Written by Valerie Hopkins
As Russian missiles bombarded the Ukrainian capital Kyiv on Friday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy seemed to go missing. Italy’s prime minister even told his own Parliament, in a tremulous voice, that Zelenskyy had missed a planned call with him.
Later, as Russian forces announced they had cut the city off from the western part of the country and captured strategic locations to Kyiv’s north, the Ukrainian leader emerged with one message: “We are here,” he said in a recorded video Friday night, standing in front of the presidency building flanked by his top advisers. “We are in Kyiv. We are protecting Ukraine.”
On Day Two of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Zelenskyy was still standing and seemed to be more than holding his own in the information war with his country’s giant neighbour.
The embattled leader, 44, who said Thursday that his country’s intelligence services believe that he is Russia’s “No. 1 target,” and his family the second, said he would not back down.
“Our army is here. Our civil society is here. We are all here,” he said in the video, holding the camera himself and wearing military green. “We are defending our independence, our state, and we will continue to do so.”
Zelenskyy also signalled openness to diplomacy to end the war, even as he sought to rally his country. He imposed martial law and forbade men 18 to 60 to leave so they could be enlisted in the fight. The capital was bracing for pitched street battles Friday night into Saturday as Russian forces closed in.
Zelenskyy’s government handed out 70,000 AK-47 rifles to citizens on Thursday alone, one of the aides in the video told The New York Times, and radio stations were broadcasting instructions for how to make Molotov cocktails.
“The president will stay until the very end,” said David Arakhamia, a leader of Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People Party in the Parliament.
And so Zelenskyy, a comedian who became the president after having played one on television, has shown himself as a determined commander in chief who was not going anywhere.
He even had the audacity to throw some sarcasm at the Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi, for having publicly expressed worry about him. The reason Zelenskyy missed the phone call, the Ukrainian leader said in a Twitter post, was that people were dying in heavy fighting nearby.
“Next time I’ll try to move the war schedule to talk to #MarioDraghi at a specific time,” Zelenskyy said. “Meanwhile, Ukraine continues to fight for its people.”
But he did have time to speak to President Joe Biden and other European leaders, urging increased sanctions on Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, and building an “anti-Putin coalition.”
Zelenskyy’s bravado in the face of lethal Russian danger did not go unnoticed by the Biden administration. Jen Psaki, the White House spokesperson, told reporters Friday that he was “an important partner” and that “we support him.” She declined to answer questions on what steps, if any, the administration may be planning to rescue him from possible arrest by the Russians.
Talk of his disappearance was a tactic used by the Russians to portray Zelenskyy as cowardly, decrease confidence in the government and make people lose hope, said Anna Kovalenko, a former aide to Zelenskyy.
“The enemy is trying to convince people that there is no government, there is nothing left for them,” she said. “But of course there is. And he went on the air and broadcast this video, and we saw where he was, who with him and that he was guarded by the state.”
Putin, who fulminated against Ukraine’s government Monday night in a fiery speech that effectively denied the former Soviet republic’s right to be independent, said Friday that Kyiv was being ruled by a “gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis” that had made the Ukrainian people hostages.
But many Ukrainians expressed fury at what the Kremlin was trying to do to their country of 44 million.
“Putin made a statement that we do not exist as a people, as a nation, as a country,” Kovalenko said. “Well, the whole country is resisting. In reality, Ukraine should erect a monument to Putin because he has so united the nation against him,” she said, adding that all political bickering has been set aside.
Zelenskyy’s spokesperson, Sergei Nikoforov, said he was still trying to negotiate with the Kremlin, which has refused to engage with him directly.
“Ukraine was and remains ready to talk about a cease-fire and peace,” Nikoforov said on Facebook. “This is our permanent position.”
He said that the government in Kyiv had agreed to Putin’s proposal for talks; both sides were consulting about the negotiation process; and “the sooner negotiations begin, the more chances there will be to resume normal life.”
But if the negotiations failed, Zelenskyy and his team have been clear that they will never flee.
In the late hours of Friday night, Zelenskyy appealed to his people again in another video, posted on his Telegram social media channel, warning them of difficult times ahead.
“Tonight, the enemy will use all their forces to break our resistance,” he said. “It is despicable, cruel and inhumane. Tonight they will storm. We must all understand what awaits us.”