Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reckless assault on Ukraine has drawn worldwide condemnation, isolated Russians with travel restrictions and a worthless currency and provoked antiwar protests raising the prospect of martial law.
In the starkest of contrasts, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has inspired his besieged and outgunned people to defy Putin’s unprovoked invasion. Fierce resistance by thousands of citizen defenders has halted the advance of the Kremlin’s armored column on Kyiv and won the admiration of a horrified world.
However and whenever the worst armed conflict in Europe since World War II comes to an end, Putin and Zelensky will have led their countries to polar opposite rungs in the esteem of the international community: Powerful Russia expelled from institutions of civilized nations, underdog Ukraine held up as heroic defenders of freedom and democracy.
Putin’s ruthless attacks on civilians, his forces’ firefight at Europe’s largest nuclear plant and his ominous allusions to Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal have already spurred calls for his prosecution for war crimes at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Zelensky, if he survives and Ukraine succeeds in preserving its independence, might face a summons to Oslo for a Nobel Peace Prize.
“The contrast between how Putin and Zelensky are presenting themselves in this war is striking and symbolic of what is happening on the ground,” said Scott Radnitz, a professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Washington’s Ellison Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies.
While Putin poses in marbled auditoriums like a king dealing with his courtiers, “his angry rants suggest he has gone down some reality-challenged rabbit holes,” Radnitz said. “By contrast Zelensky doffed his presidential suit in favor of military fatigues and tight-fitting olive-green t-shirts, reminiscent of a guerrilla fighter.”
Zelensky’s interviews from a Kyiv bunker “reinforced his new image, not only as the head of state but as the leader of a resistance,” a strategy that has been wildly successful in galvanizing international support for severe sanctions, Radnitz said.
The two leaders came to power by circuitous paths as different as their personalities and political leanings.
Putin, 69, is a cunning chameleon who has shape-shifted from Communist true believer and foreign intelligence operative to ally of post-Soviet era reformers, then back to his KGB roots as national security chieftain under President Boris Yeltsin. Putin succeeded Yeltsin as Kremlin leader at the end of 1999 in an orchestration of the oligarchs designed to protect their control of Russia’s lucrative natural resources.
Zelensky, a generation younger at 44, was born into a Jewish family in south-central Ukraine and grew up speaking Russian as his first language. He spent his early career as an actor and comedian. His only political experience before winning the presidency in 2019 on an anti-corruption platform was playing the role of a teacher-turned-president in a TV sitcom, “Servant of the People” — now the title of his political party.
Since the invasion Putin launched on Feb. 24, Zelensky has addressed his people daily in selfies brazenly filmed outside Kyiv landmarks, defying Russia’s stated intent to capture, depose or kill him and his government. Unshaven and clearly exhausted, he urges Ukrainians to stand up for their freedom against Putin’s attempt to reimpose Kremlin rule over Ukraine, which broke from the Soviet Union four months before the Communist empire collapsed in December 1991.
Putin appears before the cameras of state-controlled media in sharp suits and silk ties to press his narrative that there is no war in Ukraine, that Russia is carrying out a “special military operation” to oust a government of neo-Nazis committing genocide against fellow Russians.
The Kremlin has shut down independent media and cut transmissions within Russia from Western broadcasters like BBC and Voice of America. That has done little to prevent the reality of the invasion from reaching Russians via social media.
The Kremlin leader has intensified his attacks in recent days on civilian apartment buildings, hospitals and kindergartens, as well as crucial infrastructure like the nuclear power plant in the city of Zaporizhya. A firefight ended Thursday night with Russian takeover of the plant without damage to the reactors that could have caused radiation release on the scale of what Zelensky called “six Chernobyls.” Russian troops continue to operate the plant by holding the workers at their stations at gunpoint.
Putin projects a tough-guy image and a domineering leadership style. His inner circle is small and seldom in the spotlight. Of late, video of Russian Cabinet meetings shows the president seated 15 feet or more from the rest of the assembled government officials.
Until the mass invasion stalled by Ukrainian resistance, Putin had been perceived as a skilled tactician, patiently waging incremental offensives in pursuit of his land-grabbing objectives. The 2014 seizure and annexation of Crimea and intervention to arm Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine were carefully calculated aggressions to stop short of provoking serious repercussions.
Russia’s deployment of 200,000 troops on a multi-pronged invasion from the Black Sea, Russian territory and Belarus surprised most Kremlin analysts. Western military observers predicted the two-month-long massing of forces against Ukraine was intimidation ahead of a less audacious invasion to take more territory for the Russian-occupied regions of Eastern Ukraine.
Putin’s nostalgia for Russia’s Cold War-era dominance of other Soviet republics and Eastern Europe and his paranoia about threats from those neighbors now aligned with the West have been fueled by NATO expansion to include many of the newly independent states. He casts the U.S.-led alliance’s induction of 14 new members since the Soviet breakup as “encroachment” with the ultimate aim of defeating Russia.
That distorted scenario provokes fear among older Russians with memories of the Nazi sieges of World War II, including the cutoff of Putin’s home city of Leningrad — now St. Petersburg — that led to mass starvation and death. Putin, who was born after the war in 1952, has written of his family’s suffering during the 1941-44 siege that killed 800,000 civilians, among them Putin’s then 2-year-old brother Viktor.
Zelensky lost family to the Nazis as well, including his paternal grandfather, Semyon. Days before his inauguration in May 2019, Zelensky visited his grandfather’s grave with its image of the WWII veteran etched in black stone.
“Thanks for the fact that the inhuman ideology of Nazism is forever a thing of the past,” he wrote in a Facebook post after laying flowers. “Thanks to those who fought against Nazism — and won.”
Younger Russians with social media connections and acquaintance with the reality of their country’s violation of international law will suffer the fate of a pariah state whether they supported the war or not.
Sanctions imposed by a growing number of outraged foreign governments, including neutral Switzerland, have isolated Russians in retaliation for their leader’s rogue actions. The Russian stock market lost half its value before it was closed a week ago to prevent a catastrophic selloff. Access to dollars and euros has dried up for common citizens, depriving them of the means to pay for imported foods and foreign travel.
Antiwar demonstrations are mounting, despite an increasingly brutal crackdown on protesters. A few voices from the oligarchy, like Russia’s second-largest oil company, Lukoil, have urged a halt to the war. Russian athletes competing in foreign sports events and safely living abroad have denounced the aggression discrediting their country. No positive response has been heard from Moscow, where rumors are rife that Putin might impose martial law to keep protesters off the streets and out of the public eye.
Opposition politician Alexei Navalny appealed from his prison cell Friday for Russians to intensify their condemnation of Putin’s war.
“Let’s at least not become a nation of frightened silent people, of cowards who pretend not to notice the aggressive war against Ukraine unleashed by our obviously insane czar,” Navalny said, according to the Reuters news agency.
Putin’s brutality against a population he insists are fellow Russians will be remembered by Ukrainians for decades as a cynical campaign to destroy their country to enhance his influence in the former Soviet sphere.
Many judged Zelensky as out of his depths three years ago when former President Donald Trump tried to blackmail him into digging up dirt on Joe Biden ahead of the 2020 election. It may be hard to envision a good outcome for Zelensky, but few doubt his intention to stay and fight to the end.