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Zelenskyy Is a Badass
Wish I were working at the White House today
Zelenskyy is a Badass
These days, I don’t miss Washington often. I loved working for President Obama and Vice President Biden at the White House and I would seriously consider any opportunity to serve again if ever offered the chance. But right now, I have a good gig at Stanford – stable pay, interesting work, tremendous freedom, and a workplace and home in paradise. However, today, I am having a FOMO (fear of missing out) attack. I wish I was back working at the White House today! Because today, a world hero is visiting Washington – President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Few considered Zelenskyy a hero during his last visit to Washington (and Stanford; he came to our campus the day after!) in the summer of 2021.
Back then, in fact, both voters in Ukraine and policymakers in Washington had doubts about the comedian-turned-president. Starting in 2021, his approval rating at home started to decline. In February 2021, only 21.2% of Ukrainians believed in Zelenskyy. This number was not much higher a year later, right before the start war, when Zelenskyy had only 24.6% of national support. In Washington, the Biden administration was annoyed with his constant harping about joining NATO. As always in U.S.-Ukraine relations, concerns about corruption in Ukraine hung in the air. At the time, I thought we were overplaying this old complaint and not appreciating the changes that had been made in Ukraine’s political system. On the eve of Zelenskyy’s visit, I wrote this in the Washington Post:
When the aperture of this discussion is widened from anti-corruption to democracy more broadly, there is some good news from Ukraine. The government has passed a historic law on land reform. It has put in place sweeping e-governance reforms. Parliament has implemented new gambling regulations, passed a new bill recognizing ethnic minority groups as “indigenous peoples of Ukraine,” and is moving ahead with a major judicial reform package that has won endorsement from the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe. The authorities have carried out positive personnel changes in the prosecutor general’s office and made considerable progress on the National Agency of Corruption Prevention.
Ukraine continues to hold free, fair, and competitive elections. It maintains a vibrant civil society and enjoys more competition among private media companies (even if the oligarchs own too many of them) than any other post-Soviet country other than the Baltics.
My voice back then was most certainly in the minority.
But Putin’s barbaric second invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 has immediately changed Zelenskyy’s standing at home and abroad. By February 27, 2022 – only three days after Putin invaded sovereign Ukraine – Zelenskyy’s approval skyrocketed to over 91%. This is unheard of! Today, there is no other politician in a democratic country that enjoys such support. And with good reason. Zelenskyy has performed fantastically well as a war-time president. He deserves a hero’s welcome in DC today.
His first heroic decision was to stay in Kyiv. In the run up to Putin’s second invasion, I was in constant contact with several people working for Zelenskyy. One evening, I had a particularly long discussion with a Ukrainian friend, Sergii Leshchenko, about the pluses and minuses of moving the Ukrainian government into exile, like the Poles had done after Hitler invaded their country in 1939. Krakow, Poland was an obvious location for the Ukrainian government’s new base of operations. Many European governments thought it was a prudent move. The U.S. government abandoned its embassy in Kyiv and moved to Poland. Judging by the damage the departing American diplomats did to the embassy’s sensitive equipment, it didn’t seem like they were expecting to be back anytime soon. At the end of our long abstract conversation however, Sergii said our discussion was all academic, because Zelenskyy would never leave Kyiv. He would rather die in Kyiv than live in Krakow. Zelenskyy is a badass.
This decision made a huge difference for the moral of Ukraine’s warriors. They demonstrated an incredible will to fight and defend their capital, where their president remained. Many Ukrainians living and working abroad returned home to join the fight. The Battle of Kyiv was Ukraine’s first big victory of the war. Ever since, Zelenskyy continues to visit the frontlines to meet with warriors. Just hours ago, he was in Bakhmut, one of the most dangerous cities in Ukraine.
Second, Zelenskyy also has assembled a terrific team and then empowered them to do their jobs. Ukraine has a very talented group of leaders, many of them who got their starts in the private sector and civil society. At FSI, the institute I run at Stanford, we have been training hundreds of Ukrainian leaders in our various programs over the last two decades, so I knew that Zelensky had a deep bench to pull from. And our graduates have been performing exceptionally. U.S. military experts who I trust, give deep praise to Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s Minister of Defense, and General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, a Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Zelenskyy’s Chief of Staff and close personal advisor, Andrii Yermak, has played a critical role in running a strong Presidential Administration. And Ukraine’s ministers of the economy, infrastructure, and digital transformation are just three among many rising stars, doing innovative, heroic work under extremely difficult conditions.
Third, Zelenskyy has proven to be a fantastic communicator at home and abroad. He knows how to communicate difficult things in intelligent and inspiring ways. His address to our campus last May via Zoom was one of the most moving events I have ever hosted. You can watch it here.
This is why he is addressing the U.S. Congress today, to explain one more time to the American people why his fight at home is not just for Ukraine, but for all democracies. It’s a daring move, but the right one.
I wish I could be there in person. But I’ll be here, in Palo Alto, cheering for my hero, Volodymyr Zelenskyy!