ill-qualified lieutenants, many of them longtime friends or associates from his show business career. “There’s a lot of strange people around him, a lot of strange decisions,” says a former member of his government.

Some accused Zelenskyy of an authoritarian streak. He fired officials for failing to produce instant results. An anti-oligarch law passed in 2021, although perhaps well intentioned, in effect gave the president arbitrary powers for pursuing personal or political vendettas. His attempt to have his predecessor Poroshenko, a confectionery magnate, prosecuted for treason was denounced by western capitals.

Even some of Zelenskyy’s staff admit he can be thin-skinned. He himself says one thing he has learnt since February is “don’t be offended by the small things”. Diplomats who have followed his presidency say he distrusts western motives and still fears betrayal.

‘Fate has chosen us’

Doubts about Zelenskyy’s suitability to lead his nation in war dissipated with Russia’s attack. The president appeared to step into a new role — along with new khaki garb.

Iuliia Mendel, who served as Zelenskyy’s press secretary, says he lacked the experience and discipline to be a great peacetime leader but was better suited to lead during the tumult of war. “He is a person of chaos,” she says. “In war, it is chaos. He feels at home.”

Ruslan Stefanchuk, speaker of the Ukrainian parliament and a close political ally, noted the change at the first meeting of the National Security and Defence Council on February 24. “He was in a very, very, I would say, combative mood. And he said, look, history has chosen us. Fate has chosen us. And now we have to live up to that.”

It was not just the military that needed to mobilise but the entire state. Zelenskyy streamlined decision-making between his office, government and parliament. He also learnt to make decisions swiftly, identifying it as the key to success, and to delegate tasks, trusting others to carry them out. Operational decisions were left to military commanders, allowing forces the flexibility to react quickly to conditions on the battlefield.

But it is Zelenskyy’s never-ending communications that have been most remarkable. His nightly video messages and Telegram posts have been a tonic for a weary population. A message directed at Moscow in September — “Without light or without you? Without you” — turned into a social media rallying cry for many Ukrainians.

Zelenskyy has addressed countless parliaments, conferences and events — from the Grammy Awards to the Glastonbury Festival. Each time he has tailored the message to the audience, often appealing to the hearts and minds of the people over their governments. He has used his pulpit to press — and sometimes shame — governments into providing vast quantities of weapons.

In a speech to the Bundestag in March, he skewered German leaders for putting their economic interests before security, saying they were adding stones to the new Berlin Wall that Russia was building across Europe. Western officials on occasion found that agreements discussed in private were immediately relayed on social media by the president or his staff, giving partners no room to back out.

Firefighters sift through burnt wreckage and cars outside a bombed building
Firefighters sort through rubble of a building damaged by a Russian air strike in the city of Vinnytsia, west-central Ukraine. Russian strikes against Kyiv have continued with regular attempts to take out the power network © Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

His communication has rarely gone awry, although it has grated with some allies. One exception to Zelenskyy’s sure-footed messaging was his insistence that a missile strike that killed two people in Poland on November 15 was Russia’s doing. Although Polish and US officials said it was likely to have been a stray Ukrainian anti-aircraft rocket, Zelenskyy called it a “very significant escalation” that required an allied response — putting him at odds with Washington, Warsaw and other European capitals anxious not to get sucked into the war.

A peacetime leader?

Ukraine’s torment is far from over. Evicting Russian troops from the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions in the south will be difficult enough, let alone from the well-defended positions in Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea, areas occupied for eight years.

Nonetheless, Ukrainians are already debating whether their leader, like his illustrious British predecessor, may be the right man for a war of national survival but the wrong one for the peace that follows.

Victory will not only belong to Ukraine’s president. Some Ukrainians are making a name for themselves in the war and have political ambitions. The astonishing mobilisation of Ukrainian civil society since February can be expected to make the country more demanding of its leaders.

When the fighting eventually comes to an end, Zelenskyy will face tough questions about the failure to sufficiently prepare Ukraine for a full-blown invasion. The security services did not lay mines or blow up bridges along Russia’s lines of attack from the north and south, leading large swaths of territory to be captured quickly and easily by Putin’s troops.

Zelenskyy says that despite the public warnings by western officials, Kyiv was never given intelligence it could act on about the impending Russian attack.

“Nobody showed us specific material saying it would come from this or that direction,” he says.

Zelenskyy repeatedly attempted to call Putin in the run-up to the invasion. He wanted to tell him it would be a “great mistake, a great tragedy” but the Russian leader would not take his calls. “We are fighting against insane people,” says Zelenskyy of the Russian leadership. He is adamant that Ukraine must liberate all of its territories from Russian occupation, otherwise the war will simply resume at a later date.

But the success of Ukraine’s counteroffensives will hinge on the amount of advanced weaponry its supporters and, above all, the US are willing to supply.

The interests of Kyiv and the west could diverge. Death, destruction and anger over Russian war crimes have hardened Ukrainian public opinion against compromises with Moscow. Some allies fear a Ukrainian attempt to retake Crimea could lead to a dangerous escalation by Putin, possibly with nuclear weapons.

Already there are faint calls for negotiating with Russia, appeals that Zelenskyy rejects. “The world is not a doctor with extensive experience, it is not Putin’s doctor, and Putin is not a patient of this world.”

Local residents celebrate after Russia’s retreat from Kherson. Ukraine has retaken half the territory Moscow’s troops had seized this year © Yevhenii Zavhorodnii/Reuters

Despite the “absolute evil” of Russia’s war, the former comic actor still finds moments for humour, just as millions of Ukrainians find succour by sharing memes and jokes about their Russian attackers on social media. “If you don’t sometimes smile because of these people you enter a depression, and you can’t make decisions when in a depression,” he says.

Last week, Russian missile strikes left millions of Ukrainians and swaths of the country, including the capital, without running water for more than 24 hours after power was cut. The president’s office was no exception. Zelenskyy recalls with a chuckle how a visitor to his office had asked to borrow his toilet. “I refused. I said: ‘I know what it will be like in several hours.’ It was very funny.”

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