Latest Ukraine-Russia War News: Live Updates
Kyiv, Ukraine – Russian tanks rolled across the border and fear and panic gripped Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. Street fighting broke out and a Russian tank column rushed into the city, advancing to within two miles of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office.
In those tense first days of the war, almost everyone – Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, military analysts and many Western officials – expected a break from the Ukrainian leadership. Instead, Mr. Zelensky decided to personally stay in the capital and take selfies as he passed through Kyiv to reassure his people. And he ordered his senior advisers, many cabinet members and much of his government to stay put too, despite the risks.
It was a crystallizing moment for Mr Zelensky’s government, ensuring a wide range of agencies ran efficiently and in sync. Political leaders put aside the sharp-edged infighting that had defined Ukrainian politics for decades and instead created a largely unified front that continues to this day.
No senior official defected or fled, and the bureaucracy quickly became at loggerheads.
“In the first days of the war, everyone was in shock and thinking about what to do – stay in Kyiv or evacuate,” said Serhiy Nikiforov, spokesman for Mr Zelenskyy. “The President’s decision was that no one goes anywhere. We stay in Kyiv and we fight. That cemented it.”
In much of the world, Mr. Zelensky is best known for appearing via video link with a daily message of courage and defiance to rally his people and exhort allies to provide arms, money and moral support. On Sunday, he again drew global attention at a meeting in Kyiv with two senior US officials, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, who pledged more military support and – in a move of symbolic importance – said the United States would seek to reopen its embassy in Kyiv.
But behind the scenes, Mr Zelensky’s success to date is also rooted in the government’s ability to function smoothly and take measures to help people cope, such as:
For example, by relaxing rules on the transportation of cargo, the government was able to address the acute risk of food shortages in the capital, Kyiv, in the early days of the war. And in March he reduced business tax to 2 percent – and then only if the owner wanted to pay.
“Pay if you can, but if you can’t, no questions asked,” Zelensky said at the time.
More controversially, he combined six TV channels that had previously competed against each other into one news source. The merger is necessary for national security reasons, but frustrates political opponents and advocates of freedom of expression.
He has also forged a truce with his main domestic opponent, former President Petro O. Poroshenko, with whom he had feuded until the beginning of the war.
A huge wartime effect of rallying around the flag undoubtedly made Mr Zelenskyy’s job easier, said Volodymyr Yermolenko, editor-in-chief of Ukraine World, a political magazine. “What is special about Ukrainian politics is that the agency comes from society, not from the political leaders,” he said. “Zelensky is who he is because the Ukrainian people stand behind him and show courage.”
He added that “this is not intended to undermine his efforts” and credited Mr Zelensky with adapting his pre-war populist policies to an effective leadership style in the conflict’s crucible.
Today, Mr. Zelensky’s workplace on Bankova Street is a subdued, dark room filled with soldiers; in the corridors and on the landings there are shooting positions protected by sandbags. “We were prepared to fight right in this building,” said Mr. Nikiforov.
The Ukrainian leader, a former comedian, has surrounded himself with a group of loyalists from his days on TV, relationships that have drawn accusations of nepotism in the past but which have served him well during the conflict by empowering his leadership team kept on the same page. And Mr. Zelensky has structured his days to work for him.
Mr. Zelensky receives personal telephone briefings several times a day and often first thing in the morning from General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, commander of the armed forces, aides and advisers said.
This is followed by a morning video conference with the prime minister, sometimes other cabinet members, and military and intelligence leaders in a format that combines military and civilian decision-making, according to his spokesman Nikiforov.
Of course, Mr Zelensky’s video addresses – before the US Congress, the British Parliament, the Israeli Knesset and other governments – remain the defining and most effective element of his role during the war. The Ukrainian and Russian armies are still engaged in field battles on the eastern plains, but Kyiv has clearly won the information war.
Mr. Zelensky’s speeches, impassionedly delivered by a former actor with a keen sense of storytelling and drama, have rallied his countrymen and international support.
Some are scripted at will and others more. A 38-year-old former journalist and political analyst, Dmytro Lytvyn, reportedly served as Mr Zelensky’s speechwriter. Mr. Nikiforov, the spokesman, confirmed that the president is working with a writer, but declined to say with whom.
Politically, Mr. Zelensky took some early steps that allowed him to reduce any internal strife that might distract from the war effort.
Among them was the uneasy approach to Mr Poroshenko, who had harshly criticized Mr Zelenskyy since losing to him in the 2019 election. Their bickering continued even as Russia massed troops on the border, with Mr. Selensky’s prosecutor placing Mr. Poroshenko under house arrest on various politically-tinged cases.
but The day Russia invaded, the two leaders reached an agreement. “I met with Mr Zelenskyy, we shook hands,” Mr Poroshenko said in March. “We said we’re starting from scratch, he can count on my support firmly because now we have an enemy. And the name of that enemy is Putin.”
Mr Zelensky banned another major opposition faction, a Russian-leaning political party.
It helped that Mr Zelenskyi’s political party, Servant of the People, won a majority of seats in parliament in 2019, allowing him to appoint a cabinet of loyalists before the war. Previous Ukrainian governments have been divided between rival presidents and opposition-controlled cabinets.
“Not on paper, but in reality it’s all one big team,” said Igor Novikov, a former foreign policy adviser. “It’s very tight-knit.”
Tymofiy Mylovanov, a former economy minister and now economic adviser in the president’s office, likened Ukrainian politics to a “fight between loved ones”.
“It’s a family dispute,” he said. “But family comes first.”
The inner circle consists largely of veterans of the media, film and comedy industries with backgrounds similar to Mr. Zelensky.
Andriy Yermak, chief of staff and former film producer, is widely regarded as Ukraine’s second most powerful politician, although the constitutional successor is parliament speaker Ruslan Stefanchuk, who was evacuated to western Ukraine at the start of the war. Mr. Yermak oversees foreign and economic policy.
Other key advisers are Mykhailo Podolyak, a former journalist and editor who is a chief negotiator with the Russians; Serhiy Shefir, a former screenwriter now a domestic policy adviser; and Kirill Tymoshenko, a former videographer who now oversees humanitarian aid.
The top military command consists of officers including General Zaluzhnyi, who has experience fighting Russia over the eight years of conflict in eastern Ukraine.
In the early days of the war, Mr. Zelensky set three priorities for his government’s ministries, according to Mylovanov: arms procurement, supplies of food and other goods, and maintaining petrol and diesel supplies. Ministries have been ordered to rewrite regulations to ensure speedy delivery on all three tracks.
This was perhaps most helpful in the frantic rush to get groceries to Kyiv, which was in danger of being besieged and starved.
With the supply chain disrupted, the President’s office brokered an agreement between grocery chains, trucking companies and volunteer drivers to set up a single trucking service to serve all grocery stores. The shops made a request on a website and the available driver filled the order either for free or at the cost of gas.
Perhaps the most controversial move Mr Zelensky took was to merge the six television newsrooms into one single-report channel. Excluded from the group was the opposition’s main television channel Channel 5, which is linked to Mr Poroshenko.
Mr. Zelensky positioned the move as necessary for national security. Opponents saw it as a disturbing example of the government suppressing dissent.
“I hope that wisdom will prevail and the intention is not to use this to repress political competitors,” said Volodymyr Ariev, a member of Mr Poroshenko’s Solidarnosc political party.
Transparency in the Ukrainian parliament was also a victim of the war.
Parliament meets at irregular, unannounced intervals of about an hour for security reasons to avoid a quickly targeted Russian cruise missile attack.
To speed up the sessions, members do not debate the bills publicly in the chamber, but privately as they draft them, Mr Ariev said. Then the parliamentarians gather in the stately, neoclassical hall, vote quickly and then disperse.
Mr. Mylovanov, the President’s economic adviser, said Ukraine’s pluralistic political culture is recovering. Unity is needed now, he said.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “We will fight again over liberal or protectionist economic policies, price controls, attracting investment and all the rest.”
Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Kyiv.