Cometh the hour, cometh the hero. One week into the Ukrainian war, Vladimir Putin may have the upper hand in terms of military hardware, but it is the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, who has already won the war of hearts and minds.
Once dismissed as a lightweight figure, a former actor who had somehow chanced his way to the top on the back of a popular TV series, the voice of Paddington Bear (in the Ukrainian version of the movie) has unleashed his inner roar. In this narrative-driven, Netflix era, the former thespian has given the definitive performance of what leadership under duress should be.
When Russian state propaganda claimed he had fled in the first few days of the conflict, Zelensky swiftly took to Twitter and fired off a video of himself, outside a famous Kyiv building, to prove that he had not. When the US offered to whisk him out of the country, he shot back with the brilliant one-liner: “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
The need for heroes rests deep within us, and the tale of the underdog taking on the monster – which Zelensky is now playing out – is one of the oldest narratives of all. It is there in the Epic of Gilgamesh, Theseus and the Minotaur, David and Goliath, Churchill vs Hitler and Luke Skywalker taking on Darth Vader. In the blockbuster-fication of global politics, Zelensky now finds himself cast in the role of James Bond to Putin’s Blofeld. And it is a part he was made to play.
The problem is that the current conflict is not fiction. And even as we heap praise on the embattled Ukrainian leader, we would be wise to remember that.
Because the thermobaric vacuum bomb dropped on the Ukrainian army base in the north-eastern town of Okhtyrka was no special effect. The 70 soldiers who died in the blast were not extras. Polina, the teenage schoolgirl murdered alongside her parents in Kyiv on 26 February, had her whole life stretching out before her. And the 60-kilometre convoy heading towards Kyiv is as tangible as Putin, who in turn poses a real and present threat to world peace.
Whatever outcome we might all desperately desire, we cannot will a happy ending any more than we can write it.
The unfortunate reality is that Russia still has the upper hand – and if history teaches us anything, it is that very often the bad guys win. Without a concerted global effort of the sort that cannot wait two weeks, all of the hope and defiance that Zelensky encapsulates could turn to dust, and his country could tumble into years of bloody, protracted war.
The Ukrainian president is as savvy as he is brave. He knows that his charisma alone cannot protect him and his family from the Russian kill squads that are hunting them. He also knows that despite all the sanctions, all the kind words and promises of arms, he ultimately stands very much alone against the very real Russian monster.
Zelensky is hugely deserving of all the praise being heaped on him – but he and his people don’t need praise, they need practical and immediate help.
[See also: Valiant Ukrainians put much of Europe to shame]