Ukraine’s President is setting a new standard for today’s political leaders
“You never know about bravery, some people think they’re brave and they’re not brave, and other people don’t think of themselves as very brave and then they step up. You never know until you get tested.”
So declared Donald Trump when asked whether he would, if it came to it, follow the example of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and take up arms to defend his country.
You can read what you will into that rather equivocal response from the former US president, but what has been beyond question this past fortnight is that, as Russian aggression in Ukraine continues to escalate to horrifying proportions, Zelensky’s leadership has been tested beyond the limits of what most of today’s leaders will ever experience.
Few in the UK had heard of Zelensky before Vladimir Putin sent his forces to invade Ukraine on 24 February. Today, the Ukrainian premier will give an unprecedented video address to the House of Commons. He will do so as a UK household name and with his place in history assured.
Over the past fortnight, the former actor and comedian, has transformed himself into a wartime leader fit for the 21st century. He has won plaudits across the globe for his steadfast refusal to evacuate the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, his willingness to confront other world leaders, and for his videos, filmed in his office often in casual attire, in which he has issued powerful warnings to his enemies and emotive appeals to Russian citizens. His online pronouncements, together with photographs of him in full combat gear, have arguably played a key role in bolstering the Ukrainian resistance, directly challenging disinformation from Russia, and potentially forcing Russia to re-think its strategy for the conflict.
On International Women’s Day, eyes are also on Zelensky’s wife, screenwriter Olena Zelenska. She, too, has been impressive throughout this crisis. Eschewing the traditional role of the silent political spouse, she has been running a powerful social media campaign calling for a no-fly zone over Ukraine and launching a Telegram channel to provide Ukrainians with evacuation information and support.
The contrast between Zelensky and some of Britain’s prominent political figures could not be starker. As the Commons assembles to hear Ukraine’s president at 5pm today, many MPs will no doubt have compared the quiet dignity and resolve of the Ukrainian president with the furious and petulant response of John Bercow, the former Commons speaker, to the outcome of an inquiry published today which branded him a “serial bully” and a “serial liar” whose “behaviour fell very far below that which the public has a right to expect.”
For Boris Johnson, the hideous events unfolding in Ukraine have - at least, for now – halted calls for his resignation following the Downing Street parties scandal. The international stage is where the Prime Minister has long felt most comfortable; his renowned political communication skills, questioned in recent weeks, are back to their best, with the Prime Minister delivering effective public addresses where he has spoken in Russian and Ukrainian and continued to call for stronger sanctions against Russia. Today, he has held meetings in London with the leaders of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic following his announcement of a six-point plan to support Ukraine. A new energy supply strategy is set to be launched shortly, with the Business Secretary announcing this evening that the UK will phase out the import of Russian oil by the end of this year. He also stated that options are also being explored to end the supply of Russian natural gas.
That doesn’t mean Johnson is entirely out of the woods, however. The demonstrable bravery of Zelensky in the face of the inexorable Russian onslaught has resurrected uncomfortable comparisons with the UK’s own leader, particularly the moment during the 2019 General Election where Britain’s premier resorted to hiding in a fridge in a bid to avoid being interviewed.
Meanwhile, questions continue to be asked over the Government’s links to Russian oligarchs, with Ministers forced to defend the awarding of a peerage to Evgeny Lebedev after the Prime Minister denied overruling security concerns raised by the intelligence services. The slow Home Office response to the growing Ukrainian refugee crisis also threatens to remain a political running sore over the coming weeks, with calls growing for the Government to re-think its entire approach as heart-rending stories of families fleeing their country continue to dominate our television screens.
There is a saying that we get the political leaders we deserve. For the citizens of Ukraine that maxim appears to be, thankfully, holding true. Zelensky has surpassed all expectations in unique and tragic circumstances. But with threats to his personal security growing by the day, his people - and the West - will be hoping that he is not one of a kind.