Traveling the 4,880 miles from Kyiv to Washington may be a shorter distance than Zelensky has journeyed from just another faltering Ukrainian leader to Time magazine’s Person of the Year.
In December 2021, his domestic approval rating was 31%, an anemic figure but by no means uncharacteristic for a Ukrainian incumbent during peacetime. Olga Rudenko, editor of the Kyiv Independent, wrote in the New York Times on Feb. 21 that three days before the invasion, “the president’s performance — strained, awkward, often inappropriate — is hardly helping.”
In Washington, too, he was widely viewed as unseasoned, refractory and not likely to stand a chance against Vladimir Putin, the former KGB officer who was determined to conquer Ukraine, once a cornerstone of the Russian and Soviet empires. Many in the Biden administration were exasperated with Zelensky and his Cabinet in the lead-up to the war. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reportedly told a Ukrainian diplomatic delegation at the Pentagon on Feb. 22, “They’re going to roll into Kyiv in a few days. They’re coming in with tanks and columns of formations. You need to be ready for that. You need to be prepared. If you’re not, it’s going to be a slaughter.”
Now look: As of August, Zelensky’s job performance approval stood at 91%, remarkable for any wartime leader, much less one who’d driven the Russians out of Kyiv. That poll, moreover, didn’t account for his military’s stunning battlefield successes in the months since. Ukraine’s armed forces have reclaimed a total of 16,795 square miles of territory from Vladimir Putin’s retreating and demoralized soldiers, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a nonpartisan think tank, the equivalent of approximately half the land Russia once occupied. [Continue reading…]