Over the past 18 months, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has become one of the most famous men on the planet. Acting as his country’s chief diplomat, he has effectively argued Ukraine’s case on the world stage, winning support in North America, Europe, and Asia.
Zelensky’s ascent was rapid. He rose to leadership of Ukraine from an entertainment background. He was made the center of the first impeachment of President Donald Trump in the United States, but in February 2022 he became the global symbol of Ukrainian resistance.
But what do Ukrainians think of the man? Public opinion polls suggest that Zelenskyy remains immensely popular, notwithstanding some discontent about the conduct of the summer 2023 counteroffensive. On a recent trip to Ukraine, I had the opportunity to meet with a number of Ukrainians and discuss with them the course of the war. One of the questions I wanted to ask is, “What do you think about your President?”
The answers and the context for the answers are not what you might expect.
The Absent Cult of Personality
To begin with, images of Zelensky are very nearly absent from Ukrainian public space. There are no posters of the president, no streaming videos, and as of yet no statues. The only time I ever saw his face on a t-shirt was in a tourist shop. There seems to be a self-conscious understanding that a cult of personality is not compatible with the democracy that Ukrainians are trying to build.
More than one Ukrainian suggested that the health of the country’s democracy depended on its ability to elect a new president to handle the problems that would come to the fore in the war’s wake. Ukrainians remember the disappointment of the first half of Zelesnky’s term — his inability to get corruption under control, his failure to get a firm commitment of support from the West, and the inability to come to a lasting peace with Russia. Indeed, most of the Ukrainians I spoke to doubted that Zelensky would be able to solve the country’s post-war problems, which, in addition to the above, will include a massive reconstruction effort.
The Churchill Comparison
This is not to say that Zelensky is unpopular. Among people I spoke to, there was effectively universal acclaim for the president’s role as a war leader. His decision to remain in Kyiv on February 24 is viewed by many as being key to Ukraine’s national survival. Had he fled, the defense of Kyiv might have collapsed, and Russia might have accomplished its war aims on or near its preferred timetable.
The book on Zelensky’s war leadership has yet to be written. We will need much more information about Ukrainian civil-military relations, and about Zelenskyy’s input on specific decisions. But Ukrainians give him high marks for establishing and maintaining the country’s diplomatic profile in Europe, America, and elsewhere.
Much of this praise was muted, which seems odd in the context of his continued high approval ratings. A couple of Ukrainians made the comparison with Winston Churchill, but they were always careful to explain the totality of that comparison. Winston Churchill was wrong about a great many things in his career and right about one big thing, but the big thing turned out to be the biggest thing of all. Churchill (notwithstanding his errors) was perhaps necessary to British survival in World War II, for which his place in history is secure. When the war was over, the British electorate turned him out in favor of a government that constituents believed would be better able to handle the duties of peacetime reconstruction.
Left mostly unspoken is the other dynamic that might leave Zelensky a one-term president: the idea that peace will come at an enormous political cost to whichever Ukrainian leader signs a cease-fire with Russia. Although few Ukrainians seem willing to discuss it openly, there is an underlying sense that recapturing every inch of Ukrainian territory may not, given the costs, be strictly necessary to the survival and prosperity of the state.
Understanding this at a gut level is different, however, than seeing it put into practice. Zelensky’s greatest act of statesmanship might be to conclude a peace with Moscow that leaves the Russians with some of the territory they took over in 2014 and 2022. This act, however, would come at tremendous political cost and might result in an otherwise grateful electorate turning its back on him.
Accomplished and Young
Volodymyr Zelensky is all of 45 years old, yet he has become one of the most consequential statesmen on the global stage. If he survives the war, he will have decades to secure his legacy, in contrast to the geriatric leaderships of China, Russia, and the United States. That legacy may or may not be built inside Ukraine. His tenure as president might last only as long as the war, but Zelensky is likely to cut an important figure as an international statesman, whether or not he remains at the head of the Ukrainian government.
It surely speaks well of Ukraine’s commitment to democracy that its people are already contemplating replacement of the wartime government. The Ukrainians I spoke to were careful but insistent upon drawing the contrast with Russia. Ukrainians do not want a Putin-like figure. They want a democracy that will hear and heed their voices, notwithstanding all of the mess that democracy entails. If Ukraine wins this war, Zelensky will always hold a place of honor for helping to preserve that democracy.
About the Author
Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020), and most recently Waging War with Gold: National Security and the Finance Domain Across the Ages (Lynne Rienner, 2023). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.