With Bravado and an Actor’s Flair, Zelensky Says He’s Staying in Kyiv

KYIV, Ukraine — As Russian missiles bombarded the Ukrainian capital Kyiv on Friday, President Volodymyr Zelensky seemed to go missing. Italy’s prime minister even told his own parliament, in a tremulous voice, that Mr. Zelensky had missed a planned call with him.

Later as Russian forces announced they had cut the city off from the western part of the country and captured strategic locations to Kyiv’s north, the Ukrainian leader emerged with one message:

“We are here,” he said in a recorded video on Friday night, standing in front of the presidency building flanked by his top advisers. “We are in Kyiv. We are protecting Ukraine.”

On Day 2 of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Zelensky was still standing, and seemed to be more than holding his own in the information war with his country’s giant neighbor.

The embattled leader, 44, who said on Thursday that his country’s intelligence services believe that he is Russia’s “number one target,” and his family the second, said he would not back down.

“Our army is here, our civil society is here, we are all here,” he said in the video, holding the camera himself and wearing military green. “We are defending our independence, our state, and we will continue to do so.”

President Volodymyr Zelensky early Friday in Kyiv, in a photo provided by Ukraine’s government.Credit…Ukraine Presidency, via Afp-Getty Images

Mr. Zelensky also signaled openness to diplomacy to end the war, even as he sought to rally his country. He imposed martial law and forbade men 18 to 60 to leave so they could be enlisted in the fight. The capital was bracing for pitched street battles Friday night into Saturday, as Russian forces closed in.

Mr. Zelensky’s government handed out 70,000 AK-47 rifles to citizens on Thursday alone, one of the aides in the video told The New York Times, and radio stations were broadcasting instructions for how to make Molotov cocktails.

“The president will stay until the very end,” said David Arakhamia, a leader of Mr. Zelensky’s Servant of the People Party in the parliament.

And so, Mr. Zelensky, a comedian who became the president after having played one on television, has shown himself as a determined commander in chief who was not going anywhere.

He even had the audacity to throw some sarcasm at the Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi, for having publicly expressed worry about him. The reason Mr. Zelensky missed the phone call, the Ukrainian leader said in a Twitter post, was that people were dying in heavy fighting nearby.

“Next time I’ll try to move the war schedule to talk to #MarioDraghi at a specific time,” Mr. Zelensky said. “Meanwhile, Ukraine continues to fight for its people.”

Ukrainian soldiers near Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

But he did have time to speak to President Biden and other European leaders, urging increased sanctions on Russia and its president, Vladimir V. Putin, and building an “anti-Putin coalition.”

Mr. Zelensky’s bravado in the face of lethal Russian danger did not go unnoticed by the Biden administration. Jen Psaki, the White House spokeswoman, told reporters on Friday that he was “an important partner” and that “we support him.” She declined to answer questions on what steps, if any, the administration may be planning to rescue him from possible arrest by the Russians.

Talk of his disappearance was a tactic used by the Russians to portray Mr. Zelensky as cowardly, decrease confidence in the government and make people lose hope, said Anna Kovalenko, a former aide to Mr. Zelensky.

“The enemy is trying to convince people that there is no government, there is nothing left for them,” she said. “But of course there is. And he went on the air and broadcast this video, and we saw where he was, who with him, and that he was guarded by the state.”

Mr. Putin, who fulminated against Ukraine’s government Monday night in a fiery speech that effectively denied the former Soviet republic’s right to be independent, said Friday that Kyiv was being ruled by a “gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis” that had made the Ukrainian people hostages.

Fragments of a downed aircraft in Kyiv on Friday.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

But many Ukrainians expressed fury at what the Kremlin was trying to do to their country of 44 million.

“Putin made a statement that we do not exist as a people, as a nation, as a country,” Ms. Kovalenko said. “Well, the whole country is resisting. In reality, Ukraine should erect a monument to Putin because he has so united the nation against him,” she said, adding that all political bickering has been set aside.

Understand Russia’s Attack on Ukraine

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What is at the root of this invasion? Russia considers Ukraine within its natural sphere of influence, and it has grown unnerved at Ukraine’s closeness with the West and the prospect that the country might join NATO or the European Union. While Ukraine is part of neither, it receives financial and military aid from the United States and Europe.

Are these tensions just starting now? Antagonism between the two nations has been simmering since 2014, when the Russian military crossed into Ukrainian territory, after an uprising in Ukraine replaced their Russia-friendly president with a pro-Western government. Then, Russia annexed Crimea and inspired a separatist movement in the east. A cease-fire was negotiated in 2015, but fighting has continued.

How did this invasion unfold? After amassing a military presence near the Ukrainian border for months, on Feb. 21, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia signed decrees recognizing two pro-Russian breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine. On Feb. 23, he declared the start of a “special military operation” in Ukraine. Several attacks on cities around the country have since unfolded.

What has Mr. Putin said about the attacks? Mr. Putin said he was acting after receiving a plea for assistance from the leaders of the Russian-backed separatist territories of Donetsk and Luhansk, citing the false accusation that Ukrainian forces had been carrying out ethnic cleansing there and arguing that the very idea of Ukrainian statehood was a fiction.

How has Ukraine responded? On Feb. 23, Ukraine declared a 30-day state of emergency as cyberattacks knocked out government institutions. Following the beginning of the attacks, Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, declared martial law. The foreign minister called the attacks “a full-scale invasion” and called on the world to “stop Putin.”

How has the rest of the world reacted? The United States, the European Union and others have condemned Russia’s aggression and begun issuing economic sanctions against Russia. Germany announced on Feb. 23 that it would halt certification of a gas pipeline linking it with Russia. China refused to call the attack an “invasion,” but did call for dialogue.

How could this affect the economy? Russia controls vast global resources — natural gas, oil, wheat, palladium and nickel in particular — so the conflict could have far-reaching consequences, prompting spikes in energy and food prices and spooking investors. Global banks are also bracing for the effects of sanctions.

Mr. Zelensky’s spokesman, Sergei Nikoforov, said he was still trying to negotiate with the Kremlin, which has refused to engage with him directly.

“Ukraine was and remains ready to talk about a cease-fire and peace,” Mr. Nikoforov said on Facebook. “This is our permanent position.”

He said that the government in Kyiv had agreed to Mr. Putin’s proposal for talks, both sides were consulting about the negotiation process, and that “the sooner negotiations begin, the more chances there will be to resume normal life.”

But if the negotiations failed, Mr. Zelensky and his team have been clear that they will never flee.

In the late hours of Friday night, Mr. Zelensky appealed to his people again in another video, posted on his Telegram social media channel, warning them of difficult times ahead.

“Tonight the enemy will use all their forces to break our resistance,” he said. “It is despicable, cruel, and inhumane. Tonight they will storm. We must all understand what awaits us.”

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