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How war changed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy sings the national anthem during a visit to the city of Izium, in the Kharkiv, Sept. 14, 2022.
Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy sings the national anthem during a visit to the city of Izium, in the Kharkiv, Sept. 14, 2022.

Nearly two years into Russia's war in Ukraine, Time correspondent Simon Shuster says Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy is "almost unrecognizable" from the happy-go-lucky, optimistic comedian Shuster first met in 2019.

"There's just a toughness and a certain darkness about him now that really didn't exist before," Shuster says of the former sitcom star. "He's still extremely committed to this war, to winning this war. ... And he's very single minded, almost obsessive, in pursuing that goal."

Shuster, who has a Russian father and a Ukrainian mother, has been reporting on the region for 17 years and spent months embedded with Zelenskyy's team in Kyiv as the Russian invasion of Ukraine unfolded in February 2022. His new book is The Showman: Inside the Invasion That Shook the World and Made a Leader of Volodymyr Zelensky.

Although the U.S. had warned that a Russian invasion was imminent, Shuster writes that Zelenskyy did not believe that the capital would be attacked. In fact, Shuster says, Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska was "totally shocked" by the invasion, and hadn't even packed a suitcase.

From the very beginning, Shuster says Zelenskyy drew on his background as an entertainer to help communicate the Ukrainian plight to a broader audience — even as he worried that the world's attention would eventually fade.

"Often his military tactical decisions were guided by a desire to have these demonstrative victories, something that could really grab the world's attention, whether it's bombing the bridge that connects Russia to Crimea, or various battles ... that maybe were not strategically the most important, but they were dramatic," Shuster says.

Shuster says, looking ahead, that Zelenskyy and his team are open to negotiating for peace with Russia, but they are also developing ways to sustain the war — even if Western support declines.

"President Zelenskyy and his team have a clear vision of where this goes next," Shuster says. "They ... are actively developing ways to sustain the fight, not to be pushed into a capitulation or a negotiation that they don't want to participate in, and to continue fighting on their own resources, their own weapons."


Interview highlights

On Zelenskyy's reaction to the destruction and atrocities in Bucha

On a personal level, it was absolutely devastating to him. I think, to an extent, that surprised me; he really takes the suffering of civilians close to the heart. He doesn't see them as some kind of abstract mass, sacrificing for the nation. He really feels the pain of individual victims of this war. So that day when he went to Bucha and he saw the atrocities committed there, hundreds of civilians massacred, some tortured, it was just the worst kinds of scenes you could imagine at war time, he was deeply affected by that emotionally.

He later described it as the worst day of that tragic year. He said it taught him that the devil is not far away, not some figment of our imagination but he's right here on this earth. He said he saw the work of the devil there in Bucha. The next phase, when he sort of took in that pain, he moved on to the next stage of the war. He still had a war to fight. And he invited the media to visit Bucha ... and he began inviting his international partners and allies, Europeans, Americans from all over the world. Every time they made a visit to President Zelenskyy in Kyiv, he encouraged them to visit Bucha, to see it for themselves. ... They saw the atrocities for themselves, and it would encourage them to maintain a much higher level of support when they went back home to their capitals after having seen up close the mass graves and the real evidence of Russian war crimes.

On surprising concessions Zelenskyy was willing to make in negotiations with Russia

/ Harper Collins
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Harper Collins

They continued the negotiations even after the atrocities were revealed in Bucha — even after many of Zelenskyy's own advisers told him, 'We can't go on with these negotiations. We can't talk to these monsters after what they've done to us.' Zelenskyy would continue insisting that no, even though this is a genocidal war, we need to continue trying to find peace at the negotiating table. So they did offer a series of concessions, very serious ones. One of them, the main one was this idea of permanent neutrality. So Ukraine would agree to give up its ambition of joining the NATO alliance. This was one of the main excuses that Vladimir Putin used to justify this horrific invasion, that he wanted to stop NATO from admitting Ukraine. Not that NATO had any plans to admit Ukraine anytime soon, but this was kind of one of the paranoid risks that Putin pointed to. So Zelenskyy said, alright, if that's what you're afraid of, we will make a formal commitment to remain neutral. He even agreed that any military exercises that involve foreign troops on the territory of Ukraine would not happen without Russian approval, if Russia saw those exercises as a risk. So he was willing to really go far in granting concessions early in the invasion. And those negotiations gradually broke apart. One of the reasons was Bucha and the atrocities uncovered. But I think also what we saw was that in April, there were a series of victories that Ukraine achieved on the battlefield that convinced Zelenskyy that, hey, maybe we should see how far we can push this militarily while we have the momentum. Maybe we don't need to negotiate right now. Maybe we fight first, push the Russians back, and then potentially negotiate from a position of strength.

On the July 2019 phone call between Zelenzkyy and President Trump, which later became the basis of Trump's first impeachment

If you read closely the White House transcriptthat was later released of that phone call, at the end Trump promises to arrange a visit for Zelenskyy to the White House. And it's hard to overstate the importance of that kind of visit for any Ukrainian leader. The United States is by far the most important ally, not only because of relying on U.S. weapons, but also for political support, diplomatic support, financial aid loans. Any incoming Ukrainian president, any Ukrainian president, period, needs to constantly demonstrate the strength of his or her relationship with the United States.

So for Zelenskyy coming in, that was priority number one in the international arena to visit the White House, to sit there with the U.S. president, whoever it may be, and to demonstrate to the people back in Ukraine that, look, under my leadership, this relationship will continue to grow stronger, certainly won't grow weaker. So that was what was going through Zelenskyy's mind for the most part at the time. And when, at the end of that phone call, Trump said, "OK, sure. Come on down to Washington and we'll arrange this visit," they saw that as quite an accomplishment. So when they put down the phone as one of the participants, on the Ukrainian side told me, there was some jubilation in the room on the Ukrainian side, and they actually went to a neighboring room and they had some ice cream to celebrate.

On what lesson Zelenskyy drew from Trump's first impeachment

I talked to a number of the people whose messages wound up projected onto the big screens in the hearing rooms during the impeachment inquiry in Congress. Imagine what that feels like. You're a state official in Ukraine. You're having confidential, classified conversations with your counterparts in the United States. You're assuming that those conversations, text messages, emails are going to remain private. And then you turn on CNN and you see your messages projected onto the screen for the world to see. That was very humiliating. It was very demeaning. In many cases, the U.S. authorities did not consult with the Ukrainians before publishing those communications. So that was quite annoying. One close adviser to Zelenskyy called it a cold shower. That was one of the milder phrases used to describe that experience.

In the middle of the impeachment hearings, I sat down with President Zelenskyy in his office, for one of our interviews that is described in the book, and it was maybe one of the lowest points that I'd seen him. He was at the time preparing also simultaneously for his first sit down negotiations with Vladimir Putin. The goals of those negotiations were to end the separatist conflict in the East and prevent the kind of invasion that we later saw play out across Ukraine. So he had a lot to juggle while he was focused on trying to negotiate with Putin and settle their relations and bring peace, all the American media, and all the international media wanted to talk about was Rudy Giuliani, Hunter Biden and all this stuff. So it was a massive distraction. One quote that stands out from that interview was he said, "I don't trust anyone at all." And essentially the lesson to him was: Alliances are flimsy. Everyone just has their national interests, their personal interests. And he felt a deep disillusionment in his belief that he could rely on certain allies, Europeans, Americans. He said everybody just has their interests, and I don't trust anyone at all.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Corrected: January 23, 2024 at 9:00 PM PST
A previous version of this story misspelled the capital of Ukraine as Kiev. It it Kyiv.
Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.