Brendan O’Neill

The leadership and bravery of Volodymyr Zelensky

The Ukrainian President has done exactly what needed to be done

The leadership and bravery of Volodymyr Zelensky
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So that’s what leadership looks like. It looks like Volodymyr Zelensky. It looks like a president staying put in his capital city despite coming under attack from one of the largest military forces on Earth. It looks like a tired but proud man rallying his people to defend their nation from foreign onslaught. It looks like someone who warns his enemies that ‘When you attack us, you will see our faces. Not our backs, but our faces.’ It looks like someone who chooses to stay and fight rather than to run away. When US officials reportedly offered to help evacuate Zelensky, he told them he needed ammunition, ‘not a ride’.

‘I need ammunition, not a ride’. If someone doesn’t put that on a t-shirt, I swear I’ll lose my faith in politics and entrepreneurship.

I had forgotten what political leadership looked like. Most of us had, if we’re being honest. Three decades of being ruled by technocrats and bumblers will do that. We have a political class that actively eschews leadership. Which outsources decision-making to Brussels or to unaccountable quangos. Which prefers phoney chumminess to captaining the nation in a serious, principled way. Which is not even willing to withstand a Twitterstorm, never mind a foreign invasion. Our leaders won’t even say only women have a cervix, lest a few hundred angry eggs on the internet scream ‘BIGOT’ at them. Heaven knows how they’d cope if it was Putin rather than PC irritants breathing down their necks.

Zelensky has reminded us what political leadership looks like. I cannot remember the last time a national leader embodied the virtues of courage and confidence as much as Zelensky has over the past few days. His steadfastness stands in stark contrast not only to the cynical warmongering of Vladimir Putin but also to the perfidious antics of Nato and the EU. Western leaders talk a good fight against Putin’s regime, but as push comes very much to shove it seems to be just Zelensky and the incredibly brave people of Ukraine who are standing up for freedom against the Putin menace.

Zelensky has done exactly what needed to be done in this terrifying moment of invasion. He has made himself visible to his people. He posted a selfie video showing himself on the deserted streets of Kiev. ‘I am here’, he said – extraordinarily powerful words in the circumstances.

He posted another video featuring him with his top officials, out on the streets, in brilliant defiance of Russia’s dark desire to take out his government. ‘We are all here, defending our independence, our country, and it will stay this way’, he said. ‘Glory to our defenders, both male and female’, he cried. These brave government officials, transformed overnight from managers of society into defenders of Ukraine’s very existence from the fourth largest army in the world, are about as far from being ‘a gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis’, as Putin branded them, as it is possible to be.

Zelensky has given voice to the Ukrainian people’s determination to defend their national sovereignty. In a televised speech shortly before the invasion started – which he gave in Russian, to address the Russian people – he made a passionate defence of the right to self-determination. ‘We want to build our own history’, he said. ‘Peacefully. Calmly. Truthfully.’ Both peace and principles are at stake in this war, he said – in particular the principle that every nation must have the ‘right to define [its] own future’. Attack Ukraine’s right to determine its destiny for itself, and ‘you are going to see our faces’, he said. ‘Not our backs, our faces.’

One of the most moving parts of the speech was when Zelensky pushed back against Putin’s libel about Ukraine being a hotbed of fascism: ‘You are being told that we are Nazis. But how can a nation be called Nazi after sacrificing more than eight million lives to eradicate Nazism?’ I hope these words hit home not only with the ordinary Russians Zelensky was trying to reach, but also with those in the West who too freely, and so wrongly, bandy around the word ‘Nazi’ to demonise people they disagree with.

Zelensky could not be more different to the sorry excuses for leaders we are lumbered with in the West. Where Zelensky refuses to hide from the Russian army, Justin Trudeau runs away from protesting truckers – his own fellow citizens. Boris Johnson hid in a fridge to avoid a TV interview. America’s calamitous withdrawal from Afghanistan, during which many of its allies were left behind, left to the bloody mercy of the Taliban, suggests the Biden administration is also not trustworthy when the going gets tough.

Maybe I’m being ungenerous. The threat of war can bring out the best in people. It can focus the mind like nothing else. Perhaps some of our leaders would step up if tanks crossed our borders. Besides, the problem runs deeper than the questionable qualities of the people at the top of society. The larger calamity is that our societies now discourage heroism and bravery.

We have virtually pathologised these virtues. We’re told to run and hide in the event of a terror attack. Emergency services are so tied up in red tape that they often don’t venture into life-and-death situations until they know it’s safe to do so. Younger generations are educated to obsess over their self-esteem, and to view every slight or controversial comment as an intolerable assault on their very being. Our society nurtures fragility and self-obsession more than it does the great civic virtues of courage and pluck. If Russia came here, I just cannot envision our youths preparing petrol bombs, as young Ukrainians have done. Surely they’d be seeking out the ‘safe space’ where they so often take refuge from hurtful words and ideas.

So, thank you, Mr Zelensky, for reminding us what bravery looks like, and what true leadership can do. Ukraine is lucky to have you. And the UK could learn a great deal from your refusal to run away from the fight for freedom and sovereignty.