KYIV, Ukraine — Russian tanks were pouring across the border and kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, was gripped by fear and panic.
Street fighting broke out and a Russian armored column, which stormed the city, advanced to within 2 kilometers of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office.
In those tense first days of the war, almost everyone – the Russian president Vladimir Putinmilitary analysts, and many Western officials—expected the Ukrainian leadership to fracture.
Instead, Zelensky decided to remain in the capital in person, taking selfies as he drove through kyiv to reassure his people.
And he ordered his top advisers, many cabinet members and much of his government to stay put, too, despite the risks.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine delivers a speech to the US Congress. Photo Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times.
It was a crystallizing moment for the Zelensky government, which ensured that a wide range of agencies continued to function efficiently and in sync.
Leading politicians put aside the infighting that had defined Ukrainian politics for decades and instead created a mostly united front which continues today.
No senior officials deserted or fled, and the bureaucracy quickly went on a war footing.
“In the first days of the war, everyone was in shock and everyone was thinking what to do: stay in kyiv or evacuate,” said Serhiy Nikiforov, a spokesman for Zelensky.
“The president’s decision was that nobody goes anywhere. We stayed in kyiv and fought. That cemented it.”
Zelenskyy from Ukraine visits a military training base in Ukraine, on February 16, 2022. Photo Lynsey Addario/The New York Times.
To much of the world, Zelensky is best known for appearing by video link with a daily message of courage and defiance, rallying his people and urging allies to provide weapons, money and moral support.
On Sunday, he again drew world attention at a meeting in kyiv with two top US officials, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Secretary of Defense LloydAustin, who promised more military support and, in a move of symbolic importance, said the United States would move forward to reopen your embassy in Kyiv.
But behind the scenes, Zelensky’s success is also based on the government’s ability to operate smoothly and take steps to help people cope, such as a radical dysregulation to keep the economy afloat and provide essential goods and services.
Zelenskyy filming his television show “Servant of the People” two months before he was elected president in 2019. Photo Brendan Hoffman/The New York Times.
By relaxing rules on cargo transportation, for example, the government was able to address a serious risk of food shortages in kyiv in the early days of the war.
And in March, it reduced the business tax at 2%, and only if the owner wanted to pay.
“Pay if you can, but if you can’t, there are no questions,” Zelensky said at the time.
More controversially, it combined six previously competing television stations into a single news outlet.
Fusion, he said, was necessary for the National security, but it frustrated political opponents and defenders of free speech.
He has also forged a truce with his main domestic political opponent, former President Petro O. Poroshenkowith whom he quarreled until the beginning of the war.
A tremendous wartime effect of rallying around the flag no doubt made Zelensky’s job easier, said Volodymyr Yermolenko, editor-in-chief of Ukraine World, a magazine that covers politics.
“The peculiar thing about Ukrainian politics is that the agency comes from society, not from political leaders,” he said.
“Zelensky is who he is because of the Ukrainian people, who are behind him, showing courage.”
He added that “this is not to undermine their efforts” and credited Zelensky with adapting his pre-war populist politics to a style of effective leadership in the crucible of conflict.
These days, Zelensky’s workplace on Bankova Street is a silent, dark space filled with soldiers; there are sandbagged firing points in the corridors and on the landings of the stairs.
“We were prepared to fight exactly in this building,” Nikiforov said.
A former sitcom actor, Zelensky has surrounded himself with a group of loyalists from his TV days, relationships that have drawn accusations of cronyism in the past but have served him well during the conflict by keeping his leadership team on the same page. .
And Zelensky has structured his days in a way that works for him.
He receives one-on-one phone briefings from General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, the commander of the armed forces, several times a day, often first thing in the morning, aides and advisers said.
This is followed by a morning video conference with the prime minister, sometimes other cabinet members, and military and intelligence agency leaders in a format that combines military and civilian decision-making, according to Nikiforov.
Without a doubt, Zelensky’s video speeches — before the US Congress, the British Parliament, the Israeli Knesset and other governments — remain the defining and most effective element of his wartime role.
The Ukrainian and Russian armies are still engaged in pitched battles on the eastern plains, but in the information warfarekyiv has clearly won.
Delivered with passion by a former actor with a keen sense of narrative and drama, Zelensky’s speeches have rallied his countrymen and galvanized international support.
Some speeches are improvised and others more scripted.
A 38-year-old former journalist and political analyst, Dmytro Lytvyn, has reportedly served as Zelensky’s speechwriter.
Nikiforov confirmed that Zelensky is collaborating with a writer, but declined to say with whom.
Politically, Zelensky made some early moves that allowed him to reduce any internal conflict that might detract from the war effort.
Among them was the awkward rapprochement with Poroshenko, who had harshly criticized Zelensky since losing to him in the 2019 election.
Their disputes continued even as Russia massed troops at the border, and Zelensky’s prosecutor put Poroshenko under arrest. house arrest for various cases with political overtones.
But the day Russia invaded, the two leaders came to an understanding.
“I met with Mr. Zelensky, we shook hands,” Poroshenko said in March.
“We said that we are starting from scratch, he can firmly count on my support, because now we have an enemy. and the name of this enemy is Putin”.
Zelensky outlawed another main opposition faction, a Russian-leaning political party.
It has helped that Zelensky’s political party, Servant of the People, won a majority of seats in parliament in 2019, allowing him before the war to appoint a cabinet of loyalists.
Previous Ukrainian governments have been divided between feuding presidents and opposition-controlled cabinets.
“Not on paper, but in reality, it’s quite a great team,” said Igor Novikov, a former foreign policy adviser.
“It’s very close.”
Tymofiy Mylovanov, a former economy minister and now an economic adviser to the president’s office, likened Ukrainian politics to “loved ones fighting.”
“It’s a family fight,” he said. “But family comes first.”
The inner circle is largely made up of media, film and comedy industry veterans with backgrounds similar to Zelensky’s.
Andriy Yermak, chief of staff and former film producer, is widely seen as Ukraine’s second most powerful politician, although the constitutional successor is parliament speaker Ruslan Stefanchuk, who was evacuated to western Ukraine early in the war.
Yermak oversees foreign and economic policy.
Other key advisers include Mykhailo Podolyak, a former journalist and publisher who is a negotiator with the Russians; Serhiy Shefir, former screenwriter, now national political adviser; and Kirill Tymoshenko, a former cameraman who now oversees humanitarian aid.
The military high command is made up of officers, including Zaluzhnyi, with experience fighting Russia during the eight-year conflict in eastern Ukraine.
In the early days of the war, Zelensky set three priorities for his government ministries, according to Mylovanov:
acquisition of weapons, shipments of food and other goods, and maintenance of the supply of gasoline and diesel.
Ministries were told to rewrite regulations to ensure speedy delivery on all three tracks.
That was perhaps most useful in the frantic rush of early times to get food to kyiv, which was at risk of being besieged and starved.
With the supply chain disrupted, the president’s office brokered a deal between supermarket chains, trucking companies and volunteer drivers to establish a single trucking service to supply all food stores.
Stores would post a request on a website, and any available driver would fill the order for free or at the cost of gas.
Perhaps the most controversial move Zelensky made was to combine the six television newsrooms into a single channel with a single report.
The main opposition television channel, Channel 5, affiliated with Poroshenko, was omitted from the group.
Zelensky positioned the move as necessary for national security.
Opponents saw it as a worrying case of the government suppressing dissent.
“I hope wisdom will prevail, and the intention is not to use this to keep political competitors at bay,” said Volodymyr Ariev, a member of Poroshenko’s Solidarity political party.
The transparency in the Ukrainian parliament has also been a victim of the war.
Parliament meets at irregular, unannounced intervals lasting about an hour for security reasons, to prevent a swift attack by Russian cruise missiles.
To speed up sessions, members do not debate the bills publicly in the chamber, but rather privately as they draft them, according to Ariev.
Parliamentarians then gather in the majestic neoclassical chamber, vote quickly and then they scatter.
Mylovanov said that Ukraine’s pluralistic political culture would recover.
Unity is now needed, he said.
“Don’t worry,” he said.
“We are going to fight again for a liberal versus protectionist economic policy, price controls, how to attract investment and everything else.”
Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from kyiv.
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