There must have been many moments over recent days when President Zelensky said to himself, “How the fuck did I get here?” As most of you know, Zelensky was a comedian and an actor. His presidency was kind of a lark. My memory my fail me here but I believe his big claim to fame was a show in which he played a fictional President of Ukraine. So his whole candidacy had a meta/absurdist tinge to it and likely was only possible in a country in which much of the population regards the political class as hopelessly corrupt. And yet Zelensky now finds himself in a position in which he will either preside over the dissolution of the independent Ukrainian state or, if things go very differently, probably be regarded as something like a founding father of it.
Over the last few weeks I’ve heard a lot of public commentary and had several private conversations with region experts saying the guy is just hopelessly in over his head. I don’t know enough about the diplomacy or internal state decisions to know whether that’s true or not. But history often lives or dies in key, clutch moments. And I can’t think how much better he could have presented his country and himself in the series of speeches he gave over the last week as the country was barreling toward war. They’ve shown a level of moral courage that is very hard to second guess. Perhaps we got a prelude of it in the ways he parried President Trump’s absurd and thuggish demands over the course of 2019.
Let’s be frank: there’s something between a non-trivial and a very good likelihood Zelensky will not physically survive this conflict. And yet, there he is. He’s not running. It’s hard not to compare him — though the facts are vastly different — to Ashraf Ghani, the last President of Afghanistan, who got the hell outta do Dodge at the first hint things were going South. Very, very few of us will ever face a situation with such a combination of historic consequence and physical danger. But many of us face moments in which we must choose to face fear and live out our promises or run. Zelensky is passing that test.
The resistance we’re seeing across Ukraine involves millions or tens of millions of people. That’s about far more than just one man. Indeed, if there’s some miscalculation on Vladimir Putin’s part this is likely the heart of it: I don’t think he anticipated that the last three decades and particularly the last seven years had developed in Ukraine the degree of national identity and/or latent unity to hold up against a concerted barrage of violence and terror. But it seems almost certain that a rapid collapse of the state apparatus or evacuation of its leaders — while understandable at various levels — would have been a gut punch to the morale we’re seeing standing in defiance of the Russian armies’ onslaught across the country.