How Zelensky Rallied Ukrainians, and the World, Against Putin

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Before Russia invaded Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky was often derided as a comic turned unlikely politician. But with the help of social media, he has become the leader Ukraine did not know it needed.

Dressed in an army-green T-shirt or fleece, unshaven and wan, Mr. Zelensky has inspired Ukrainians to fight for their country — and Europeans to see Ukraine in a different light, as a victim of aggression fighting bravely for independence, freedom and democracy.

Mr. Zelensky’s decision to remain in the capital, Kyiv, while it’s under Russian attack — and his family’s decision to stay in Ukraine — has moved many, particularly in contrast to the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, who fled Kabul as soon as the Taliban were on the outskirts, demoralizing what was left of the Afghan army.

He and his team have also made excellent use of social media, with impassioned speeches showing his presence on the streets of Kyiv going viral. Ordinary Ukrainians are reporting on events in Ukraine on TikTok, and some people are making videos hailing Mr. Zelensky and showing Ukrainians doing what they can to push back Russians — filling bottles meant for Molotov cocktails, volunteering to fight, being issued with automatic weapons and vowing to defend their country.

Mr. Zelensky’s response to a reported American offer to evacuate him — “I need ammunition, not a ride” — will most likely go down in Ukrainian history whether he survives this onslaught or not

But Mr. Zelensky has also inspired European leaders to do more for Ukraine. Appearing onscreen during the emergency summit meeting of European Union leaders three days ago, on Feb. 24, he gave a passionate 10-minute speech that moved some reluctant leaders to endorse a harsher package of economic sanctions on Russia, a senior European official said.

His intervention will be part of history, said the official, who was in the room. It was very emotional, leaders were deeply affected.

The silence in the room was impressive and the impact was clear, the official added, and it was his impression that it made a major difference in persuading more reluctant countries, like Germany, Italy and Hungary, to agree to tougher financial and banking sanctions and the delivery of defensive weapons to Ukraine.

“This may be the last time you see me alive,” Mr. Zelensky said.

Mr. Zelensky’s actions and the tough resistance efforts from ordinary Ukrainian men and women — slowing down the Russian advance and volunteering to fight with automatic weapons — have also had an important impact on European opinion, European officials say, making it easier for their leaders to be bolder and to more freely accept refugees coming their way from Ukraine.


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