Kyiv, Ukraine – Russian tanks were rolling across the border and Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, was in the grip of fear and panic. Street fighting broke out and a Russian armored column rolled into the city to within two miles of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office.
In those tense early days of the war, almost everyone — Russian President Vladimir Putin, military analysts and many Western officials — predicted a split in the Ukrainian leadership. Instead, Mr. Zelensky decided to stay in person in the capital, taking selfies as he crossed Kyiv to reassure his people. He ordered his top aides, several cabinet members and much of his government to stay put too, despite the risks.
It was a crystallizing moment for Mr. Zelensky’s government, ensuring that a wide range of agencies continued to operate efficiently and simultaneously. Prominent politicians put aside the intense infighting that had defined Ukrainian politics for decades, and instead created a largely united front that continues today.
None of the senior officials defected or fled, and the bureaucracy soon went to war.
“In the early days of the war, everyone was in shock, everyone was thinking about what to do – stay in Kyiv or evacuate,” said Serhiy Nikiforov, a spokesman for Mr. Zelensky. The president’s decision was nobody is going anywhere. We stay in Kyiv and fight. This strengthened her.”
Mr. Zelensky is best known in much of the world for appearing via video link with a daily message of courage and defiance, mobilizing his people and urging allies to provide arms, money and moral support. On Sunday, he captured global attention again at a meeting in Kyiv with two top US officials, Secretary of State Anthony J. The United States will seek to reopen its embassy in Kyiv.
But behind the scenes, Mr. Zelensky’s success so far is due to the government’s ability to operate smoothly and take measures to help people cope, such as sweeping deregulation to keep the economy afloat, and the provision of essential goods and services.
By relaxing the rules on the transportation of goods, for example, the government was able to address the severe danger of food shortages in the capital, Kyiv, in the early days of the war. And in March he lowered business taxes to 2 percent — and then only if the owner wants to pay.
“Pay if you can but if you can’t, no questions asked,” Mr. Zelensky said at the time.
Most controversially, it brought together six television stations that had previously competed against each other into one news outlet. He said the merger was necessary for national security, but it frustrated political opponents and advocates of free speech.
He also reached a truce with his main domestic political opponent, former President Petro or Poroshenko, with whom he had been feuding until the start of the war.
Volodymyr Yermolenko, editor-in-chief of Ukraine World magazine that covers politics, said the massive wartime influence of rallying around the flag facilitated Zelensky’s work. “The strange thing about Ukrainian politics is that the agency comes from the community, not the political leaders,” he said. “Zelensky is who he is because of the Ukrainian people, who are behind him, and who show courage.”
He added that “this does not undermine his efforts” and credited Mr. Zelensky for adapting his prewar populist policies into an effective leadership style in the crucible of conflict.
These days, Mr. Zelensky’s workplace on Bankova Street has become a quiet, dark place crowded with soldiers. There are shooting positions protected by sandbags in the corridors and in the landings of the stairs. “We were ready to fight in this building,” said Mr. Nikiforov.
A former comedian, the Ukrainian leader has surrounded himself with a group of loyalists since his days in television, relationships that have drawn accusations of favoritism in the past but have served him well during the conflict by keeping his leadership team on the same page. Mr. Zelensky organized his days in a way that suited him.
Aides and advisers said Mr. Zelensky receives one-on-one phone briefings from General Valery Zaluzhny, the commander of the armed forces, several times a day and often first thing in the morning.
This is followed by a morning video meeting with the Prime Minister, and sometimes other members of the Cabinet, and the leaders of the army and intelligence in coordination that combines military and civilian decision-making, according to Mr. Nikiforov, his spokesman.
To be sure, Mr. Zelensky’s video speeches – to the US Congress, the British Parliament, the Israeli Knesset and other governments – remain the defining and most effective element of his wartime role. The Ukrainian and Russian armies still fought fierce battles on the Eastern Steppes, but in the information war Kyiv clearly won.
Passionately delivered by a former actor with a strong sense of narrative and drama, Mr. Zelensky’s speeches galvanized his countrymen and garnered international support.
Some are compressed and some are more written. The 38-year-old journalist and former political analyst Dmytro Lytvyn reportedly worked as a speechwriter for Mr. Zelensky. Spokesman Nikiforov confirmed that the president was cooperating with a writer but declined to say who.
Politically, Mr. Zelensky made some early moves that allowed him to minimize any internal conflict that might detract from the war effort.
Among them was the uneasy rapprochement with Mr. Poroshenko, who has been highly critical of Mr. Zelensky since losing to him in the 2019 elections. The feud has continued even as Russia masses its forces at the border, with Mr. Zelensky’s attorney general placing Mr. Poroshenko under house arrest for several tainted political issues.
But On the day Russia invaded, the two leaders came to an understanding. “I met Mr. Zelensky, and we shook hands,” Mr. Poroshenko said in March. “We said we are starting from scratch, and he can count on my support very much, because we now have one enemy. And the name of that enemy is Putin.”
Zelensky banned another major opposition faction, a Russian-leaning political party.
This helped Zelensky’s political party, Servant of the People, win a majority of seats in parliament in 2019, allowing him before the war to appoint a government of loyalists. Previous Ukrainian governments were divided between rival presidents and opposition-controlled ministries.
“Not on paper, but in fact, it’s all one big team,” said Igor Novikov, a former foreign policy adviser. “It’s very cohesive.”
Timofey Milovanov, a former Minister of Economy and current Economic Adviser to the President’s Office, likened Ukrainian politics to “loved ones are fighting.”
“It’s a family fight,” he said. “But family comes first.”
The inner circle is made up largely of media, film, and comedy veterans with similar backgrounds to Mr. Zelensky’s.
Andrei Yermak, a former chief of staff and film producer, is widely seen as Ukraine’s second most powerful politician, although the constitutional successor is the speaker of parliament, Ruslan Stevanchuk, who was evacuated early in the war to western Ukraine. Mr. Yarmac oversees foreign and economic policy.
Another key advisor is Mikhailo Podolak, a journalist, former editor and negotiator with the Russians. Serhi Shepherd, former screenwriter, now local political advisor; and Kirill Tymoshenko, a former videographer who now oversees humanitarian aid.
The military high command consists of officers, including General Zalogny, with experience fighting Russia during the eight-year conflict in eastern Ukraine.
In the early days of the war, Mr. Zelensky set three priorities for his government ministries, according to Mr. Milovanov: buying weapons, shipping food and other goods, and maintaining supplies of gasoline and diesel. Ministries were asked to rewrite regulations to ensure speedy delivery on all three tracks.
Perhaps it was very useful in the early frantic rush to bring food to Kyiv, which was in danger of being besieged and starved.
With the supply chain disrupted, the Presidential Office brokered an arrangement between grocery chains, trucking companies and volunteer drivers to create a single trucking service that supplies all food stores. Stores will post an order on a website, and any available driver will fill the order either for free or at the cost of petrol.
Perhaps the most controversial move by Mr. Zelensky was to merge the six television newsrooms into one channel with one report. The main opposition television station, Channel Five, affiliated with Mr. Poroshenko, was removed from the group.
Mr. Zelensky described the move as necessary for national security. It was seen by opponents as a disturbing example of the government’s suppression of dissent.
“I hope wisdom will prevail, and this is not intended to be used to keep political rivals down,” said Volodymyr Ariev, a member of Mr Poroshenko’s political Solidarity party.
Transparency in the Verkhovna Rada has also been a casualty of the war.
Parliament sits at irregular, unannounced intervals for an hour or so, for security reasons, for fear of a fast-target Russian missile strike.
To speed up sessions, members do not discuss bills publicly in the room but in private while they are being drafted, according to Ariev. Then the parliamentarians meet in the stately neoclassical chamber, quickly vote, and then disperse.
Mr. Milovanov, Economic Adviser to the President, said that Ukraine’s pluralistic political culture will rebound. He said that unity is now necessary.
He said, “Don’t worry.” “We’ll be back fighting for a liberal versus protectionist economic policy, price controls, how to attract investment, and all that’s left.”
Maria Varnikova Contributed to reporting from Kyiv.
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