Introduction of Zelensky by Steven Derix
Posted on February 21 2023
Here is the Introduction for the Zelensky book by Steven Derix.
Vladimir Putin rarely underestimates his opponent. At the KGB Academy in Leningrad, he learned the meticulous art of profiling ‘targets’ of the service, whether they were Russian dissidents or East German Communist apparatchiks.
Before meeting with anybody, Putin first analyses their strengths and weaknesses. During his first visit to the United States, he wound President George W. Bush around his little finger, with pious tales of his christening in the Russian Orthodox Church. Afterwards, an obviously charmed Bush told of how he had looked into the ‘soul’ of the former KGB officer. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Sochi in 2007 to discuss energy policy, Putin had his black labrador Konni brought in. Merkel – who is terrified of dogs – dared not budge an inch, and Putin dominated the conversation.
Vladimir Putin also carefully considers the way he talks about people. The Russian President is only too aware of the political appeal of Alexey Navalny, and will therefore never allow the name of the opposition leader to cross his lips – not even since Navalny’s incarceration in January 2021. Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitri Peskov, consistently refers to Navalny as ‘that blogger.’
In April 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky was elected as the sixth President of Ukraine, with nearly three-quarters of the vote. One month later, the Russian President attended the World
Economic Forum in St. Petersburg. It had been five years since Russia’s annexation of Crimea but daily skirmishes between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists were still commonplace in eastern Ukraine.
‘Why did you not congratulate Volodymyr Zelenksy when he became President?’ asked the interviewer.
Putin breathed a heavy sigh. The Russian officials and business magnates in the room playfully nudged one another: this was going to be good.
‘You know,’ said Putin, ‘he is still pushing a certain rhetoric. He labels us “enemies” and “aggressors.” Perhaps he should think about what he really wants to achieve, what he wants to do.’
Putin had still not once uttered the name ‘Zelensky.’
‘You are the President of a world power,’ the interviewer fawned, ‘and right now, he is incredibly popular in his country. Both of you could start with a clean slate. Even a small gesture might completely change the course of world history. Why not simply arrange a meeting?’
Putin gave the enormous hall an almost pitying look, and waited until the sniggering from the officials and businesspeople had died down.
‘Did I say “no”?’ replied Putin. With a snide grin, he added: ‘Nobody has invited me.’
‘Are you prepared to meet with him?’
Putin now looked genuinely amused. ‘Listen, I do not know this man. I hope that we can meet one day. As far as I can tell, he’s amazing at what he does, he’s a marvellous actor.’
Laughter and generous applause filled the room.
Putin continued: ‘But seriously: it’s one thing to play a person, but quite another thing to be that person.’
The blue-suited officials knew exactly what Putin meant. The Ukrainian President had started his career as a comic actor and comedian. From 2015-2019, Zelensky was the star of the Ukrainian hit series Servant of the People. He played history teacher Vasyl Holoborodko, who after a long day of teaching launches into a tirade against all of the injustices in Ukraine: corruption, broken election promises, stagnation and poverty, and the tax privileges, dachas, and motorcycle escorts enjoyed by the political class.
A student secretly films Holoborodko’s damning speech, and puts the video online. The tirade goes viral, and the young history teacher – who still lives with his parents – is invited to go into politics. He wins with a landslide victory, becoming the first ever Ukrainian head of state who cycles to work. Holoborodko turns the political world upside-down, steering the country towards a glorious future. The series tapped into a classic populist theme, that of the political outsider who makes short work of the ‘old regime.’ In 2019, the final season of Servant of the People blended seamlessly into a slick election campaign for the soon-to-be President. Servant of the People (Sluha Narodu) became the name of Zelensky’s political party, which won an absolute majority later that year in the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada.
Putin was right about one thing: until that time, Zelensky had only ever played the President.
The former showman was now placed at the helm of a bankrupt country – a nation at war with a political and administrative system that was corrupt to the core. In the 30 years of independence since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Ukraine had been unable to disentangle itself from the chaos that gripped the country in 1991. Zelensky promised to solve all the problems within a single, five-year term.
Many thought that he would fail. Within months of his election, Zelensky’s reform programme had ground to a halt, resulting in a life-and-death battle with the all-powerful oligarchs. To survive within the Ukrainian House of Cards, Zelensky resorted to unconventional means. Human rights organisations expressed concern for his autocratic tendencies. Ukrainian patriots feared that the new President would sell out Crimea and the Donbas to secure peace with Moscow. The Public Prosecutor’s Office in the Netherlands was outraged when Zelensky exchanged a key witness with Russia during the investigation into the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014.
In September 2019, Zelensky became unwittingly embroiled in a scandal surrounding the potential abuse of powers by the American President, Donald Trump.
During a telephone conversation on 25th July, Trump supposedly put pressure on Zelensky to launch a criminal investigation against Trump’s opponent in the imminent presidential elections, Joe Biden. According to unfounded rumours circulating in Trumpland, while working as Vice- President under Barack Obama, Biden had insisted on the dismissal of Ukraine’s Prosecutor, General Viktor Shokin, in order to suppress an investigation into his son, Hunter Biden and his employer, the Ukrainian gas company Burisma.
During his telephone conversation with Zelensky, Trump denied any wrongdoing. As proof, the White House published a transcript of the conversation between the two Presidents.
Zelensky came across as a spineless sycophant. ‘We are trying to work hard because we wanted to drain the swamp here in our country,’ the Ukrainian President said, parroting Trump’s own election slogan. ‘We brought in many, many new people. Not the old politicians, not the typical politicians, because we want to have a new format and a new type of government. You are a great teacher for us.’
The Russian state television service – under the Kremlin’s control – branded Zelensky a clown. In the summer of 2021, during a major press conference held for the Russian people (broadcast under the title of A Direct Line with Vladimir Putin), Putin was asked whether he would now be prepared to meet with Zelensky. Putin replied that it would be of no use whatsoever, since Zelensky had ‘placed the governance of his country squarely in international hands. It is not Kyiv that calls the shots in Ukraine, but Washington.’
It is altogether possible that Putin really believed what he said.
On 24th February 2022, Putin launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine. While Russian troops attacked on four fronts, tanks advanced on Kyiv. Once Zelensky and his government were eradicated, the rest of Ukraine would quickly fall back in line with Russia – or so the Kremlin thought.
But Putin’s Blitzkrieg proved to be a misstep. After a month of fighting, many Russian soldiers had perished and Moscow had failed to take a major Ukrainian city. In the areas that Russia had managed to occupy, including traditionally Russian-speaking Kherson and Melitopol, Ukrainians took to the streets with blue-and-yellow flags. Kharkiv, the city on the Russian border where pro-Russian separatists had demonstrated in 2014, fought tooth and nail to defend itself against the aggressor.
On day two of the Ukrainian war, Vladimir Putin addressed the Ukrainian armed forces directly in a television broadcast. The Russian President looked pale and his tone was bleak. ‘Do not allow neo-Nazis to use your children, women and elderly as human shields,’ he said. ‘Take matters into your own hands. I believe that we can come to an agreement with you more easily than with that mob of junkies and neo-Nazis that has taken control in Kyiv, and who are holding the entire Ukrainian people hostage.’
Exactly why Putin thought that anyone in the Ukrainian military would listen to what he had to say is a question for future historians of the greatest war in Europe since 1945.
What is certain is the fact that Putin underestimated both Zelensky and the entire Ukrainian people. On the night when Putin addressed the Ukrainian army, Zelensky recorded a brief video message in the heart of Kyiv. The Ukrainian President was dressed in military green, surrounded by members of his Cabinet. ‘Good evening everybody,’ said Zelensky. ‘The President is here. Our armed forces are here, along with our whole society. We will defend our independence, our nation. Long live Ukraine!’
Find out more about the book here.