Später wird er in der französischen Nationalversammlung sagen, dass die Ukrainer stolz darauf seien, „die Erben von Kämpfern zu sein, die der Freiheit zum Sieg verhalfen“. Zweifel darf sich Selenskyj öffentlich nicht leisten, denn es zählt zu seinen schwierigsten Aufgaben, die Hilfe für sein Land nicht abreißen zu lassen.

An diesem Dienstag versucht er sein Glück in Berlin. Erstmals spricht er persönlich im Bundestag zu den Abgeordneten. Auch auf der großen Wiederaufbaukonferenz wird er Zweifel zerstreuen müssen. Seine Botschaft: Die Ukraine schafft das. Mit Hilfe.

Ähnlich und doch anders ist die Aufgabe für ihn daheim in Kiew, wo die Zweifel an Selenskyj vor Beginn der Invasion groß waren. Eigentlich hätte es in diesem Frühjahr eine Wahl gegeben in der Ukra­ine, eine Präsidentenwahl.

Screenshot aus der Übertragung: Präsident Selenskyj herzt einen Veteranen
Screenshot from the broadcast: President Selenskyj hugs a veteranReuters

Five years ago, the then 41-year-old entertainer Volodymyr Zelensky took office after a spectacular election victory. His three major promises were to end the war in eastern Ukraine instigated by Russia, to eliminate the rampant corruption across the country and to limit the power of the oligarchs.

Instead, he was faced with what was probably the greatest task a statesman could face: leading a country in a defensive struggle against a seemingly overwhelming enemy. Many heads of state have fled for lesser reasons, including his predecessor Viktor Yanukovych, who fled the protests on the Maidan. Zelensky accepted the challenge. When the USA, for example, offered to fly him and his family to a safe place immediately after the attack began, he responded with the sentence: “I need ammunition, not a ride!”

Traces of desperation mix with his appeals

Organizing ammunition remains one of Zelensky's main tasks to this day. His country, politically torn, plundered by oligarchs and battered by the transformation after decades of socialist planned economy, was not prepared for war. Especially not for one with the largest country in the world, which has almost four times as many inhabitants and enormous resources.

While Putin, with his authoritarian power, can recruit new soldiers for front-line deployment and have large quantities of material and ammunition shipped to the war zone without any significant resistance, Zelenskyj is trying to keep morale high in his own country and keep his allies in a delivery mood. The latter with a certain vehemence. “Please don't ask Ukraine when the war will end,” he said in February at the Munich Security Conference. “Ask yourself why Putin is able to continue it.”

Traces of desperation are often mixed into his appeals. “How are we supposed to protect ourselves from these constant attacks from Russian territory?” he asked in a recent interview with the New York Times, referring to the recent attacks north of Kharkiv. “If there are attacks from Russian territory exclusively on civilians, if their artillery is aimed exclusively at civilians, if the artillery hits the city center – and that is what is happening – we cannot react because of the range of our artillery.”

He described how Russia was delivering tons of material to Belgorod and bringing it to the battlefields largely unhindered, and linked this to the question of why Ukraine was not allowed to prevent this with Western weapons. As in the previous discussions about heavy military equipment and ammunition, Zelensky's persistence ultimately paid off.

The Ukrainian army has recently been allowed to fire on military targets on the Russian side of the border, from which Kharkiv has previously been attacked. The number of attacks on the city promptly dropped significantly.

Zelensky repeatedly stresses that his country only uses weapons to defend itself. His strengths are the clarity of his language, his determination and intransigence. When he stayed in Kyiv after the attack began in February 2022, it was not because he had military experience or felt able to deploy troops in the right places or move entire units. He could not do all of this, having never served in an army, and left it to the Ukrainian military leadership from the start.

The majority of citizens would not have believed him capable of this

Instead, he relied on what he had learned. It was “the self-dramatization that he had perfected in more than twenty years as an actor on stage and as a producer in the film business that made Zelensky so convincing in this war,” “a war in which Ukraine not only had to attract the attention of the world, but also win the sympathy of people and their governments around the world,” writes reporter Simon Shuster, who has followed Zelensky for a long time, in a biography. In this way, he achieved international “attention for his country and its heroic struggle.”

Internally, Zelenskyj acted primarily as a role model. While other members of his government and high-ranking officials packed their bags and fled the country, he held out. He also rejected the idea of ​​forming a government in exile and operating from Poland, for example.

Even when, just days after the attack began, Russian units were close to Kiev and there were rumors that enemy forces were trying to penetrate the restricted area around the presidential administration, Zelenskyy did not want to retreat to a bunker outside the city or even out of the country.

Instead, he recorded a cell phone video in the center of Kyiv together with the faction leader, the prime minister and the head of the presidential administration: “The president is here,” said Zelensky. “Our soldiers are here. The citizens are here. We are all here. We are defending our independence. That is how it should be. Honor to our defenders, be they men or women! Glory to Ukraine!”

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The video spread rapidly on social networks. The majority of Ukrainians would probably no longer have believed him capable of this, especially not at this point in time. Zelenskyj started in office in 2019 with high expectations, far too high expectations, which he himself had nevertheless helped to raise.

People's hopes that he has what it takes were boosted by the television series “Servant of the People,” in which Zelenskyy plays the lead role of a teacher who becomes president with a promise to eliminate corruption and soon shakes up the hated Ukrainian political elite.

The majority of Ukrainians were so fed up with the political situation in their country that they longed to see Zelenskyj in office and, after long deliberation, finally voted for him as the sixth President of Ukraine with 73 percent.

Selenskyj’s courage was contagious

But TV series are not reality. As a presidential candidate, Zelensky was supported by Ihor Kolomoisky, one of Ukraine's most powerful oligarchs, who was not only an opponent of the previous president, Petro Poroshenko, but also owned the TV channel that Zelensky worked for. Although the new president claimed to be “completely independent,” the relationship quickly proved toxic to his credibility.

Nevertheless, he tried to limit oligarchic power. For example, he signed a law that prohibits oligarchs from financing political parties. However, the question of who actually counts as an oligarch is not easy to answer. The fight against corruption is also proving to be lengthy and arduous.

While Zelensky simply fired corrupt civil servants in his television series to the delight of the audience, the reality is quite different: corruption is so structurally entrenched in the country that it cannot be eliminated in a single coup – and on top of that, it also sabotages the defense.

Zelensky was also fighting a losing battle with his promise to end the war in Donbass. In his inaugural speech, he declared a ceasefire, but by then the Russian president had already begun issuing Russian passports to Ukrainians in the occupied territories. Vladimir Putin was banking on escalation and rejected direct negotiations with Zelensky. The ceasefire did not last forever either, and rumors that Zelensky was prepared to negotiate a special status for the territories caused his reputation in Ukraine to sink further.

When the US warned at the end of 2021 that a Russian attack was imminent, Zelenskyy publicly downplayed the danger. A month before the Russian attack, in mid-January 2022, he accused the media of stirring up people's excitement with warnings of war and urged citizens not to panic.

On the morning of February 24, he had to declare martial law. The fact that Zelensky stayed in Kyiv and the way he resisted the aggression increased his reputation in Ukraine enormously. This was actually something completely different from what the population was used to from their previous political leaders.

His courage was contagious, and the majority of Ukrainians did not hide in the bushes but set about defending their homeland. The fight against the external enemy united the politically divided country like never before since independence in 1991. At the same time, the defensive struggle against the Russian invasion determined the second half of Zelensky's original term in office and the country's political system.

But that also means that all elections, regardless of the level, are suspended as long as the country is at war. The Ukrainian parliament currently declares a state of war every three months. And as long as that is the case, the elected president must remain in office. If Zelensky is killed, the constitution states that the speaker of parliament will take his place.

Nevertheless, there were discussions about whether Zelensky should run for election despite the war. He himself had raised such an option in the autumn of last year. The opposition did not think that was a good idea, especially since it would have been a godsend for the war opponents. In the face of an election campaign, Russia could have claimed that Zelensky could not be sure of his country's support even in a war.

Apart from that, it is completely unclear how elections could even take place under constant attacks. However, surveys by reputable institutes show that two thirds of Ukrainians support their president, who is now clearly showing the effects of his five years in office.

Zelenskyj knows that his popularity is not guaranteed forever, even in times of war. He sees that dissatisfaction is growing among those who have been fighting on the front lines for more than two years, as well as among their families. “We have to understand that we are all at war until it ends,” he told the New York Times. Until then, the whole country must support the soldiers. In difficult times, everyone must stick together.

The greatest moral challenge at the moment is to prevent a division in society, said Zelensky, but also a division in the world, the EU and the USA. “All of this has an impact on Ukraine,” he said. And thus also on whether the country, whether his country, will still exist in the future.

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