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Can Zelensky survive the stalemate?

Once feted for his showmanship, Ukraine’s president has become plagued by corruption scandals and military failures.

By Lindsey Hilsum

President Volodymyr Zelensky’s decision to stay in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv as the Russians attacked, rather than flee and form a government-in-exile, was the defining moment of his wartime leadership. His famous quip, “I need ammunition not a ride,” supposedly said to US president Joe Biden when the Americans offered him transport to safety, does not appear in The Showman; Inside the Invasion that Shook the World and Made a Leader of Volodymyr Zelensky. It is, presumably, apocryphal. But the act mattered more than the exact words. Zelensky’s resolve both galvanised and embodied the Ukrainian people’s determination to resist a Russian takeover.

I was in south-east Ukraine at the time. A soldier I met digging trenches near Zaporizhzhia told me he had joined up specifically because of Zelensky. “Our president is in Kyiv and it’s like a beacon that he’s still here,” he said. “When the first person of Ukraine tells the Russians that we’re going to protect our land, that we won’t give up any piece, it makes us feel strong.”

Simon Shuster – a staff writer for Time magazine who has spent 17 years reporting from Ukraine and Russia – provides a more intimate portrait of Zelensky than in previous accounts of the war. He has had backstage access, spending time with the Ukrainian president as the conflict unfolded and talking to his advisers and wife. The two men first met in 2019, five years after Russia annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Zelensky was still a satirist exposing the hypocrisy of Ukraine’s post-independence leaders, and was only just starting an election campaign that played out in real life like the plot of his comedy series Servant of the People, in which a teacher who complains about corruption is elected president. He won with more than 70 per cent of the vote. The book alternates between the drama of Zelensky’s life as a wartime leader, and his earlier experiences as a boy growing up under Soviet rule, before becoming a successful comedian and eventually a politician.

Back in 2019, according to Shuster, Zelensky seemed to think that being president would be like playing a part. “Maybe it was hubris, or maybe he was ignorant of what the job would take. But he seemed to believe that leadership would not require him to change.” As a comedian, Zelensky had mocked the trappings of power, including the heraldic tapestries and chandeliers in the presidential palace. On taking office, he was told that he couldn’t move the administration to a more modern building because it would cost too much and there was no bunker. He scoffed – the idea of Kyiv under bombardment was unthinkable. But three years later, he was living in the palace bunker, going for days with almost no sleep, the fate of the country on his narrow shoulders. Shuster gives us the details – Zelensky started each day with fried eggs and occasionally drank wine in the evenings even though the government had banned alcohol. For several weeks he rarely saw daylight. His aides eventually rigged up a small gym so he could work out between meetings with generals and aides, and calls with foreign leaders whose support he desperately needed. Only after the Ukrainian forces pushed the Russians back from the outskirts of the capital was he able to live above ground again.

Zelensky had become famous as a comedian not only in Ukraine but also in Russia. As a Russian-speaker, brought up in Soviet Ukraine, he felt comfortable in Moscow, where he lived for several years. He spoke up against the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, but ran for president on a platform of negotiating with Ukraine’s powerful neighbour.

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“Having learnt to make Russians laugh, he thought he could also make them listen,” Shuster writes. Putin’s description of the Ukrainian government as Nazi was absurd, not least because Zelensky is Jewish. But even after the full-scale invasion, the president favoured negotiations and suggested that Ukraine could forgo applying to join Nato – one of Russia’s main demands. Everything changed after Russian troops committed atrocities in Bucha and nearby towns in spring 2022. Zelensky grew angry and bitter. Finally, he understood that Putin would never accept that Ukraine was an independent country, not “little Russia” as it had been seen during Soviet times and under the Russian empire. The Ukrainian government passed a law banning any talks with Putin. “Zelensky grew up believing that the Soviet Union deserved respect and admiration”, but this did not survive the war, writes Shuster. Zelensky tells him, “Now I feel revulsion toward everything linked to the past.”

[See also: Who is winning?]

This is not a hagiography – Shuster admires Zelensky but also highlights the naivety with which he initially assessed Putin, his limited regard for freedom of speech and the “high-handedness” with which he sometimes treats political opponents and even his family. When he decided to run for president against the wishes of his wife, Olena Zelenska, Zelensky announced his candidacy by video without telling her – she found out the next morning when friends who had seen it messaged her. She tells Shuster that it didn’t matter, because there was nothing she could have done to change his mind anyway, but the omission signified more than single-mindedness or a power imbalance within a marriage. “It would later become a pattern in his administration,” Shuster writes. “Those who questioned or opposed Zelensky’s plans often found themselves pushed to the periphery.” TV stations run by pro-Russian parties have been banned, and Zelensky recently barred his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, from leaving the country.

Conventional thinking would have it that a background in the military or in diplomacy would have been the best preparation for the role of wartime leader – when Russia invaded, Zelensky’s “experience as a statesman added up to about two years and nine months, less than the time it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree in international affairs”. But this is the 21st century when communication is king, and Zelensky knew how to convey a message and keep his nerve under pressure. “It was the showmanship he honed over more than 20 years as an actor on the stage and a producer in the movie business that made Zelensky so effective in fighting this war – a war that required Ukraine not only to hold the world’s attention but to win the sympathy of people and their governments across the globe.” In one of the most revealing encounters in the book, Shuster mentions Winston Churchill as a model wartime leader – but Zelensky is more interested in discussing Charlie Chaplin, who he says “used the weapon of information during the Second World War to fight against fascism”. Artists, he thought, had played a critical role in winning the war. “Their influence was often stronger than artillery,” he says.

Of course, Zelensky’s effectiveness in mobilising international support has depended on battlefield success, due, in large part, to General Valery Zaluzhny, commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces. Zelensky appointed him in 2021 over older, more experienced officers who had come up through the ranks during the Soviet period. The tension between the two men was apparent from the moment Western intelligence agencies warned that the Russian military build-up on Ukraine’s borders was not a bluff. Zelensky, concerned about tanking the economy and precipitating an exodus of capital and people, blocked Zaluzhny from deploying forces and making overt preparations, a mistake that allowed the Russians to occupy parts of south-east Ukraine. After the war began, Zelensky was initially careful to stick to his role of communicator-in-chief, leaving military strategy to Zaluzhny, but the tension has remained, not least because the army chief is also young and charismatic and has a growing following. Zelensky’s people have tried to keep him behind the scenes. “They act like we can only have one hero and that’s Zelensky,” a Ukrainian journalist grumbles to Shuster.

Eventually it became clear that battlefield victories could not be separated from communication and diplomacy. In the summer of 2022, Zaluzhny wanted to prepare for a counter-offensive in the south-east, the gateway to Crimea. Although it would not yield quick results, it was essential for ultimate victory. Zelensky said no. They should counter-attack north-east of Kharkiv, which was less important strategically, but where they might get quick wins that would encourage their Western backers to provide more weapons. The general was right militarily, but wrong politically. Zelensky got his way, and the sweeping gains Ukrainian forces made convinced the Americans to give them more modern longer-range artillery, which would enable them to push further in the next phase of the war.

The book ends before the failed counter-offensive of last summer, and before Zaluzhny’s comment in November that the conflict was at a “stalemate” – an assessment that earned him a public rebuke from Zelensky, who knows that Western support is wavering and that without it all the progress that has been made will be lost. When I saw Zelensky’s old comedy troupe, Kvartal 95, perform in the Dnipro subway (which doubled as a bomb shelter) in April 2022, the humour was patriotic and the jokes about their former member kind. But the mood has darkened over Ukraine. The Russians have learned from their early battlefield errors, and are pummelling Ukrainian cities with missiles and armed drones. Stories have emerged of irregularities in military procurement and recruitment – the war masked but did not end the corruption that Zelensky was elected to tackle.

This year Ukraine is scheduled to go to the polls, but elections can’t take place under martial law, and the president has indicated they will be delayed. Changing a successful wartime leader who has gained the admiration of the world would be a risky move, but can Zelensky keep going under the stress of this new and even more difficult phase in the conflict? The early days of the war, when David was slaying Goliath, and an untested young president gave his people a seemingly miraculous determination to resist aggression, seem long past.

In the first few hours of the war Zelensky spoke to his people – a clean-shaven youthful-looking 44-year-old with an unlined face, in a dark suit and tie. On New Year’s Eve 2023, 676 days later, as Ukraine approached the second anniversary of the full-scale Russian invasion, he addressed his nation again. Sitting at a desk in his wood-panelled office, against a backdrop showing the chevrons of Ukraine’s different brigades, he looked gaunt, brow furrowed, dark beard trimmed, wearing his military-style dark khaki sweatshirt. In the husky voice to which Ukrainians have become accustomed, he said: “The war taught us a lot. It showed us a lot. It did a lot to us, changed us.”

His countrymen and women were motivated to resist the Russians not only by patriotism and collective responsibility, he said, but by the need to face themselves in the mirror. He respected, “those who proved: I am stronger than fear. Those who proved: I am stronger than doubts. Because I know that one day I will have to ask myself: who am I? To make a choice about who I want to be. A victim or a winner?” He could have been talking about himself. Maybe he was.

Lindsey Hilsum is the author of “In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin” (Chatto & Windus)

The Showman: The Inside Story of the Invasion That Shook the World and Made a Leader of Volodymyr Zelensky
Simon Shuster
William Collins, 384pp, £22

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[See also: The Wizard of the Kremlin takes us inside the mind of Putin’s spin-master]

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This article appears in the 31 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Rotten State