From Chaplin to Churchill: How Volodymyr Zelensky became savior of Ukraine
The Ukrainian president will give a speech to Congress on Wednesday
“I need ammunition, not a ride.”
So Volodymyr Zelensky told the White House in late February, as it offered to evacuate him from a country under siege by Russia. Now Zelensky has been given a ride on an American military plane to Washington, D.C. — to ask for more ammunition.
The man who was consigned to death or exile 10 months ago is today one of the world’s most recognizable and popular politicians. He is making his first trip out of Ukraine since the war, and only his second to the U.S. capital. On Wednesday, Zelensky will meet with President Biden in the Oval Office, then address a joint session of Congress. He will likely receive more standing ovations than any other foreign dignitary in recent memory.
Traveling the 4,880 miles from Kyiv to Washington may be a shorter distance than Zelensky has journeyed from just another faltering Ukrainian leader to Time magazine’s Person of the Year.
In December 2021, his domestic approval rating was 31%, an anemic figure but by no means uncharacteristic for a Ukrainian incumbent during peacetime. Olga Rudenko, editor of the Kyiv Independent, wrote in the New York Times on Feb. 21 that three days before the invasion, “the president’s performance — strained, awkward, often inappropriate — is hardly helping.”
In Washington, too, he was widely viewed as unseasoned, refractory and not likely to stand a chance against Vladimir Putin, the former KGB officer who was determined to conquer Ukraine, once a cornerstone of the Russian and Soviet empires. Many in the Biden administration were exasperated with Zelensky and his Cabinet in the lead-up to the war. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reportedly told a Ukrainian diplomatic delegation at the Pentagon on Feb. 22, “They’re going to roll into Kyiv in a few days. They’re coming in with tanks and columns of formations. You need to be ready for that. You need to be prepared. If you’re not, it’s going to be a slaughter.”
Now look: As of August, Zelensky’s job performance approval stood at 91%, remarkable for any wartime leader, much less one who’d driven the Russians out of Kyiv. That poll, moreover, didn’t account for his military’s stunning battlefield successes in the months since. Ukraine’s armed forces have reclaimed a total of 16,795 square miles of territory from Vladimir Putin’s retreating and demoralized soldiers, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a nonpartisan think tank, the equivalent of approximately half the land Russia once occupied.
And yet ... before the war, Kyiv was anticipated to fall within three days, according to the Russian General Staff and, indeed, many Western government officials and military analysts. Russian tanks would inevitably roll victoriously down Khreschatyk, the main thoroughfare. Today, the only Russian tanks anywhere in sight in the vicinity are burnt-out husks of metal, on display in Saint Michael’s Square, relics of Ukraine’s first strategic victory but also a warning that this nation should never again be underestimated.
Nor, it seems, should its president.
Zelensky’s entrance into politics was extraordinary even by contemporary standards, where former reality TV stars harness their celebrity to become commanders in chief. It is surreal to watch old clips of Zelensky the comedian, especially one who made the people trying to kill him laugh.
In 2013, Zelensky sang and danced on New Year’s Eve in Moscow, delighting Vladimir Solovyov, now one of Putin’s most slavish propagandists. On his nightly broadcast on his Russian state-owned Channel One talk show, Solovyov often describes Zelensky, a Jew, as a drug-addled “Nazi.”
Zelensky catapulted to national fame as the showrunner and protagonist of “Servant of the People,” a satirical television series in the mold of the HBO show “Veep.” He played Vasiliy Goloborodko, a well-meaning but frustrated school teacher in Kyiv whose eloquent rant against everyday corruption and dysfunction gets secretly recorded by his students. They upload it to the Internet and it goes viral. Goloborodko then finds himself the write-in winner of the country’s presidential election, making him Ukraine’s unlikeliest — yet most promising — chief executive.
Debuting in 2015, a year after Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine and its seizure of Crimea, “Servant of People” was full of jokes told not just at the expense of Ukraine’s oligarch-dominated and morally promiscuous political establishment but at the European Union, NATO and Putin. It ran for five seasons.
And so life seemed to imitate art in 2019 when Zelensky, capitalizing on his celebrity, won the actual Ukrainian presidency (his party is called Servant of the People) in a landslide, with more than 73% of the vote.
“Politics,” Frank Zappa once said, “is the entertainment branch of industry.” Zelensky has certainly marshaled his talents as a performer of stage and screen like few others in political history. (That his chief adviser, Andriy Yermak, is an entertainment lawyer, also helps.) A sense of professional solidarity prevails whenever Hollywood stars such as Sean Penn, Ben Stiller or Angelina Jolie pay homage to him in Kyiv. He is, after all, one of them, caught up in circumstances they could only ever imagine depicting in the movies. Politicians likewise clamor to be photographed with Zelensky, if not imitate his signature appearance. (See French President Emmanuel Macron donning a strikingly familiar sweatshirt in mid-March.)
It’s as if Charlie Chaplin, who knew a thing or two about humiliating dictators, was transformed into Winston Churchill, who famously mobilized language and sent it into battle.
For all that, even the Little Tramp never pantomimed tapping out the notes to “Hava Nagila” on a piano with his penis. And even the Last Lion might have envied Zelensky’s ability to scare up some of the most advanced American weapons systems, couched as a modern-day lend-lease, without giving up anything in return. In 1940, a year before the U.S. entry into World War II, Churchill resorted to bartering basing rights in British possessions around the world for 50 obsolescent American destroyers.
Zelensky arrives in Washington upon an announced $1.85 billion package of U.S. security assistance, on top of $23 billion already dispensed. The latest aid includes some of the most sophisticated Western military hardware supplied to Ukraine to date: the MIM-104 Patriot air defense system and JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munitions) precision-guided munition kits.
The JDAM kit enables “dumb,” unguided bombs to be converted into highly accurate, GPS-guided, smart munitions. Patriots can target aircraft and cruise missiles at ranges of up to 99 miles; they can also intercept the short-range ballistic missiles reportedly agreed to be supplied to Russia by Iran, something current Ukrainian air defense systems are mostly incapable of doing.
Admittedly, this aid package might well be the last such tranche of lethal aid that seamlessly flies through Congress. The House of Representatives will cease to be under Democratic control as of the New Year. It’s hard not to read into Zelensky’s surprise visit an implicit plea that a Republican-majority House — where anti-Ukraine if not vocally pro-Putin voices, such as that of Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, are ascendant — not to give up on helping him beat back Russian invaders.
After almost a year of nightly addresses, frontline visits and passionate advocation of the Ukrainian cause, Zelensky’s primary responsibility, of rallying his nation and others to the cause of self-defense, has been hugely successful.
Just yesterday, he made a surprise visit to quite a different place, the most dangerous city on earth. He toured Bakhmut, a fiercely contested settlement in the east of Ukraine, bestowing medals of honor on the brave Ukrainian defenders, who have held out for months against a merciless and devastating Russian onslaught.
The fighting in and around Bakhmut has been some of the most brutal of the war so far. Videos and photos released on social media show a hellscape of mud-filled trenches, shell-blasted skeletal trees and constant heavy artillery barrages from both sides, reminiscent of the western front during World War I. Russian forces, headed by the Wagner mercenary company, have taken heavy losses as they persist in making mostly futile assaults against heavily dug-in Ukrainian defenders. Russian corpses, as Yahoo News previously reported, are even being used as sandbags.
Zelensky is expected to present U.S. lawmakers with a Ukrainian flag he received in the city, signed by Ukrainian soldiers fighting to hold it.
“We will pass it on from the boys to the Congress, to the president of the United States,” he said in a video released by his office, hours after the gold-and-blue standard was received.