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How President Zelenskyy's wartime leadership has transformed his image

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

So as we just heard, today marks one week exactly since Russia invaded Ukraine, which means it also marks one week since Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy became a wartime president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Non-English language spoken).

KELLY: In this video, Zelenskyy appears on screen from Kyiv. He has ditched what was his standard presidential suit and tie for an army green T-shirt. He is saying he is Russia's No. 1 target but that he and his family would remain in Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZELENSKYY: (Non-English language spoken).

KELLY: Zelenskyy has been all over social media this last week. He has been working the phone, asking world leaders to do more to help his country. He told an emergency summit of EU leaders in Brussels, this may be the last time you see me alive. Here to discuss Zelenskyy's wartime leadership - Emily Harding. She has been tracking the war from her perch at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Emily Harding, welcome.

EMILY HARDING: Thank you so much.

KELLY: I want to start with that moment I just mentioned. This was one week ago, Zelenskyy told European leaders, this may be the last time you see me alive. It wasn't, thankfully. But describe the impact on EU leaders who were listening to that, who have been watching via video link.

HARDING: I think Zelenskyy's leadership in this situation has really been inspirational. We talk in the U.S. about profiles in courage. This is what it looks like. The comment that you made about him going from his normal suit and tie to his army green T-shirt to his army sweaters, the images of him showing up in the streets next to his troops, walking around and showing people what's really going on - these have been very powerful. And I think those direct messages to EU leaders saying that we are all Ukrainians. We are all the same. Asking directly for their help has been huge in really cementing opposition to this Russian invasion of Ukraine.

KELLY: The other line that may stick in people's heads from this last week is the reported response that President Zelenskyy made to a U.S. offer to evacuate him where he said, I need ammunition, not a ride. I wonder, when you heard that - I should mention that part of your background is you are a former CIA analyst. You were a leadership analyst. You were looking at what makes leaders. When you look at Zelenskyy right now, what do you see?

HARDING: I see someone who is really stepping into his element. The contrast between him and Vladimir Putin's leadership is stark. You see Putin at a huge long table, distanced from all of his advisers, looking paranoid, looking separated, very much emotional in a lot of his speeches. And then you see Zelenskyy, who's standing next to his soldiers, who is down in the streets, who is talking about his family and his country and how he's going to stand up to Putin's rule. His rise from, you know, somebody who maybe wasn't taken incredibly seriously as a former comedian and now president - he has really risen to this moment. And when he made that comment about, I need ammunition, not a ride, I mean, I couldn't help but smile. I think that the whole world probably looked at that as an iconic moment of this conflict.

KELLY: Well - and to the point of how big a transformation this is, how very not seriously he was being taken really recently, I want to play a little bit of tape. I was in Ukraine just a few weeks ago reporting. At the end of January, Volodymyr Zelenskyy's poll numbers were abysmal. We struggled to find anyone who liked him. This is one remark from a woman we met on Maidan Independence Square in central Kyiv. She was 32 years old. Her name is Yana Yarosch.

Are you confident in the government here?

YANA YAROSCH: (Laughter) Are you kidding me? No. That's a good joke, actually, to be confident in the government. No, no. Personally, I do not trust what they say.

KELLY: So you hear her laughing there. A good joke, the thought - the mere thought of being confident in the government. How do you explain a transformation like that?

HARDING: Well, I mean, in any conflict or moment of crisis, there's always a rally around the flag effect. So I think any leader would expect to have a bump in their approval rating just because people do rally behind what they see as a hope in his leadership. But Zelenskyy has more than outstripped expectations there. I mean, his leadership has been inspirational. He's really been speaking for the voice of the Ukrainian people. His attempts to speak directly to the Russian people have been really impressive - when he speaks in Russian, and he says, I'm talking directly to you.

KELLY: Yeah, he's fluent in both, like a lot of Ukrainians, so he can speak directly to both peoples. Yeah.

HARDING: Exactly. His comments about how, you know, this denazification claim that Putin is pursuing - you know, hey; I'm a Jewish Russian-speaking Ukrainian. I don't know what this guy's talking about. He's really done very well at being very relatable but then also being a very strong leader, and he has risen to the occasion during this crisis.

KELLY: Is there a risk of building him up too much, a risk to lionizing him in this moment?

HARDING: Of course. I think there always is that risk. I mean, the outpouring of support to the Ukrainian people has been dramatic, and that's, in part, because we've seen all these heroic stories come out of Ukraine. I really worry that, in the next week or so, we're going to see the tide turn a little bit, and the Russians are going to double down on some of their terrible tactics. And then we may see things start to turn a little bit. And I don't want the world to lose faith in the Ukrainian people and their will to fight 'cause I think they're going to keep fighting.

KELLY: Wow. I mean, that's - you're injecting a note of realism here, which is that you have this president who is inspiring people in his country and around the world, but the fundamental dynamics of this fight have not changed much. This is still Ukraine fighting on its own and against a way bigger, way better resourced Russian military.

HARDING: That's right. The Russian advances have bogged down in several places along the way, but that is not a permanent condition. Lots of people are making comparisons between this and the Russo-Finnish war. There are ways that Russia can redouble its efforts, can get those convoys moving again, can, frankly, use artillery and their air force to a much greater effect if they want to. I suspect that Zelenskyy's going to stay on camera and keep talking about how well the Ukrainians are doing for as long as he possibly can.

KELLY: Emily Harding, deputy director and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies' International Security Program. Emily Harding, thank you.

HARDING: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLORIAN WEBER'S "COSMIC GIRL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.