- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had little political experience when he was elected in 2019.
- But throughout his three-year tenure, the president has “matured,” according to a former aide.
- Even skeptical Ukrainians who didn’t vote for Zelenskyy have been swayed by his wartime resilience.
A former aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the one-time comedian has matured during his three years as president, becoming the best leader Ukraine could ask for amid the current political and military challenges of the ongoing war.
Elected to office in April 2019, Zelenskyy’s tenure has been plagued by crisis since the start.
Iuliia Mendel, a Ukrainian journalist who served as press secretary for Zelenskyy from June 2019 to July 2021, told Insider that the president has had to deal with “so many crazies” during his short time in office.
From the 2019 Donald Trump-Ukraine scandal to the coronavirus pandemic, Mendel said Zelenskyy’s term has been “not that easy of a presidency to have.” And that’s, of course, before accounting for the large-scale invasion Russia launched against Ukraine earlier this year that has resulted in thousands of deaths and wide-scale destruction.
Prior to his presidency, Zelenskyy was best known for his role as an entertainer. A former comedian and actor, he played the Ukrainian president on TV and had a winning stint on Ukraine’s version of Dancing with the Stars.
While he earned a law degree from Kyiv National Economic University in 2000, Zelenskyy was relatively inexperienced in politics at the start of his presidency.
“President Zelenskyy tried to open social elevators to give more space for talent from different spheres in the government of Ukraine, which was a pretty new and different approach,” Mendel told Insider.
Mendel came to the administration via a competition Zelenskyy held to find his press secretary. She beat out 4,000 other contestants to nab the role as the president’s primary spokesperson.
But despite his early efforts to diversify his administration, Zelenskyy and his team struggled at the start, according to Mendel: “I think they had, at the very beginning, a lot of misunderstanding of what politics is.”
A ‘showman’ becomes a president
Some Ukrainians were skeptical about Zelenskyy’s lack of political experience. Sergey Osyka, a 57-year-old father who fled his home in Kharkiv during the first week of the war, was one of them.
In an interview with Insider that was translated by his son Bogdan, Sergey said he didn’t vote for Zelenskyy, who was 41 when he was elected.
“He’s a showman and a young guy,” Sergey thought. “What does he have to offer to Ukraine?”
Although Zelenskyy handily won the election, his approval ratings were not that of a popular president before Russia’s invasion. In December 2021, only 31% of Ukrainians approved of the job Zelenskyy was doing, according to national polling by the Ratings Sociological Group.
But low approval ratings and cumulative crises were no match for Zelenskyy’s perseverance, Mendel said.
“He is the person who never gives up. It is one of his principles,” she said, adding that when it’s not clear how to proceed “he will say let’s start from the beginning.”
The president’s tenacity was tested when Russian forces invaded Ukraine in the early hours of February 24 and eventually descended on the suburbs of Kyiv. With missiles striking the capital, Zelenskyy stayed put, delivering daily updates from an undisclosed underground shelter in Kyiv, even as he said Russia had marked him as “enemy number one.”
“I stay in the capital, I stay with my people…And I will stay in the capital,” he said in an address on the first day of war.
He hasn’t left the country since.
“He wasn’t afraid. He didn’t escape,” Mendel told Insider. “Though I’m sure no one would accuse him if he did.”
Zelenskyy’s decision to remain in Ukraine won him favor across the world, including at home
Sergey told Insider he had started coming around to the president even before the war as he noticed there were no reports of Zelenskyy engaging in corruption, an issue that has plagued Ukraine since it gained independence in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union.
But Zelenskyy’s handling of the war has left Sergey with an entirely new sense of pride in Ukraine’s leader. He credits the president with the shows of resistance that have been displayed by Ukrainian civilians, soldiers, and public officials.
“The fact that the society is united is the result of his work and his influence,” Sergey said, adding that now he feels a little bad admitting he did not vote for Zelenskyy.
Zelenskyy’s decision to remain in Ukraine, and the resolve it may have inspired in many Ukrainians, has likely had a significant impact on the war, according to Daniel Treisman, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose work focuses on Russian politics and economics.
“If he had run away, the war may have been quite different,” Treisman told Insider last month as Russian forces retreated from Kyiv, adding that Russian President Vladimir Putin may have underestimated Zelenskyy.
Had Zelenskyy fled the country, Treisman said, there would still have been strong resistance to the invasion, but it likely wouldn’t have been as coordinated: “Zelenskyy played a crucial role in this.”
Sergey said Zelenskyy’s bravery and leadership have inspired and unified Ukrainians, and he joked that citizens of other countries may even be jealous that they have him as their president.
“We feel about him the way the whole Western society feels about him,” he said. “He is a symbol of Ukrainian victory and unification.”
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