Ukrainian Independence after 1991

Chapter 6: The Rise of Volodymyr Zelenskyy

Owen Griffith, Kwesi Asiedu, and Pete Stanger

By Owen Griffith, Pete Stanger, and Kwesi Asiedu

Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s road to presidency can only be described as unique, from his heavily Soviet influenced upbringing, which goes against everything he currently stands for and is fighting against, to his early career choices in entertainment. As a kid his focus was always more on the stage than anything else. He spent his early working years focused on entertainment and bringing others joy. He would go on to be the creator of a touring comedy group, Kvartal 95, as well as an actor. From this unique upbringing, in terms of politics, he was able to develop many different skills, such as bringing people together, that would be critical for his future in politics and as the president of a country going through tough war times and is doing his best to rid his country’s government of corruption. within the government and people around him.

After being born in the industrial city of Kryvyi Rih in Soviet Ukraine on January 25,1978, Zelensky and his family moved to Erdenet, Mongolia, where he spent the first four years of his life. When his mother became ill due to the cold, his parents decided that they would move back to Russian-speaking Kryvyi Rih, which at the time had a population of just under 688,000. The city is about 450 km southeast of Kyiv in central Ukraine. It is the longest city in Europe currently at one hundred kilometers long and only twenty wide. It was a rough place to grow up in for Zelensky; it was a very diverse and industrialized soviet city filled with corruption. Zelensky gained some skills from this tough background though with great “street smarts” to go along with some grit which would prove to be helpful in his political career.

Being from a heavily Russian-speaking city in Eastern Ukraine, Zelensky experienced childhood like millions of other children socialized in the Soviet educational system. Students wore school uniforms with red scarfs to show their support for communist ideals, and the school administration and teachers were very strict:, kids could get in trouble for just a small wrinkle in their uniforms, and something as small as smiling in a school picture could be seen as a mockery of the communist system. Like all schoolchildren, he belonged to communist youth organization known as “October’s Children” (Oktiabriata).Growing up Volodymyr was an outgoing and charismatic child. Despite his small stature, he and his friends would frequently get into street fights. He and his peers were also known for going into the town courtyard and singing their favorite rock songs on the “stage.” Growing up he was not able to do what he loved in school though as he grew up his education was very politically focused until right around christmas time when he was 13 when the fall of the Soviet Union happened. Zelenksy’s childhood friend Zenys Manzhosov stated suddenly it all just ended overnight.Zelensky would end up going to an economic institute and graduating with a law degree in 2000, but he knew that was not his true calling. While he was studying at the economic institute he became active in their theater program and would shift his focus. He would never end up working in the field of law as in 2003 created a comedy group called Kvartal 95 (Quarter 95) which would tour around what used to be the Soviet Union and his home country of Ukraine. From this newfound success in comedy space he would be cast in a number of rom coms and situation comedies, one of which, Servant Of The People, would play a pivotal role in his future political career. In the series he plays a high school history teacher who unwittingly becomes the President of Ukraine after one of his rants against corruption goes viral on social media. In this role he made a mockery of current Ukrainian politicians, calling them out for corruption as well as their policy decisions. This is the role he would be most known for in his entertainment career. Unexpectedly, the plot would eventually become quite realistic, as it is very similar to the state of Ukraine when Zelensky was elected president. Some Ukrainian report that having seen Zelensky in the role of president made them realize that they felt comfortable seeing him in the position. He was a relatable figure, which can be rare in
politics, and he was able to use his popularity from the series to his political advantage.

Zelensky’s early childhood RBC 24th July 2019

A political outsider who was known primarily as a comedy actor throughout his career, Zelensky defeated the incumbent president Petro Poroshenko in the 2019 presidential elections in Ukraine. Zelesnky was able to secure 73.2 % of the vote in the parliamentary elections — an astounding margin of victory indicating that the electorate of Ukraine was dissatisfied with the status quo, despite Poroshenko’s political platform of stronger integration with Europe. Zelensky’s campaign was centered on, according to Harvard Professor Serhii Plokhy, bringing lasting peace to Ukraine. For Zelensky, this meant bringing the conflict in Donbas to an end and Ukraine eventually becoming a part of NATO.“We will continue in the direction of the Minsk peace talks and head toward concluding a cease fire.”(Plokhy 139). In Zelensky’s view, ending the conflict in Donbas would mean making a deal with the authoritarian Russian leader, Vladimir Putin—an unseemly proposition, but one that he was willing to pursue in the name of lasting peace. Despite the cease fire that would have potentially ended the war being unsuccessful due to Putin pressuring Ukraine that they would not accept an agreement to end the war unless, Ukraine implemented reforms to their country, the agreement established Zelensky as a tough figure who wouldn’t allow Putin and the Russians to bully him and his people.

Although he had no political experience, Zelensky understood the frustration of the Ukrainian people with election fraud since Ukraine’s establishment as an independent state in 1991.The populace had staged mass protests against falsified elections in what has come to be known as the Orange Revolution of 2004, in which the Russian-backed candidate Victor Yanokovych was proclaimed the victorious against Western-leaning Victor Yuschenko in an election that was later proven to be blatantly rigged. It was not until mass political protests erupted in Ukraine, that they conducted a recount and proclaimed Yushenko the winner.

Yanukovych came back to Ukrainian politics and became the leader of Ukraine in 2010. In 2014, the same year in which Victor Yanukovych was ousted out for refusing to sign a treaty that would bring Ukraine to the European Union, it was discovered that Yanukovych’s administration was very corrupt. “Yanukovych was known for his thuggish behavior and obsession with money.” (Walker Shaun “Viktor Yanukovych boasted of Ukraine corruption, says Mikheil Saakashvili” Guardian 25th February 2014). With that being said, the number one important thing that was probably on every Ukrainian citizen’s mind, was fighting corruption. Zelensky believed that he could be the leader to bring anti-corruption out of the Ukrainian political system as the country was in the process of coming back together following the Revolution of Dignity.

After being sworn into office on May 20, 2019, Zelensky faced his first foreign policy challenge when Russia’s president Vladimir Putin put forth an initiative on April 27, 2019 that would give Russian passports to citizens of Ukraine living in the worn-torn areas in Donbas being held by Russian separatists. “Zelensky did not expect his first round of peace talks with Russia that began in December of 2019, would end the conflict in Donbas.” By 2019, the number of casualties in the conflict in Donbas was 13,000.

Zelensky made a name for himself in the United States in September 2019, when it was revealed by a whistleblower that he engaged in a phone call with then U.S President Donald Trump on July 25, 2019, just days after the July 21 parliamentary elections in Ukraine that swept Zelensky’s party, Servant of the People, had been swept into power, winning 254 of 450 seats.. In the July 25 telephone conversation betweenTrump and Zelensky, Trump asked Zelensky to do him a favor by providing damaging information on Hunter Biden, son of Joe Biden. Transcripts of the call signal an initial lack of clarity in Trump’s proposition and a deep interest on Zelensky’s part to forge closer ties with the United States.President Trump: I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike… I guess you have one of your wealthy people… The server, they say Ukraine has it. There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation. I think you’re surrounding yourself with some of the same people. I would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it. As you saw yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance, but they say a lot of it started with Ukraine. Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible. President Zelensky: I would also like and hope to see him having your trust and your confidence and have personal relations with you so we can cooperate even more so. I will personally tell you that one of my assistants spoke with Mr. Giuliani just recently and we are hoping very much that Mr. Giuliani will be able to travel to Ukraine and we will meet once he comes to Ukraine. I just wanted to assure you once again that you have nobody but friends around us. I will make sure that I surround myself with the best and most experienced people. I also wanted to tell you that we are friends. We are great friends and you, Mr. President, have friends in our country so we can continue our strategic partnership. I also plan to surround myself with great people and in addition to that investigation, I guarantee as the President of Ukraine that all the investigations will be done openly and candidly. That I can assure you. President Trump: Good because I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down and that’s really unfair. A lot of people are talking about that, the way they shut your very good prosecutor down and you had some very bad people involved. Mr. Giuliani is a highly respected man. He was the mayor of New York City, a great mayor, and I would like him to call you. I will ask him to call you along with the Attorney General. Rudy very much knows what’s happening and he is a very capable guy. If you could speak to him that would be great. The former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news and the people she was dealing with in the Ukraine were bad news so I just want to let you know that. The other thing, there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it… It sounds horrible to me.”
released on 24th September 2019 CNN).Despite this in depth phone call between the two world leaders, Zelensky refused to cooperate with the U.S President regarding Trump’s request for information on Hunter Biden. In February of 2020, Trump was acquitted by the U.S House of Representatives for forcefully making a foreign country dig up dirt on his political opponents during an election season.
From April to December of 2021, tensions mounted between Russia and Ukraine when Russia stationed troops near the Ukraine border. Less than a year later, Russian forces occupied Ukrainian territory, thus starting the full scale Russo-Ukraine war.

TOPSHOT – US President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shake hands during a meeting in New York on September 25, 2019, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

On February 24, 2022,  Russian troops entered Ukraine in what Vladimir Putin claimed was an attempt to  “De-Nazify” the Ukrainian government.  While the Ukrainian government did have militant wings of the armed services, most notably the Azoz battalion, many members of whom were subsequently killed in the siege of Mariupol, the claim that the Ukrainian government was infiltrated by Nazi’s was false (Farley, 2022). Soon after the full-scale invasion, Russia rapidly advanced in the north and south of the country. While advancing, Russia sent soldiers into Kyiv in an attempt to kill the leaders of the Ukrainian government. However, these plans failed, as Ukraine and United States intelligence knew about these plans beforehand, which led to the majority of Russian soldiers being killed in the march on Kyiv. Zelensky was offered evacuation by the United States, but did not accept the offer. Zelensky reportedly told the US, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.” (Braithwaite, 2022)

Zelensky’s choice to stay in Kyiv was a defining moment for his presidency. This act of remaining in Ukraine gave the public hope, and managed to unite the people of Ukraine against a common enemy. Zelensky’s one priority was the defense of Ukraine by all means necessary. Zelensky’s approval rating quickly skyrocketed from 30% to 84%. This jump in approval rating was bolstered by Zelensky’s frequent addresses to the Ukrainian public via social media, which were very effective at increasing morale. Zelensky’s approval ratings also increased due to his quick and effective appeals for aid from Western leaders. Zelensky asked NATO member states for military aid and sanctions against Russia, which he immediately received.

However, as the war extended into its second year, Western support for Ukraine began to wane. This September, the US only approved a $325 million spending package for Ukraine compared to the much larger $2.9 billion spending package Ukraine had received in the past. Zelensky has also been slowly alienating its allies, most recently, Polish relations with Ukraine deteriorated over grain prices, after Ukraine attempted to undercut Polish farmer’s grain prices. Zelensky accused Poland of “Helping Russia,” even as Poland has been Ukraine’s staunchest ally since the start of the war, so the fact that there is a dispute between the two countries is very significant. (Waterhouse, 2023). This development occurred at a time when European nations were electing leaders who were promoting domestic spending over sending aid packages to Ukraine. The new Putin sympathetic governments have been popping up all over Europe, Serbia and Hungary had been pro Putin for a long time, but on November 8th 2023, the new Putin sympathetic Slovakian government rejected a military aid package that would have given Ukraine 5000 pieces of cannon ammunition, and 4 million rounds of small arms ammunition (Reuters, 2023.)

Zelensky’s presidential powers have expanded greatly since the start of the war. He has become actively involved in strategic decisions, such as which parts of Ukraine to attempt to retake and the kinds of maneuvers employed in such efforts (Shuster, 2023.) Since the initial Russian territorial gains, Ukraine has retaken modest amounts of territory, including the region east of the city of Kharkiv and Kherson in the south of Ukraine (BBC, 2023) During the second year following Russia’s full-scale incursion into the country, these counterattacks have slowed down as both Ukraine and Russia have taken massive casualties in exchange for miniscule land gains (Borger, 2023). Additionally, some Ukrainian generals have disobeyed Zelensky’s orders: instead of attempting to retake particular towns and cities, some have decided to defend the territories under their command. In some cases generals have instructed their troops to hold defensive positions in the trenches, in direct defiance of Zelensky’s orders. According to these military leaders, Zelensky and the Ukrainian government do not fully comprehend that their men do not have the supplies to assume offensive positions. According to a commander, the government ordered him to retake the city of Horlivka, but he didn’t have the guns or men needed. (Shuster, 2023)

Zelensky’s administration imposed martial law on February 24, 2022, immediately after Russia’s full-scale invasion, which has prevented all able-bodied men from ages 18-60 from leaving the country. There are some exceptions to this rule, including men with families of more than three children, people who the military deems unfit, people who raise children under 18 on their own, etc.  This declaration of martial law gave the Ukrainian government more powers, such as the ability to conscript men into the military, restrict movement, enforce curfews, and control national media. As part of the martial law plan, Zelensky signed a decree on March 20, 2023, that merged all national TV channels into a single platform, while still allowing private media to continue to operate independently (Polityuk, 2022). Ukraine’s previous state media landscape was fragmented and owned by multiple different oligarchs, which according to the Ukrainian government had led to biased reporting.  Some Ukranians feared that the merger would give the government too much power. On that same date, Zelensky also suspended multiple opposition parties that he claimed had ties to Russia, such as the the Opposition Platform for Life and the Nashi party. The majority of these suspended parties were fairly insignificant, with only a few occupying seats in the 450 seat parliament. However, the Opposition Platform for Life party held 44 seats in parliament at the time and was regarded as the second largest political party in Ukraine.

On December 5th, 2023, the mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, in an interview with Der Spiegel claimed that Zelensky is turning Ukraine into an authoritarian state, one that eventually will be no different from Russia. While Klitschko had always had a slight rivalry with Zelensky, this was the first time he had publicly denounced the president. Klitschko also accused Zelensky of lying to the public about Ukraine’s progress in the war, claiming that the war had entered a stalemate after Ukraine’s spring 2023 counteroffensive did not yield the promised results. Klitschko also blamed Zelensky for Ukraine’s being unprepared for a Russian invasion, claiming that Zelensky denied knowingly and incorrectly that Russia would invade Ukraine until the outbreak of the war. In the same interview, Klitschko said that he still supports Zelensky and said he would continue to do so until the end of the war. These remarks can be interpreted variously as an open challenge to Zelensky’s presidency, as valid criticisms of the extremely challenging period of his presidency, or a notable sign of Ukrainians’ deep commitment to freedom of speech and political pluralism.

Zelensky has been deeply committed to fighting corruption. Before Zelensky traveled to the U.S. in September 2023 to seek more military aid, the U.S. government had prepared a list of anti-corruption reforms that they wanted Ukraine to enact that targeted high level Ukrainian officials. (Toosi, 2023) Zelensky began cracking down on corruption by firing much of his cabinet and defense ministry. Zelensky also fired all 24 chiefs of Ukraine’s regional military recruitment offices, after many of these officers were under investigation for accepting bribes. Men would bribe these officers in order to escape the mandatory conscription and in some cases the military officers would stand to gain $10,000 per person. (Bigg, Kramer, 2023)  To give one prominent example, he fired Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov, who had been a key player in procuring weapons for Ukraine. Zelensky asked parliament to replace Reznikov with Rustem Umerov, who is the head of Ukraine’s main privatization fund and a former lawmaker. Reznikov has been accused of grafting (a form of political corruption in which a person in power uses their authority for personal gain), but Reznikov has denied these allegations. Rustem Umerov was chosen by Zelensky because of his stance on Crimea, which advocates for the reclamation of Crimea;Rezniko, meanwhile, has voiced skepticism of Ukraine’s ability to retake it. Zelensky also expressed disappointment with the Ukrainian counteroffensive  taking place under Reznikov directly.  Ukraine’s parliament also dismissed six deputy ministers and five regional administrators for undisclosed reasons; however, these firings came after previous dismissals due to corruption. Some of Zelensky’s advisors also resigned after being accused of corruption. By September 2023, Zelensky had cleaned out his cabinet, stating that his government needed “new approaches” regarding the war (Kramer, 2023). Zelensky has been criticized for not cracking down on corruption earlier, but after these firings, this more aggressive approach seems to be working. His cabinet has been largely replaced, and the military in many places has new leadership.

Zelensky’s wartime presidency has shaped Zelensky’s future legacy for decades to come. His choice to stay and fight in Ukraine instead of fleeing was a watershed moment in his presidency, uniting a previously divided Ukraine. His ability to work with Western leaders to combat corruption in the Ukrainian government has positioned Ukraine to potentially join the EU and NATO after the war. Zelensky will also have to focus on rebuilding Ukraine, many towns and cities were destroyed. There is also the possibility that Zelensky and Ukraine will not survive the war, as western support is waning and Zelensky’s allies are turning on him, he will need to make many tough decisions in the near future.




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Being Ukraine by Owen Griffith, Kwesi Asiedu, and Pete Stanger is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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