President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, unpopular as he was in Ukraine before the war, made a critical decision once Russia began its attack.
He stood on a street in Kyiv, made a selfie-style cell phone video and said: I am here.
“He knows that he might well die there, but he is not going to leave," historian Margaret MacMillan says. "He's talked not just to the Ukrainians, he's talked to people around the world.”
Zelenskyy has masterfully harnessed the media. And galvanized the world.
"It's just amazing the diversity of people who this person has resonated with," Gina Scott Ligon, director of the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center at the University of Nebraska Omaha, says. "It's not something we have seen in a very long time."
Today, On Point: A profile in leadership.
Max Hastings, military historian, journalist, author and columnist for the London times and Bloomberg. Author of Winston’s War and Soldiers: Great Stories of War and Peace and the forthcoming book on the Cuban Missile Crisis, The Abyss.
Sen. Bill Bradley, former Democratic senator from New Jersey.
Transcript: A Former Prime Minister Of Ukraine Reflects On Zelenskyy's Leadership
Oleksiy Honcharuk served as Ukraine's prime minister from 2019 to 2020. He was a member of Zelenskyy's Servant of the People party, and spoke with us from Kyiv, where he has remained since Russia began its attack.
OLEKSIY HONCHARUK: Look, I believe that this is absolutely critical situation You have the second military power in the world invaded your country. So it's impossible to be prepared.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Impossible for a country to be fully prepared and for its leader, he says. And he also said this is really about more than just Zelenskyy. Honcharuk says this is about Ukraine and its defense of democracy. And how Ukrainians would have resisted Russia's invasion regardless of its president's actions, even if Zelenskyy had chosen to leave the country.
HONCHARUK: Even in this case, Ukrainian nation would stand till the end. So it's not Zelenskyy's choice. It's a choice of our nation. But Zelenskyy is a part of this nation, and Zelenskyy now is a symbol of our nation. That's what gives Zelenskyy a historic chance, I believe, to become a great leader, but it's only a chance. It will depend on his ... actions, I believe.
CHAKRABARTI: Honcharuk says there was no guarantee before February 24th that Volodymyr Zelenskyy would rise to this moment. The comedian turned politician proved to be a poor manager before the war. For example, in 2021, the International Monetary Fund was willing to help with Ukraine's growing debt problem. But Zelenskyy looked for ways to circumvent the IMF reform conditions, while still taking a $5 billion financial package. So, Honcharuk says Zelenskyy made mistakes.
HONCHARUK: Maybe even a lot of mistakes, and that's why he lost a big part of his support among the population of Ukraine. But it doesn't matter now. He passed the final, and maybe the main test.
CHAKRABARTI: That test, as we mentioned before, Volodymyr Zelenskyy did not abandon his country. He risked his life, stood on the streets of Kyiv and said, I'm here. Honcharuk says it's impossible to overestimate the importance of that, especially since that moment proved Ukraine's president had political gravitas to match his theatrical charisma.
HONCHARUK: Doubtless he has charisma as a person. But, look, he is not a big ideological leader, you know. So there is no special or very strong idea behind him. He wasn't a leader of a revolution, of a big revolution. But now he become a special person.
CHAKRABARTI: In other words, the war made him him. Honcharuk also says Zelenskyy, even as a wartime president, realizes that his role isn't necessarily military or strategic. It's to rally hearts and minds. A wartime cliche, but one that seems so urgent now. And Honcharuk adds Zelenskyy trusts the advisors around him. And critically, they trust him.
HONCHARUK: All his team around him consider him as the only possible leader and believe him, trust him. And that's why I am not surprised that he acted like he acted.
CHAKRABARTI: And those actions mean something to all Ukrainians, including Honcharuk. Recall he spoke with us from Kyiv. And no matter how close the Russian military advances, Honcharuk says he will not leave the city.
HONCHARUK: And not only because I love my city and it's my home, and I'm ready to protect it. But because I have no any doubts that the president will stand until the end.
This program aired on March 15, 2022.