Five things to know about Ukraine's President Zelensky

·4 min read

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is fast becoming a national and global hero as he attempts to rally his country in the face of invading Russian forces.

The former actor and comedian has released a series of videos in recent days urging Ukrainians to take up arms and reiterating his own refusal to flee despite being a top Kremlin target.

"I am here. We will not lay down any weapons. We will defend our state, because our weapons are our truth," he said in a video message.

Zelensky on Sunday said that Russia and Ukraine have entered the beginning stages of peace talks.

Here are five things to know about the Ukrainian leader.

Entertainment was path to prominence

Zelensky is Jewish and grew up in the southeastern part of Ukraine. His grandfather fought for the Soviet Union during World War II, while some other family members died during the Holocaust.

Upon graduating with a law degree, Zelensky entered the world of entertainment, beginning his career as an actor and comedian.

Zelensky rose to prominence as a star on the popular Ukrainian television program "Servant of the People," where he portrayed a beloved high school teacher who showed disdain for corrupt politicians and ended up becoming president of the country.

Zelensky also competed on Ukraine's version of "Dancing with the Stars" in 2006, and clips of his routines have gone viral on social media.

Campaigned on peace with Russia

Zelensky was elected president in 2019 after running on a campaign promising to negotiate peace with Russia and reduce the power of corrupt oligarchs who control much of Ukraine's economy.

Although he successfully negotiated a prisoner swap with pro-Russian separatists early in his presidency, diplomacy with Moscow stalled due to Russian President Vladimir Putin's demands that Ukraine stay out of Western alliances.

As tensions have escalated between Kyiv and Ukraine, Putin had accused Zelensky's government of being a pawn of the West.

Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, leading to the creation of two pro-Russian separatist regions and beginning an eight-year conflict that left 15,000 people dead.

Played key role in Trump impeachment

Zelensky become a household name in the U.S. for the role he played in the first impeachment of former President Trump.

During a 2019 phone conservation, Trump urged Zelensky to help investigate then-presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, who served on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company.

The phone call with Zelensky led Trump to be impeached by the House for using his office for political gain, as he also withheld $400 million in authorized military support for Ukraine.

Zelensky later said he did not want to get into the politics of other countries, refusing to criticize the call with Trump.

Criticized US warnings, response ahead of invasion

Amid the run-up to the invasion, Zelensky criticized the Biden administration's urgent warnings about Putin's plans, worrying they could unnecessarily stoke panic.

Zelensky's administration also complained the U.S. did not do more to protect Ukraine from the initial invasion such as bolstering its military forces and speeding up its application to be a NATO member.

The U.S. and its NATO allies issued firm warnings to Russia to deter an invasion and in the past week have issued harsh sanctions against Russian officials and banks.

Zelenky also reportedly shot down an offer from the U.S. to evacuate him from Ukraine on Saturday, saying he needed more ammunition, not a ride.

Garnered broad support from U.S. lawmakers

As Russian troops advance on key cities, Zelensky has seen vocal support from U.S. lawmakers across the political spectrum.

"Zelensky is a bigger man than Putin. The whole world knows. Russian army knows. Even the dictator's cronies know," Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) wrote in a tweet.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) tweeted a video of Zelensky addressing citizens from the streets of Kyiv.

During an appearance on NBC's "Meet The Press," Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) told host Chuck Todd that he has seen strong signs of unity for Ukraine, as 40 rallies were held across the country in solidarity for the country.

"The world is standing up, frankly, in ways I haven't seen since 9/11," Portman told Todd.