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The rising tensions between Ukraine and Russia have made headlines for months. But strangely enough, the discourse around an impending invasion has mostly focused on, and ascribed agency to, non-Ukrainians – Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S President Joe Biden, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and assorted EU functionaries. The conflict has been portrayed as one between Russia and the West, with Ukraine painted as a mere battleground. But now, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (44) has come to the centre stage. Over the past fortnight, Mr. Zelensky has repeatedly asked world leaders to tone down the war rhetoric, even going to the extent of suggesting that the U.S. is creating unnecessary panic. Commenting on the Russian troop build-up of 100,000 soldiers, described by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg as “unusual”, he said: “The risks have not just existed for a day, and they have not become bigger. The only thing that has become bigger is the hype around them.”
While NATO and the U.S. seem to believe that Russia has enough firepower on the ground to launch an invasion in February, Mr. Zelensky believes Mr. Putin hasn’t made up his mind to invade. He believes Russia’s real plan is not to invade but to destabilise Ukraine internally. He has harped on how the ‘panic’ fomented by the West is harming Ukraine’s economy, raising borrowing costs, spooking investors. The very day Mr. Biden warned that a Russian attack was imminent, Zelensky posted a video message asking everyone to “calm down”. Playing down the risks of a Russian invasion is at odds with the rhetoric of his Western allies. So why is Mr. Zelensky doing it? Some analysts believe it could be from a calculation that the West might use the heightened threat perception as leverage to negotiate a deal with Moscow that Ukraine may not like but be forced to go with. At the same time, those who have tracked Mr. Zelensky’s public life for long aren’t overly surprised by his positions.
Mr. Zelensky was a comedian whose TV show, ‘Servant of the People’, revolved around a school teacher who becomes President. He rode the popularity of his comedy show to become a presidential candidate. As an outsider with no political track record or party affiliation, he ran on a plank of vague populism. His election campaign was almost entirely online — with no rallies, speeches, press conferences or travel across the country. But Ukrainians, many projecting the image of his television persona onto his political self, voted to make him President in 2019, preferring him to the incumbent Petro Poroshenko, who became identified with the corrupt oligarchic elite.
As President, Mr. Zelensky, belying expectations that he would assemble a team of competent professionals to run the government, appointed members of his comedy studio to key positions. Ivan Bakanov, who used to be director of Kvartal 95, Mr. Zelensky’s production company, heads Ukraine’s Security Service. The head of the presidential administration, Andriy Yermak, is a movie producer. Serhiy Shefir, the chief presidential adviser, is a screenwriter.
In October 2021, notwithstanding his strident anti-corruption rhetoric, Mr. Zelensky faced embarrassing questions when his own name cropped up in the Pandora Papers as one of the beneficiaries. The network of offshore holdings closely tracked Mr. Zelensky’s own loyalist network of showbiz professionals-turned- political aides.
In recent times, Mr. Zelensky has been accused of turning authoritarian. He has launched criminal proceedings against independent journalists. In February 2021, the government shut down several pro-Russia media outlets. And there is a pronounced trend of labelling critics as “pro-Russian”. The U.S. and Europe, driven primarily by strategic concerns, could be overstating the democratic credentials of the Zelensky regime in an attempt to occupy the moral higher ground against the depredations of Mr. Putin. Ukraine under Mr. Zelensky, though formally democratic, remains closer to the stereotype of a former Soviet republic trapped in the oligarch-authoritarian nexus. While reading Mr. Putin’s mind is notoriously difficult, Mr. Zelensky’s shifting stances suggest some helpful clues may well lie in Ukraine’s domestic politics.