Zelensky steps up in crisis to become Ukraine’s wartime commander-in-chief

Barely three hours before Russian and Belarusian troops bombed and invaded Ukraine, its President Volodymyr Zelensky appeared directly to Russians in their – and his – native tongue.

“What are you fighting for?” he asked in an online address posted just before 2am, shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin laid out his justifications for attacking Ukraine. “And with whom?”

He urged the citizens of a country that “gave more than 8m lives for victory over Nazism” in the second world war to stop Russia’s impending military assault.

Before midday, with the invasion well under way, the Ukrainian president, with dark circles under his eyes, had assumed a blunter and angrier tone.

The more uncompromising stance was welcomed by many Ukrainians keen to confront Russian aggression. However, it was also indicative of the pressures building on Zelensky as the nation he leads comes under siege.

In his evening address to the nation where he gave updates on Ukraine’s response to Russian attacks, Zelensky called for a robust response from western allies.

“If you my dear world leaders. . . leaders of the free world, don’t help us today, if you don’t strongly help Ukraine, then tomorrow war will knock on your doors, ”he said.

Earlier, Zelensky announced that Ukraine had severed diplomatic relations with its neighbor. He also compared Russia to Nazi Germany, an inflammatory comparison that has been hurled by both countries against each other since the beginning in 2014 of their conflict, which escalated into a full-blown war on Thursday.

“Russia vilely attacked our state early this morning, just as Nazi Germany did during World War Two,” the Ukrainian leader said. “Our countries stand on different sides of world history. Russia stands on the path of evil. ”

Zelensky urged all Russians “who have not yet lost their conscience” to take to the streets to protest against the war. He also called on Ukrainians to donate blood and spread the word “about how our military is fighting”.

Video: Russia begins invasion of Ukraine

The president’s combative words carried more than a bit of bluster and bravado, given that the leader was already dependent on support from outside the world, and is now – along with his country – a direct target for Russian forces.

They came during a day in which Russia’s armed forces shelled airports and military installations in Kyiv and across Ukraine, fighter jets boomed through the sky over the capital, and Russian military convoys moved into Ukraine’s north and east, and from Russian-occupied Crimea in the south.

The invasion followed a week in which Putin announced he was recognizing and deploying troops to Ukraine’s two separatist-controlled eastern regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, and made a vitriolic speech that most Ukrainians felt questioned their country very right to exist.

Volodymyr Zelensky during a meeting with officials
Volodymyr Zelensky, center, holds a meeting with officials in Kyiv on Thursday © Ukrainian Presidential Press Service / Reuters

Yet Zelensky, a former TV comedian who some of his countrymen once dismissed as a political lightweight, has transformed visibly before Ukrainians’ eyes in less than a week into a convincing commander-in-chief, amid the rising military threat from Russia and a hardening public mood.

After months of urging calm, he gave a speech at last week’s Munich Security Conference that attacked Moscow as well as the west’s failure to rally behind Ukraine and was welcomed by his countrymen.

“Has the world forgotten its mistakes of the 20th century?” he asked in tones alternatively pleading and chiding. “What do attempts at appeasement lead to?” And he compared asking the question “Why die for Danzig” – where the second world war started (now the Polish city of Gdansk) – with western prevarication over Ukraine in the face of what he described as the world’s biggest security crisis since the cold war .

The strong words in the Munich address were warmly received in Ukraine, where people are rallying behind their troops and leaders.

“I am proud of our government,” said Kostyantyn Batozsky, a political analyst from Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region now based in Kyiv. “They are coping well, and all Ukrainians are supporting a government that does their job right.”

On Thursday Zelensky promised to keep Ukrainians informed every hour, and invited journalists to his office in central Kyiv for briefings, although many empty seats were visible at the one just before noon on Thursday.

Some reporters privately voiced concern about attending them for fear that the Ukrainian president could be a target of a Russian military strike or assassination attempt. Mykhail Podolyak, one of Zelensky’s advisers, warned journalists of a possible paratrooper assault. “One of [Russia’s] aims to oust the leadership of the country, ”he said.

With Russian troops now inside Ukraine, the fear was not a far-fetched one. People in Kyiv, after going about their business with noteworthy sangfroid in the run-up to war, were on Thursday stocking up on water, groceries, petrol and other provisions in preparation for a possible siege. Thousands decided to flee the capital in their cars or on trains.

Zelensky told Ukrainians his government stood ready to give weapons to anyone who wanted to defend the country. “Be ready to support Ukraine in the squares of our cities,” he said.

Additional reporting by Roman Olearchyk

Video: Ukrainians flee Kyiv after Russia invades

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