KYIV, Ukraine — It’s not hard to guess what President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine must be craving right now: one normal day.
The comic-turned-president surely never imagined the job would be quite so intense. First, he got tangled up in the impeachment of Donald Trump. Then he had to deal with the Covid pandemic. And now he’s facing the prospect of a full-scale invasion by Russia.
Russia, of course, has been waging a war in eastern Ukraine since 2014. But now the threat is total: Up to 190,000 Russian troops have amassed near Ukraine’s borders and in separatist regions, and an invasion, bringing devastation and disaster, could come at any time. It’s a gravely serious situation. And Mr. Zelensky, a comedian for most of his life, is in over his head.
When Mr. Zelensky took power in Ukraine in 2019, converting his TV fame into a stellar political career, no one knew what to expect. His opponents said he was so inexperienced, he was bound to be a disaster. His supporters thought that he would break away from the old ways and end corruption. His harshest critics claimed that Mr. Zelensky, a Russian-speaking man born in eastern Ukraine, would all but sell the country off to Russia. Others said he was an oligarch puppet.
Yet the truth is more prosaic. Mr. Zelensky, the showman and performer, has been unmasked by reality. And it has revealed him to be dispiritingly mediocre.
After his nearly three years in office, it’s clear what the problem is: Mr. Zelensky’s tendency to treat everything like a show. Gestures, for him, are more important than consequences. Strategic objectives are sacrificed for short-term benefits. The words he uses don’t matter, as long as they are entertaining. And when the reviews are bad, he stops listening and surrounds himself with fans.
He started brightly. Early in his tenure, Mr. Zelensky commanded more power than any of his predecessors had. His fame and anti-establishment allure landed him with a parliamentary majority, a handpicked cabinet and a mandate for reform. At first, it seemed to be working. His government opened up the farmland market and expanded digital services across the country. He began an enormous road construction program, proclaiming that he wanted to be remembered as the president who finally built good roads in Ukraine.
But the successes largely stopped there. Mr. Zelensky’s other major project, a campaign he calls “deoligarchization” that’s aimed at capping the influence of the very wealthy, looks more like a P.R. move than serious policy. Despite his campaign promises, no progress has been made in fighting corruption. According to Transparency International, Ukraine remains the third-most-corrupt country in Europe, after Russia and Azerbaijan. Anti-corruption and law enforcement agencies are either stalling or run by loyalists appointed by the president.
Corruption just doesn’t seem to worry Mr. Zelensky much — at least when those implicated are close to him. In March 2020, when his chief of staff’s brother was caught offering government posts for money, Mr. Zelensky did nothing. More recently, a top lawmaker was caught on camera drunkenly offering a bribe to a police officer at the site of a car crash he might have caused. The public was outraged, but Mr. Zelensky mumbled a disapproving comment and moved on. Even the president’s beautiful newly built roads are mired in controversy. The procurement process is thought to be rigged and the prices too high.
Scandals and tolerance for corruption have chipped away at Mr. Zelensky’s popularity. Sixty-two percent of Ukrainians don’t want him to run for re-election, and if an election were held today, he’d garner about 25 percent of the vote — down from the 30 percent he easily won in the first round of the 2019 election. He’d still be likely to win, but the historic 73 percent he scored in the second round feels like a distant memory.
The president’s tense relationship with the press doesn’t help, either. A former actor used to the sound of applause, Mr. Zelensky is notoriously thin-skinned when it comes to criticism and challenging questions. He is visibly irritated by traditional journalists: In November, this fractious approach led to unseemly confrontations at a news conference.
It’s not just the media Mr. Zelensky struggles to work with. His first year in charge was chaotic. His hastily assembled team quickly fell apart, and yesterday’s allies turned into some of his harshest critics. There were constant reshuffles. New ministers were given very little time to prove themselves and were kicked out if they didn’t.
The churn eventually stopped, but at a cost. Mr. Zelensky, stung by the fallout, came to largely rely on the loyal rather than the qualified. A former movie producer and longtime friend was made chief of staff, joining other friends and confidants of Mr. Zelensky in wielding outsize power. The security service is overseen by a childhood friend, a former corporate lawyer, and the president’s party in Parliament is run by a loyal former I.T. businessman. The circle around the president has become an echo chamber.
In the process, Mr. Zelensky has turned into a version of the politician he campaigned against: insular, closed off, surrounded by yes men. In normal circumstances, that would be bad enough. But now, when Ukraine is menaced by Russia, it may be affecting Mr. Zelensky’s judgment.
That’s become ever clearer in recent weeks. As the West pursued megaphone diplomacy to discourage an invasion, Mr. Zelensky tried to downplay the threat. But this understandable effort to project calm and steady skittish markets was undermined by his showy style.
In a tone-deaf address in January, for example, a patronizing Mr. Zelensky effectively mocked Ukrainians for their proneness to panic and laughed off a possible invasion. The very next day, he claimed Russia might invade Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. Instead of being comforted, the country was confused. No wonder 53 percent of Ukrainians think Mr. Zelensky won’t be able to defend the country if there is an invasion.
Yet Mr. Zelensky’s behavior, odd to the point of erratic, obscures a truth: He has no good options. On the one hand, any concession to Russia, particularly over the conflict in eastern Ukraine, would likely bring hundreds of thousands of people to the streets — threatening him with the fate of Viktor Yanukovych, the president overthrown by a revolution in 2014. Any decisive move against Russia, on the other hand, risks giving the Kremlin a pretext for a deadly invasion.
The show must go on, of course. The crisis continues. But the president’s performance — strained, awkward, often inappropriate — is hardly helping.
Olga Rudenko (@olya_rudenko) is the chief editor of The Kyiv Independent, a Ukrainian news site.
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