Who is Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Europe’s most vulnerable president?

Ukraine’s president finds himself the number one target of the Russian army as Moscow reportedly seeks regime change.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy
Zelenskyy came to power in 2019 as a political novice [File: Johanna Geron/Pool via EPA]

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy came to power in 2019, taking charge of the war-torn, corruption-plagued country of about 45 million without any prior political experience.

The political novice and former sitcom actor and comedian, who was dismissed by critics as a puppet of Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, won his presidency by securing more than 73 percent of ballots, promising to balance the defence of Ukraine from Russian aggression with protecting the Russian speakers of his country.

Born in the predominantly Russian-speaking industrial city of Kryvyi Rih in central Ukraine, the father of two was seen as best placed to succeed in his mission and shortly after becoming president, used diplomacy to get Moscow to exchange several groups of Ukrainian prisoners of war.

But the goodwill of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was not to last, as Zelenskyy did not change his country’s pro-Western foreign policy in favour of closer ties to its former master, Moscow.

Zelenskyy visits the war-hit Donbas region
Zelenskyy visits the war-hit Donbas region, eastern Ukraine, last year [File: Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP]

Last year, Russia started amassing its troops near Ukraine’s borders with a pretext of holding military exercises.

Despite warnings by the United States of the Russian plan to invade Ukraine, Zelenskyy tried to keep calm in the country, calling on Ukrainians to avoid panic.

However, he shuttled around the capitals of Europe, trying to secure diplomatic, military and financial support for Ukraine to deter Moscow from invading.

On Thursday, February 24, Zelenskyy became Europe’s most vulnerable president, as Russia launched an all-out invasion of Ukraine by land, air and sea.

‘A regime change’

Fabrice Pothier, a chief strategy officer at the political consultancy Rasmussen Global and former director of policy planning at NATO, told Al Jazeera from Santander, Spain that Putin’s aim was “political capitulation” –  “a regime change” in Ukraine.

“It is pretty clear that he wants a regime change and the regime should be – in his view – sympathetic to Russia’s interest, turning down the NATO and the EU membership path, claiming some kind of neutrality or a Finland position,” he said, referring to Finland’s historic decision to associate with Europe, but avoid hostility towards Russia by not joining NATO.

Zelenskyy also identified himself as “target number one” of Russia, but he and his family remained in Ukraine.

“They want to destroy Ukraine politically by taking down the head of state,” the president said.

The 44-year-old also criticised Ukraine’s allies for not coming to his country’s defence physically, limiting themselves with verbal, financial and diplomatic support.

“We have been left alone to defend our state,” he said in a video address to the nation after midnight. “Who is ready to fight alongside us? I don’t see anyone. Who is ready to give Ukraine a guarantee of NATO membership? Everyone is afraid.”

Social media users have recognised his vulnerability, by dubbing him “a lonely but honourable man”.

Source: Al Jazeera