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Ukraine war 12 months on: how Volodymyr Zelensky became the nation’s unlikely hero

“The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.” These words, reportedly spoken by Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky in response to the Americans’ offer of evacuation from Kyiv soon after the launch of Russia’s mass invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, laid the foundations for his reputation as a hero.

Over the past 12 months Zelensky’s reputation both at home and abroad has been transformed.

Despite his landslide victory in the 2019, the years after his election were met with widespread disappointment in Ukraine. This was due to his handling of the pandemic and his failure to deliver on campaign promises, especially cracking down on corruption and ending the war in the Donbas.

By December 2021 opinion polls showed that only 27% of Ukrainians trusted him. And when more than 100,000 Russian troops were poised to invade Ukraine, there was widespread scepticism in the west about Zelensky’s ability to lead his country through a war on this scale.

Since Vladimir Putin sent his war machine into Ukraine on February 24 2022, The Conversation has called upon some of the leading experts in international security, geopolitics and military tactics to help our readers understand the big issues. You can also subscribe to our weekly recap of expert analysis of the Ukraine conflict.

A comedian and comic actor, Zelensky had been best known for his portrayal of a schoolteacher who unexpectedly becomes president in the popular Ukrainian television series Servant of the People. But both Ukraine and Zelensky have exceeded expectations of their performance in this conflict.

By December 2022, Ukrainians’ trust in their president had risen to 84%. The Ukrainians - soldiers and civilians alike - have demonstrated that they are both willing and able to defend their country. Not only did they resist the initial attack on Kyiv but they have also managed to retake 54% of the territory captured by Russia since February last year.

Zelensky’s display of personal courage and determination throughout the war has won admiration around the world. Even the president of the United States was willing to risk air raids to visit Kyiv and stand side by side with Zelensky.

Research into heroism and global politics I have conducted with my colleague Veronica Kitchen reveals the political importance of heroes and heroic narratives. Heroes and the stories that are told about them have the ability to inspire societies to come together and stay together, especially in troubled times.

There are certain actions that are typically associated with heroes and heroism, especially the willingness to risk one’s safety and even one’s life in defence of a cause or to protect the lives of others. Zelensky’s decision to remain in Kyiv and share the dangers of war with his fellow citizens is itself a significant component of his heroic story.

Two men walk past a white door.
President Zelensky has won admiration around the world for his leadership during the Ukraine war. UPI/Alamy

Another feature of heroism is the determination to overcome obstacles that may appear or be insurmountable. There is nothing heroic in an easy victory.

Although experts in military strategy and western policymakers have been impressed by Ukraine’s successes on the battlefield, no one expects this war to end quickly or easily. Zelensky’s vulnerability to relentless Russian attacks and repeated assassination attempts highlight that both the outcome of this war and his own survival are far from certain.

But Kitchen and I argue that there is more to becoming a hero than completing a series of tasks on a checklist.

According to the results of our research, context is vital. A hero is a hero for a specific time, place and audience. In fact, the audiences for heroic narratives are every bit as important as the heroes themselves.

Our heroes have the ability to inspire us because they are literally our best selves: ourselves as we would wish to be and to be seen by others. Our heroes embody the values that we most admire and cherish.

To understand why Zelensky is so widely regarded as a hero we need to understand the values that he represents.

In their recent book, The Zelensky Effect, political scientists Olga Onuch and Henry E. Hale argue the president emphasises the unity of all Ukrainians and expresses a civic national identity that is shared by the overwhelming majority of his fellow citizens.

This means that Ukrainians’ main loyalty is to the state rather than to a region, a language or a religion. According to an August 2022 opinion poll carried out by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, 85% of Ukrainians consider themselves to be citizens of Ukraine rather than being from the eastern or western regions of the country, Russian speakers or Ukrainian speakers, Christian or Jewish.

But while Zelensky’s emphasis on Ukrainian civic national identity helps to explain his ability to connect with his own citizens, it does not explain the popularity of Ukraine’s president abroad. Here, too, shared values are the key.

Zelensky consistently describes Ukrainian society as sharing the values of Europe and of the west more generally: democracy, liberalism, tolerance and freedom. He often refers to Ukraine’s aspirations to join western institutions such as the European Union and Nato, and argues that authoritarian Russia poses a threat not only to Ukraine but to the free world as a whole.

Zelensky’s ability to tailor his message to his audience also ensures that his words resonate. By paraphrasing Winston Churchill when speaking to the House of Commons, or referring to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks when speaking to the US Congress, he makes connections that encourage others to see themselves in Ukraine’s struggles.

Threats to his image

Although Zelensky’s status as a hero seems firmly established, it is nevertheless vulnerable to challenge. Such a challenge appeared earlier this year in the form of a corruption scandal affecting senior Ukrainian officials.

Zelensky acted quickly to dismiss many of those accused and reassure western donors that their money was not being wasted. But fresh allegations along these lines could tarnish his reputation in the eyes of Ukrainians and foreign observers alike.

Zelensky’s reputation as a hero rests not only on his personal courage but on his ability to articulate a message of shared values and a shared determination to resist the mass invasion by Russian forces that began 12 months ago.

Whether his heroism will continue to inspire or quickly be forgotten may depend upon his ability to maintain that unity of purpose among Ukrainians into arrangements for peace and the rebuilding of postwar Ukraine.

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