How Zelenskyy ended political discord and put Ukraine on a war footing
By Andrew E. Kramer
Russian tanks were rolling over the border and Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, was in the grips of fear and panic. Street fighting broke out and a Russian armored column, barreling into the city, advanced to within two miles of the office of President Volodymyr Zelensky.
In those tense first days of the war, almost everyone — Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, military analysts and many Western officials — expected the Ukrainian leadership to fracture. Instead, Mr. Zelensky decided to personally remain in the capital, taking selfies as he traversed Kyiv to reassure his people. And he ordered his senior aides, many Cabinet members and much of his government to also stay put, despite the risks.
It was a crystallizing moment for Mr. Zelensky’s government, ensuring a wide array of agencies kept running efficiently and in sync. Leading politicians put aside the sharp-elbowed infighting that had defined Ukrainian politics for decades and instead created a largely united front that continues today.
No senior officials defected or fled, and the bureaucracy quickly went onto a war footing.
“In the first days of the war, everybody was in shock, and everybody was thinking what to do — stay in Kyiv or evacuate,” said Serhiy Nikiforov, Mr. Zelensky’s spokesman. “The president’s decision was no one goes anywhere. We stay in Kyiv, and we fight. That cemented it.”
To much of the world, Mr. Zelensky is best known for appearing by video link with a daily message of courage and defiance, to rally his people and exhort allies to provide weapons, money and moral support. On Sunday he commanded global attention again in a meeting in Kyiv with two top American officials, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, who pledged more military support and — in a move of symbolic importance — said the United States would move to reopen its embassy in Kyiv.
But behind the scenes, Mr. Zelensky’s success so far is also rooted in the government’s ability to operate smoothly and take measures to help people cope, such as sweeping deregulation to keep the economy afloat, and to provide essential goods and services.
By loosening rules around transporting cargo, for instance, the government was able to address a dire risk of food shortages in Kyiv, the capital, in the early days of the war. And in March he dropped business taxes to 2 percent — and then only if the owner wanted to pay.
“Pay if you can but if you cannot there are no questions asked,” Mr. Zelensky said at the time.
More contentiously, he combined six television stations that previously competed against one another into one outlet for news. The merger, he said, was necessary for national security, but it frustrated political opponents and free speech advocates.
He has also forged a truce with his primary domestic political opponent, former President Petro O. Poroshenko, with whom he had been feuding right up until the start of the war.
A tremendous wartime effect of rallying around the flag undoubtedly eased Mr. Zelensky’s job, said Volodymyr Yermolenko, editor in chief of Ukraine World, a magazine covering politics. “The peculiar thing about Ukrainian politics is the agency comes from society, not the political leaders,’’ he said. “Zelensky is who he is due to the Ukrainian people, who are behind him, showing courage.”
He added that, “this is not to undermine his efforts” and credited Mr. Zelensky for adapting his populist, prewar politics into an effective leadership style in the crucible of conflict.
These days Mr. Zelensky’s workplace on Bankova Street is a hushed, darkened space crowded with soldiers; there are firing positions protected by sandbags in the corridors and on stairway landings. “We were prepared to fight exactly in this building,” said Mr. Nikiforov.
A former comedic actor, the Ukrainian leader has surrounded himself with a group of loyalists from his days in television, relationships that prompted accusations of cronyism in the past but that have served him well during the conflict by keeping his leadership team on the same page. And Mr. Zelensky has structured his days in a way that works for him.
Mr. Zelensky receives one-on-one phone briefings from Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, the commander of the armed forces, multiple times a day and often first thing in the morning, aides and advisers said.
This is followed by a morning video conference with the prime minister, sometimes other members of the Cabinet, and military and intelligence agency leaders in a format that combines military and civilian decision making, according to Mr. Nikiforov, his spokesman.
To be sure, Mr. Zelensky’s video addresses — to the U.S. Congress, to the British Parliament, to the Israeli Knesset and other governments — remain the defining and most effective element of his wartime role. The Ukrainian and Russian armies are still in pitched battles in the eastern plains, but in the information war Kyiv has clearly won.
Delivered with passion by a former actor with a keen sense of narrative and drama, Mr. Zelensky’s speeches have rallied his countrymen and galvanized international support.