SECTIONS

President Volodymyr Zelensky: Ex-comedian who galvanised the West and stood against Putin

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky poses after an interview with Reuters in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 1, 2022. [Reuters]

"If we are attacked by the troops, if they try to take our country away from us, our freedom, our lives, the lives of our children, we will defend ourselves. Not attack, but defend ourselves. And when you attack us you will see our faces, not our backs but our faces.” 

These were the brave words of a confident President Volodymyr Zelensky in the wake of the start of the Russian invasion of his country, Ukraine.

Those emotional and patriotic words did not only capture the hearts and souls of over 40 million Ukrainians but also the attention of world leaders and nations across the globe.

In the past few months, the talk had been rife across the diplomatic and intelligence community over a full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

It was only a matter of when and not if Russian troops would cross over into Ukraine and launch their assault amid rising tensions that had been simmering over the past decade.

This came to pass on the morning of February 24, when Russia's President Vladimir Putin authorised "a special military operation" against Ukraine to eliminate what he called a serious threat, saying his aim was to demilitarise Russia's southern neighbour.

This was despite Kremlin only days before denying that they would invade Ukraine.

A view shows damaged buildings following recent shelling, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues, in the settlement of Borodyanka in the Kyiv region, Ukraine March 2, 2022. [Reuters]

The world was left in shock at the brazen action by Putin who many thought would not actually go ahead and carry out a full-scale invasion of an independent nation backed by the West.

In the midst of the panic, shock and fear, President Zelensky rose to the occasion in an act of boldness, defiance and patriotism maintaining that they would not be cowed by its super-power neighbour vowing the citizens would stand up and fight to protect its sovereignty.

"We are fighting for our rights, for our freedoms, for life, for our life, and now we are fighting for survival. And this is the highest of our motivation,” Zelensky said.

Many underestimated the resolve of Zelensky and the Ukrainian people against Putin-led Russia.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky holds a joint news conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda and Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda in Kyiv, Ukraine February 23, 2022. [Reuters]

While Russia has 900,000 active personnel in its armed forces and two million in reserve, Ukraine has roughly 196,000 and 900,000 reservists.

On land, Russia has a twofold advantage, with 280,000 troops to Ukraine's 125,600 and its air force is nearly five times as strong, with 165,00 to Ukraine's 35,000.

It was thought that Ukraine and its capital Kyiv would fall in a matter of days. 

But the war is now entering its second week and though Ukraine has been badly hit, the country has held its defensive ground against a barrage of attacks from both land, sea and air from Russian troops.

At the heart of this resistance is 44-year-old President Zelensky who has inspired the millions of Ukrainians who have now taken arms to defend their country against the invasion.

From the famous boxing Klitschko brothers to prison inmates and even the former Miss Ukraine Anastasiia Lenna, thousands of Ukrainians have now joined the military to fight against Russia.

Ukrainian heavyweight boxing world champion Wladimir Klitschko and his brother, Mayor of Kyiv and former heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko, speak with journalists in central Kyiv, Ukraine, February 2, 2022. [Reuters]

Zelensky's rise to power appears straight from a fictional movie with the former actor and comedian as the lead cast member.

There is no doubt that Zelensky is by far currently the most admired figure in the world.

Zelensky was born to Jewish parents in the industrial metropolis of Kryvyi Rih, East Ukraine, in 1978. 

He is a graduate of Kyiv National Economic University with a law degree and despite this, it is acting that turned out to be his main passion.

Zelensky dated his wife Olena, a school acquaintance 11 days his junior, for eight years before they married in September 2003.

Their daughter Oleksandra was born the following year, and they had a son, Kyrylo, in 2013. 

Zelensky later co-founded a successful TV production company Studio Kvartal 95 and produced shows for a network owned by controversial billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky who later backed his presidential bid. 

Until the mid-2010s, his career in TV and films was his main focus.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin. [Reuters]

Ironically in his most famous TV show called "Servant of the People”, Zelensky's character is an idealistic schoolteacher who goes on a viral tirade about government corruption and ends up becoming president.

Like his character, Zelensky ran an anti-corruption campaign ahead of his first stab at the presidency.

And it is the name of his TV show, "Servant of the People”, in which he founded the party that he would run on and against all odds, win a landslide victory with 73 per cent of the vote, defeating incumbent Petro Poroshenko with 24 per cent in 2019.

Despite being a marked man in Kremlin, Zelensky has remained defiant to fight for his country till the end despite all the risks.

The Ukrainian Head of State is said to have turned down an offer from the US of evacuation from Kyiv and famously retorted; "The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride."

Such acts of resilience and patriotism have further endeared him to his people and dumbfounded the Western powers prompting them to now be fully engaged in the conflict and go further than just slapping sanctions on Russia.

The West have now promised weapons and ammunition to Zelensky and are increasingly and fast being drawn into a possible proxy war with Moscow.

And now Ukraine’s desire to be a part of NATO (which Putin strongly opposes) and the EU now seems more likely and reality as the war continues to escalate.

The European Union ambassadors agreed on Tuesday to call for an initial assessment of Ukraine’s chances of joining the 27-nation bloc.

The EU leaders are now expected to discuss Ukraine’s prospects at a summit in Paris on March 10.