Shortcuts / 17 March 2022

Volodymyr Zelensky

Just a few years ago, Volodymyr Zelensky was a comedian and actor playing Ukraine’s president on television. Now, he’s a real-life wartime leader directing his country in its fight against a Russian invasion. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we look at Zelensky’s early life, his path into politics, and how he’s galvanised Ukrainians – and the West – behind resisting Russia.

Take me through Zelensky’s early life...
He was born in 1978 – which makes him 44yo – and he grew up in the working-class city of Kryvyi Rih in Central Ukraine, which was home to the country’s biggest steel mill.

What was his family like?
His father was a professor of mathematics and his mother was trained as an engineer. The family spoke Russian, as most families did in those parts given it was part of the Soviet Union.

Were they religious?
Well, Zelensky’s family is Jewish and many of his relatives were killed in the Holocaust as well as fighting the Nazis in the Red Army. But Zelensky said he grew up in an “ordinary Soviet Jewish family” – which is to say, they weren’t very religious.

Why is that?
Because, as Zelensky says, “religion didn’t exist in the Soviet state as such.”

Right. So it sounds like his family was pretty well off?
They were. Reports say Zelensky grew up in one of the more well-to-do suburbs in what was a pretty bleak city. But things got a lot worse after the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991 and his hometown saw an increase in petty crime and violence.

And did Zelensky get caught up in that?
No, he and his mates stayed out of it – he was more interested in playing the guitar. When he finished school, he gained a place at a local university to study law. And he also joined a sketch-comedy group.

Which sent him on a whole journey…
It did. Zelensky finished uni in his early 20s, but he fell in love with performing, which he did throughout Ukraine and Russia. And he went on to form a production company called known as ‘District 95’ in English after his old neighbourhood.

What kind of comedy did he do?
Let’s just put it this way – his humour was pretty bawdy. You can head to Google if you want to check it out…

Maybe I will… How successful was District 95?
It was a successful outfit and saw Zelensky become a pretty big deal too. He was staring in movies – mostly romantic comedies. And it wasn’t just acting and producing that he excelled at – Zelensky won Ukraine’s version of Dancing with the Stars in 2006.

Wow… So he was a pretty popular guy?
He was, but his biggest hit was yet to come – a sitcom called Servant of the People which first aired in 2015. Zelensky played a high school history teacher who delivers a big rant against corruption one day at school. That’s filmed by one of his students who posted it on YouTube, and long story short, he becomes President.

Life imitates art…
It sure does, and the TV series came at a time of political turbulence in the country.

What was happening?
So just to step back a bit, in 2013 President Viktor Yanukovych was in charge in Ukraine – he was backed by Russia and he rejected a deal that would see Ukraine become closer with the European Union.

How was that move received in Ukraine?
Not very well – it sparked mass protests and long story short, Yanukovych was run out of the country and replaced at an election in mid-2014 by Petro Poroshenko, who pledged to look West rather than east to Russia.

How did Russia react?
It wasn’t thrilled, and there has been ongoing fighting between the 2 countries since then.

Where does Zelensky come into it?
Well, when the next election came around in 2019, as Zelensky’s celebrity continued to rise, he decided to take a shot at politics.

What issues did he campaign on?
His campaign was actually quite radical – he didn’t take part in debates or publish a detailed policy platform. His main theme was to heal the relationship with Russia.

So what got him over the line?
A little star power might have helped… During the campaign he kept touring the country with his comedy show – and the 3rd series of Servant of the People dropped on Netflix in the days before the election, and he went on to win it – nearly three-quarters of voters backed him in the final round.

That’s pretty remarkable…
It was, and the kicker is that he named his political party ‘Servant of the People’ – and it became the first party to control both the legislature and executive branch of parliament.

How did Zelensky initially handle the country’s conflict with Russia?
He said his priority was peace – but he faced an obstacle in the country’s most important ally, America, when it froze aid worth nearly $400 million, most of it meant to shore up Ukraine’s military.

Why did the US do that?
It was a move mandated by then-US President Donald Trump, who was pressuring Zelensky to investigate his opponent Joe Biden’s son, Hunter.

I think I know where this is going, but please explain…
It’s a complex issue, but basically, when Joe Biden was Vice President under the Obama administration and had pushed Ukraine to fire a prosecutor who was seen as corrupt. At the same time, his son Hunter Biden was on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma.

How did that pan out?
The prosecutor was fired but said Joe Biden went after him because he had opened a case into corruption at Burisma. But the Bidens say they never discussed it.

Okay, but where does Trump come in?
So in a phone call in July 2019, he pressured Zelensky to open an investigation as Biden was shaping up as the favourite to be Democratic nominee for President. But when nothing happened, the aid was frozen.

Why was that?
Trump said that he had concerns about corruption in Ukraine and how that money might be spent. But there was the suggestion that the president sought to leverage congressionally-approved aid money to damage his rival.

It was a big deal, right?
You could say that – Trump was impeached by the House over it but not convicted in the Senate. And eventually, the $400 million in aid was released to Ukraine.

What did Zelensky have to say about that saga?
He was said to have felt corned by Trump’s demands. It was a steep learning curve for a guy who had no political background to encounter in his first weeks in office.

Plus he still had Russia to deal with…
Nice segue. So it was the end of 2019 when Zelensky first met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but no headway was made on the big issues like the annexation of Crimea and the Russian-backed areas in the east of Ukraine.

And no headway on Ukraine-Russia relations, either?
That’s right. And there were other issues too, like Putin’s concerns about NATO pushing east and his long-held belief that Ukraine and Russia are “one people” – those were all factors that saw Russian troops massing at the border late in 2021.

How did Ukraine deal with that new threat?
Well, Zelensky and his team took some convincing that Russia was getting ready to invade because they were used to things being tense…

Talk me through it…
At meetings between Kyiv and Washington, US intelligence officials and diplomats tried to convince Zelensky’s team of what they thought was about to happen. They backed up the warnings with satellite imagery of Russian hardware being stockpiled at the border, as well as intercepted communications.

Then things escalated…
They did, and on the early morning of 24 February – both Putin and Zelensky appeared on TV. Zelensky chose to speak directly to the Russian people saying he’d tried and failed to reach Putin, adding “You are told that these flames will bring freedom to Ukraine. But the people of Ukraine are already free. In attacking us, you will see our faces, not our backs.”

And he kept his word?
He did. There’s no doubt Russia has vastly superior forces – many of those have not yet been deployed. And with no on the ground military support, Zelensky transformed into a wartime leader appealing to his people to fight. Zelensky’s courage has become a symbol of the country’s broader will to fight.

How so?
He’s been very clever with his messaging. Zelensky went on camera to sign a formal application to join the European Union. He became the first foreign leader to address the EU parliament in a rousing address that got a standing ovation, and he’s also addressed the UK Parliament and the US Congress.

So he’s really working the virtual room…
He sure is – but there’s one thing his impressive comms can’t get him, and that’s military support from the US or NATO.

And that’s a bit tricky when you’re fighting against Russia…
It sure is. While about US$1 billion in weapons and ammunition has been promised to Ukraine by Western nations including Australia, it’s a big ask to expect them to hold out. That’s why there’s a lot of focus on talks and what settlement can be brokered

I’m sure I’ll be hearing from you again soon on how it all unfolds…
Undoubtedly. Until next time.

Squiz Shortcuts is your backstory to the big news stories.

Squiz recommends:

Watching: Zelensky on Dancing with the Stars

Reading: ‘The Betrayal of Volodymyr Zelensky’The Atlantic

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