Simon Shuster is a staff writer for Time magazine who covers politics in Ukraine and Russia. His new book is called The Showman: Inside the Invasion That Shook the World and Made a Leader of Volodymyr Zelensky.
Access Episodes Ad-Free on Patreon
Make a one-time Donation to Democracy Paradox.
Proudly sponsored by the Kellogg Institute for International Studies. Learn more at https://kellogg.nd.edu
Read Justin Kempf’s essay “The Revolution Will Be Podcasted.”
I think his heart is in the right place. I’ve talked to him about these things. He’s very sensitive to the judgment of history. He knows that. Ukraine has been fighting since long before he became president to be an independent sovereign democracy with freedom of speech.
- Introduction – 0:20
- The Early Zelensky – 3:30
- Wartime President – 19:16
- Politics in Wartime Ukraine – 33:59
- Democracy in Ukraine – 36:18
It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost two years since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. At that time, most of us knew very little about Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. But these days he is among the most recognizable leaders on the planet. Those of us who have followed the war closely know his basic biography pretty well.
But we still don’t really know the real Zelensky. Most of us also realize there is a lot happening behind the scenes in the war that we still don’t know about. Now Simon Shuster has a new book that offers a glimpse behind the scenes to better understand Zelensky and Ukraine’s politics during the war. Simon is a staff writer for Time magazine who covers politics in Ukraine and Russia. His new book is called The Showman: Inside the Invasion That Shook the World and Made a Leader of Volodymyr Zelensky.
Simon had direct access to Zelensky during the first year of the war. It gave him a front-row seat into Zelensky’s transformation from an entertainer into a wartime leader. So, our conversation focuses on Zelensky as a person and as a leader. We also talk about some of the decisions made during the war and what they say about politics in Ukraine. I’ve had many conversations about Ukraine on this podcast, but I think this is one of the most informative talks I have had so far. Hopefully, you will feel the same way.
The Democracy Paradox is sponsored by the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, part of the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. The Kellogg Institute was founded by Guillermo O’Donnell, one of the giants of democratic thought, more than 40 years ago. It continues to sponsor research on democracy and human development. Check them out at Kellogg.nd.edu. You’ll find a link in the show notes to their website. If you’re interested in becoming a sponsor of the podcast, please send me an email to [email protected].
But for now… This is my conversation with Simon Shuster…
Simon Shuster, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Thank you. Glad to be with you.
Well, Simon, I absolutely loved your book, The Showman: Inside the Invasion that Shook the World and Made a Leader of Volodymyr Zelensky. There’s been a few books about Zelensky so far, but I think yours gives the most in depth and really the most human portrayal of who Zelensky is. I was very impressed with it and the access you had is just absolutely unparalleled. Why don’t we start with just Zelensky himself? Can you tell a story about maybe how you met Zelensky, what he was like and how he was different than what we see today when we see him on television?
Yeah. Thank you so much for that introduction. I’m really honored that you enjoyed the book so much and found it such an intimate portrait. I guess it comes down to how long I’ve known him and how much time I’ve spent following him around before the invasion and during the invasion. The way we met was during the presidential campaign in Ukraine in 2019, in the spring of 2019. For me, it was pretty typical to cover Ukrainian presidential elections. I’ve been writing and reporting in and about Ukraine for about 17 years.
So, when the next elections rolled around in that country, I pitched the story to my editors and as I was working on the story, Zelensky began climbing in the polls quite dramatically and overtaking his more traditional political rivals. I told the editors there’s this comedian who seems to be the dark horse candidate here and we shouldn’t ignore him in the story. So, the editor was like that sounds kind of funny. Go for it. I got in touch with his team at the time. It was not at all hard. They were very open, very easy to get in touch with. The person that I actually contacted him through was his old childhood friend, Ivan Bakanov, who would later become the head of the Ukrainian spy agency.
But the first meeting I had with him was backstage of his comedy show in the spring of 2019. It was the premiere of this variety show that he has hosted and written and starred in for some years. It’s kind of a vaudeville act. There’s a lot of slapstick, jokes, standup, dancing, musical numbers. It’s much more traditional standup comedy in the Western sense. So, he was there. I met him backstage about an hour before he went out, before the performance began. His whole crew was there, all the backup dancers, all the other comedians in his troupe. It was a kind of chaotic and fun scene. They were drinking. They were eating catered takeout food from plastic boxes. It had very, very much a kind of party atmosphere.
He was there pacing around and looked very nervous. As one of his advisors explained to me, the reason for his nerves that night was not only stage fright, which is a problem for him, but there was a bomb threat that night at the theater. Someone called the theater and said there were explosives planted around the stage and they would blow up during the performance. So, he was quite worried about that. He had made a decision to continue with the show after the police came and searched the theater and found nothing suspicious. They presumed it was a hoax, but that was the context in which I met him. He then of course won the elections. We had an interview that night backstage after the show and then I continued to follow his career. I have covered Ukraine professionally for many years, as I said.
So, I followed him as he transitioned into governance, as he brought along his whole crew of comedians and entertainment lawyers into the halls of power. Then over the course of the three years that he was president before the invasion, I followed him quite closely and interviewed him a couple of times, followed his team around, traveled with him to the front line in the separatist war in Eastern Ukraine in 2021. So, about a year before the invasion. Then when the invasion started, I was in a pretty unique position because of those relationships to approach him and his team and say we have to write a book about this. There are historic events happening to you, around you as you are leading this country to war. Let me write a book about this.
Zelensky agreed to kind of let me hang around. He said he didn’t have the time to really write a book himself or work with me very closely, but he said, if you want to hang around and do it, go for it. So, I got to observe his evolution – how he transformed from a slapstick actor in 2019 to a fairly unpopular and unsuccessful president in 2021 into this world historical figure, this icon of resilience and courage that we all see on our iPhones and screens that we saw in the early months of the invasion. His image has changed somewhat since then, but that transformation was dramatic. Just to summarize it, the Zelensky that I know today as a wartime leader is basically unrecognizable as the same person that I met in 2019. He’s changed wholesale.
Was there anything that surprised you about his mannerisms or how he acted in your interactions with him, particularly in his early days when he was still a candidate and maybe in his early presidency?
Yeah, even in those early days, he always took on personas. His persona at that time was as this kind of happy go lucky charmer. This extremely optimistic, somewhat naive, exceedingly likable character that the Ukrainian people had seen evolve into the country’s main satirical actor, political satirist. He was just very fun and easy to be around. Talking to him at that time was usually a very relaxed atmosphere. He would often ask you a lot of questions about what’s going on, try to get your opinion. Even random people who are hanging around him, he would bring them in and be like, ‘What do you think of Donald Trump? What do you think we should do about this war?’
This made it a quite a very inclusive and relaxed atmosphere. A lot of people in his circle at the time called him by his schoolyard nickname, Volodya. So, it was just like a group of friends more than anything – this very kind of relaxed party atmosphere. That followed him to a large extent into the presidency in those early months where many of the people who came with him into the halls of power were from the world of entertainment. Many of the people who took seats in parliament through his then newly founded political party were also from the world of entertainment law, show business, tv production. That’s the scene at the time. He was just very chill.
Bringing in so many people that he knew through entertainment that didn’t have experience in politics, do you feel like that was a strength of his presidency early on, the fact that he was able to bring in new blood and be able to move out the people that were considered so corrupt within Ukrainian politics, or do you think that was a weakness because of their inexperience?
Both. That was certainly a promise that he made early on. That was a core selling point of his campaign – that he was an outsider. That he would bring new blood into the political elite. That he would clear out the old corrupt, stagnant political forces that had been ruling Ukraine for decades at war with each other and taking turns at the reins of power. He said I’m not from any of these camps that have ruled Ukraine. I am new. I’m an outsider and that was very attractive to the Ukrainian people. I remember there was one survey that was published during the election campaign in 2019 by the Pew Research Center and they found that Ukraine had the lowest trust of any country in the world in their government. Nine percent of Ukrainians said they trusted their political leaders, lower than any country in the world.
So, for him, it was clear what he needed to do. He needed to not act like a politician and he was in very, very good position to do that because he was decidedly not a politician. There was a downside. As I described in the book that transition period is described as very chaotic. I talked to some of the people who were involved there. One of them called it a very unique and Californian experiment in political crowdsourcing or something like that. So, there was just a lot of people – kind of hangers on, opportunists coming in and offering to give him advice or who took pretty senior and influential positions in the apparatus of the state for which they were not prepared.
There were also quite a few experienced advisors who were brought in to try to inject some professionalism into the administration early on. But I think the lack of experience certainly made a lot of things more difficult for him to deal with. There had to be a very sharp learning curve because he and his core team were coming into politics basically ignorant.
Can you give some examples of where that really caused a problem? You already mentioned that his presidency was viewed as generally unsuccessful before the war began. What are some examples of how that inexperience got them into trouble during his presidency?
I’d point to a couple of things. One was within a few weeks of his inauguration in the spring of 2019, he became entangled in the scandal that would lead to then president Donald Trump’s first impeachment. That was the scandal in which president Trump and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, tried to extort the Ukrainian authorities under president Zelensky to dig up dirt and open investigations against president Biden and his son Hunter. That was a major scandal. People have forgotten about it now, but it was absolutely dominating the headlines around the world, certainly in the United States, for many weeks. Zelensky was just not prepared for all of that. He didn’t know how international politics worked. He didn’t know how to deal with these demands.
At one point on the campaign trail, he asked me, ‘What’s Trump like?’ He asked me to give him a sense of Donald Trump as a person, as a leader. I was just… I mean, I didn’t know what to say. He asked me in this kind of very naive way, like, ‘Is he a nice guy? What’s he like?’ I was like, first of all, I have no idea. I’ve never met Trump. I cover Ukraine and Russia. I don’t cover American politics. Anyway, it was just a strange position to be in. It points to his lack of professionalism in the fields of international affairs and international diplomacy.
Here’s another example. His main promise upon taking office was to bring peace to Eastern Ukraine. So, when he was inaugurated, the war in the Donbas and Eastern Ukraine had been raging for about five years. More than 10,000 people had been killed in that war and he promised to end it and find a negotiated settlement with the Russians that would put a final stop to that simmering conflict in Eastern Ukraine. There was a certain level of naivete in the way he approached it. He thought he could break the ice with Putin and could find some humanity in Putin that he could connect with and turn in his favor. He was quite quickly disillusioned with that really at their first round of negotiations at the end of 2019, at the end of his first calendar year in office.
The book describes in some detail how he prepared for those negotiations, how he tried to understand what was at issue, what was really underneath the conflict and was driving it and what kind of person Putin was. In that sense, he miscalculated. He had an abundance of confidence in his own abilities as a communicator such that he believed he could break through Putin’s armor. And he failed. I think some people blame him for the approach he took there. It’s still an ongoing debate in Ukraine about how those negotiations went, whether they could have been handled differently, and whether a different approach may have avoided the full scale invasion that we saw then a few years later.
This overconfidence in his own abilities, it sounds like one of the character traits that we see in leaders throughout the world right now, particularly more populist leaders. We don’t normally think of Zelensky as a populist, but I guess I’d like to get your perspective. Do you think that he came into office as more of a populist leader, particularly at the beginning?
I think that’s a fair characterization. Certainly, his political opponents called him a populist. I put it somewhat differently. From talking to his people who ran his political campaign in 2019, they told me that they designed his candidacy to be a blank slate, a canvas onto which voters could project their idea of the perfect president. Rather than promising them the world, as many populists do, he just said, ‘I will fix everything. Don’t worry. Just give me a chance.’ But he didn’t go into details. He didn’t take really detailed and decisive positions on key issues that were at the center of Ukrainian politics at the time like questions of the position of the Russian language, cultural, historical issues, issues of how exactly to resolve that simmering war in Eastern Ukraine.
He didn’t get down into the nitty gritty of his campaign platform and he allowed voters to imagine him the way they wanted. Many of them imagined him as the president that Volodymyr Zelensky famously played on television. So, in the three years leading up to his presidential campaign, his most famous, and indeed the most popular television show on Ukrainian TV, was a comedy in which President Zelensky, the comedian Zelensky, played the president of Ukraine. That character that he played was extremely likable – a great honest just everyman who comes in and cleans out the corrupt elites and fixes all of Ukraine’s problems. That was the character he played on TV.
I think his campaign encouraged people to assume or imagine that his presidency would be similar to the world of that sitcom. I think that was intentional. Voters were encouraged to imagine the president on TV taking office and delivering the things that he was able to deliver as the president in the TV show. Of course, reality is far more complicated and far more difficult. Zelensky was not able to write his own script when he took office in real life.
Before we move into Zelensky as a wartime president, I’d like to get a sense of what kind of presidency you think Zelensky would have had if the war didn’t break out. Do you think that he would have came into his own and figured things out as time went on or do you think that it just would have been incredibly disappointing in the end?
Hard to say. As a reporter, as a journalist, I try to stick to the facts rather than the counterfactuals. This is something more for political analysts or historians to try to puzzle out. But what I can say is he was not a popular leader as the invasion approached. One of the key reasons that he was not popular is that he had failed in his main promise to deliver peace in Eastern Ukraine. There are also economic reasons. The threat of the invasion really hurt Ukraine’s economy, which affected, of course, the popularity of the leadership, including Zelensky.
I think the COVID-19 pandemic was a big blow to many leaders around the world. Zelensky was no exception, especially because he could not secure vaccines from the Western countries – Germany, the United States – that were producing these vaccines. He refused to accept vaccines from Russia, so that was a problem for voters. If you remember what that period was like, when everybody was waiting for these vaccines to come out, every country in the world was angling for them. All of this was going on really in the months, roughly the year, before the invasion started, about a year and a half. All of that was pressing on his popularity where it would have gone if the invasion had not broken out. I don’t see any clear reason to believe that he would have turned around that trend in his declining popularity.
Now, the war did break out, obviously, and Zelensky has been one of the most successful wartime leaders, at least in the way that he’s portrayed, the way that we envision him. I mean, he’s done just the best job imaginable with the cards that he’s been played. Did that surprise you? Did it catch you off guard, the kind of transformation that you saw happen early on after Russia’s invasion, full scale invasion of Ukraine?
As I write in the book, I did not think he had it in him. He surprised me. He surprised most of the world – I think certainly the Western leaders he was dealing with. Yeah, it was a shock. He transformed. He took on this new persona that was a conscious move. I described in the book in those early hours, a kind of pep talk that he gave himself at the very beginning of the invasion where, as he described it, he said, ‘You’re a symbol. They are watching,’ meaning his audience. So, the entire world is watching. ‘And you must act the way ahead of state must act.’
What he meant by that is essentially what we saw come to life before our eyes on our screens as he began to play this persona of the Churchillian wartime leader. He changed into a new uniform, a new kind of costume, you could say and he began to play the role of a wartime leader in the way that he imagined it from his own experience, from what he had seen in history books, from wherever he was getting it. But he had this idea in mind of what a wartime leader is supposed to act like. He became this character before our eyes. This was in some ways intuitive, instinctive because of his history as a showman, as an actor, is more flexible and able to take on new roles faster than I think the average person.
It’s also somewhat useful to remember that in comedy, his particular specialty was improv where you’re thrown into a situation and you have to adapt. In saying all this, I don’t mean to trivialize it at all. I think it’s important to remember that there is no one who is prepared for the kind of circumstances he faced. There is no graduate school degree program. There’s no career path that prepares you to be under attack by a far superior, nuclear armed military force that is intent on killing you, killing your family, taking over your entire country. Like what is the career? What is the CV, the resume, that prepares you for something like that?
There isn’t one. So, whoever would have been in that position would have needed to show a great deal of flexibility, adaptability, and quick wit to take on those circumstances. I argue in the book that kind of paradoxically or counterintuitively his career path gave him some skills and some qualities that proved to be quite useful when the invasion began.
So, Simon, one of the things that I’ve come to learn through just reading about Ukraine and just in the news clips and podcasts and every other way that you kind of digest information is that one of Zelensky’s strengths has been his ability to let the military and the generals take the lead in terms of the military decisions on the battlefield. Your book though is really the first glimpse that I’ve had that gave me a much better sense of that relationship between Zaluzhnyi and Zelensky. I mean, it really went pretty in depth into their relationship, both in terms of the good and the bad. Let’s start with the early kind of phases here.
Why is it that Zelensky was so willing to allow the generals, particularly Zaluzhnyi, to take the lead in terms of decisions on the battlefield when he didn’t really have that personal relationship that he had developed over just his past career the way that he had with so many other leaders within his government? I mean, in a way, the generals are kind of strangers to Zelensky.
I think the simplest answer is that he had no idea what he was doing in the field of military strategy. So as much as he was quick to take on the persona of a wartime leader, he did not pretend to be a tactical strategic savant who could come in and start dictating to the generals what they should do. On the contrary, in the opening hours of the invasion, the opening days, he put his full trust and faith into his generals, especially General Valerii Zaluzhnyi. I was present for one phone call that he had with General Zaluzhnyi in the early weeks of the invasion and just the tone he used in speaking to him was such high admiration, love, respect. He talked about him in our conversation at that time as a savior of the country.
And it’s true, General Zaluzhnyi, I think, gets a lot of the credit for winning the battle of Kyiv and essentially ensuring the survival of the country. He was in command of that operation and Zelensky very much appreciated and respected him for that. What he asked and told the generals in those early days was what do you need? What can I do for you? How can I help you? Essentially, they developed very quickly this symbiotic relationship where he was responsible for convincing the world to help, to send weapons. The military would tell him in these phone calls, General Zaluzhnyi in particular, lists of weapons that they needed. How many, for what, and how quickly and the list was long. It included many weapons systems that the West initially at least refused to provide.
Zelensky would go out and try to do it, try to get it, try to convince the West to provide these things. So that’s how it worked early on. But I think my understanding is quite new, so it gives you the full evolution of the relationship there with General Zaluzhnyi and we see over time President Zelensky getting more and more confident as a military strategist and developing his own ideas of what needs to happen on the battlefield. These ideas and priorities fall gradually out of sync with what the generals think needs to happen. They begin to disagree and they begin to clash in important ways, not just in petty disagreements, but really crucial questions of military strategy.
One of the big disagreements seems to have been the decision to liberate Kharkiv and to strike in the north rather than really pursuing that southern front and liberating Kherson. In hindsight, do you think that was the right decision though? I mean, Zelensky made the case to be able to strike in the north because he seemed to have support to be able to do it and Russia hasn’t necessarily taken that ground back the way that Zaluzhnyi and some of the other generals thought that they would. Do you think Ukraine made the right decision to be able to make that tactical or strategic decision to be able to engage the war in that direction?
It’s a really good question. I think it’s one of the most crucial questions that the book leaves open for readers. I’m not a military strategist or tactician. I tell you what happened, what the disagreement was, and what decision was made. Essentially, I leave it up to the historians and military strategists to parse what was right, what was wrong. Again, what happened was President Zelensky won that argument, so to say. He overruled General Zaluzhnyi, and he ordered an attack in Kharkiv, which was very dramatic, very successful and extremely quickly, over a matter of days, regained hundreds of villages, thousands of square kilometers of territory. There were these dramatic images of Russians fleeing. There are reports of Russian soldiers changing into civilian clothes, stealing bicycles, and peddling toward the Russian border to escape the advancing Ukrainian columns.
In terms of the international community, it showed the world these weapons the West is providing are not disappearing into the maw of some kind of forever war that Ukraine is advancing. That was a key goal of President Zelensky in that discussion of where to attack Northeast, South, whatever. He needed to show the West that their weapons were having an effect. He needed to demonstrate this in a demonstrative victory.
General Zaluzhny was more focused on a slow methodical push toward the South which he has always seen as the direction that could, if successful, break the back of the invasion, break the back of the occupiers in Ukraine. So that was the disagreement. I leave it up to readers to decide and military strategists and maybe historians in the future to figure out what was the right call. I think it’s, it’s an open question in my mind.
Can you explain more about what you mean by break the back? Like why was it Zaluzhny believed that the slow methodical focus on the Southern front, liberating Kherson and splitting the Russian connection through the South, why is it that he thought that that was so critical and he thought that that was the right military decision for the moment?
This gets into some nitty gritty of military strategy, but it’s essentially cutting off supply lines. I mean, I think if there’s one through line in General Zaluzhny’s strategy, that’s been it. Kharkiv is problematic because Russia’s supply lines are very short. The region of Kharkiv touches the Russian border, so they can resupply their forces in that region in the Northeast very easily. They can also fire directly from across the border at Ukrainian towns, cities, civilians, and military positions directly from across the border without needing to even enter Ukrainian territory. That’s a problematic region to defend for that reason.
In the South, he wanted to cut off Russian supply lines to Southern Ukraine and crucially to Crimea. He wanted to bring the forces right up to the neck of that peninsula, the Crimean Peninsula, and begin to isolate it. One of the key strategic goals of the Russians, arguably the most important one, if you look at military strategy, was to build this land bridge to Crimea to secure a swath of land that goes from Russian territory to the tip of the Crimean peninsula.
They did that in the early days of the invasion and General Zaluzhny has been fixated on breaking that land bridge to make Crimea much harder to defend. That’s the ultimate prize in his mind, getting Crimea back or at least encircling it and cutting off those supply lines. Also Mariupol, Berdyans’k, some of the cities down there have enormous strategic and also symbolic importance to the Ukrainians. Being able to put up a fight and get Mariupol back, that’s the dream. I think that’s what General Zaluzhny was very single mindedly focused on from the beginning.
What I’m hearing from you and from reading the book is the sense that he thought that it was going to be easier to defend in the long term. I just wonder whether he still believes that after the strong success that the Ukrainian army had in retaking the Northern territories surrounding Kharkiv and even beyond that or whether he has growing concerns because Russia’s fortified their areas in the South. They’ve been able to learn how to defend those even better, so it’s going to be harder to retake territory in the future.
On top of that, Russia seems to be gaining ground once again. So, Zaluzhny might feel that he was right all along and that while Zelensky might’ve made the right political decision for the moment, it’s going to have long-term implications on the war. Do you see that possibly happening or do you think that’s reading too much into things?
I think those conversations are ongoing within the general staff of Ukraine. The overall position, the sense that I get from talking to people on the military side is that they aren’t inclined to concede that President Zelensky was right in ordering the attack on the Northeast. They still grumble that it was maybe not the best use of resources. It’s hard for me to say. I can’t say that this is the consensus or the majority view within the military’s leadership. I talked to a number of people in the general staff. I don’t know exactly what General Zaluzhny’s view on this is. The base of my material about his perspective on the war was before the Kharkiv offensive, so as they were preparing in the middle of this debate about where to go, South or Northeast.
So, when it actually happened, I didn’t talk to him after that. I talked to his aides and staffers and I got the clear sense that it’s an open question to them – the one that you just posed. We don’t know because it’s a counterfactual. We don’t know what would have happened if they had concentrated the resources more in that direction. It’s an open question. It’s a debate that they have internally and there’s a variety of opinions. I don’t claim to have a strong opinion. Honestly, I just hear people out and this is an open question that I think military strategists and historians will debate for some time.
You mentioned earlier that Zelensky is becoming increasingly comfortable in his role as a wartime president. Is that complicating his relationship with the generals? I mean, even beyond the single decision, is it continuing to complicate his relationship with the military?
Yeah, I’d say so, but it also depends on which particular generals you’re talking about. There are different military leaders. I think it continues to complicate his relationship with General Zaluzhny, the main commander of the armed forces. Yes, General Zelensky made it very clear in our conversation that he prefers for professionals to be in charge of the military. There’s a quote in the book where he says President Zelensky doesn’t need to know about military strategy any more than he needs to know about medicine and bridge building. That’s not his job. I’m the commander. I’m in command of the operation. So yes, I think this is not unique to Ukraine by any means. Generally speaking, military professionals would prefer often for the political leadership to mind their own business. That dynamic exists in Ukraine as well.
So yes, as president Zelensky has become more confident and more insistent on certain military strategic decisions that has rubbed some military leaders the wrong way. I think that’s the fundamental reason for the tensions that we’ve seen bubbling up in recent weeks where there are actual public disagreements between the military leadership and President Zelensky. At the core of that, as I outlined in the book, the evolution of that is this confidence that President Zelensky has developed in his own military decision making. So that causes tension.
I should say that not everyone in the military command finds this problematic. I think the relationship with, for example, General Syrsky, the commander of the ground forces in Ukraine, is much better. There are far fewer tensions there. Certainly, with the head of the military intelligence agency, Kyrylo Budanov, the relationship has far fewer tensions.
In the book, you describe Zaluzhny as actually being more popular than Zelensky. It caught me by surprise. I think it would catch a lot of readers by surprise to hear that. What are their popularities like today? Because I’m sure that it’s been some time since you put pen to paper. Is Zelensky still incredibly popular within Ukraine? Is Zaluzhny still incredibly popular within Ukraine?
Both of them are incredibly popular. They are the two most popular figures in the country. The polling is a little bit tricky. So, the public polls from the main pollsters rarely put Zaluzhny head-to-head in an opinion poll with Zelensky, because he’s not a politician. He doesn’t have a party. He’s not running for any office. He’s seen as the head of an institution. So often you see in the polls, what is the popularity of the armed forces of Ukraine? There you see these numbers like 90 something, 93% – enormous, astronomical. Then you have to extrapolate that General Zaluzhny as the commander of the armed forces of Ukraine probably has a similar rating. There are also internal polls that the political leadership conducts. I know that advisors to General Zaluzhny watch these polls also very carefully. They’re also not indifferent to his standing among the public.
Since, I would say, certainly the summer of 2022, a few months into the invasion this idea circulated of what would happen if Zelensky and Zaluzhny, God forbid, faced off in some kind of political arena. That would be messy. It’s not clear who would prevail. It’s certainly been a concern for President Zelensky’s political advisors that such a thing could happen. They don’t want to see that. It would be highly destabilizing apart from the kind of spectacle that, politically speaking, in the context of a war, would be just one of the worst things that could happen.
I think some of the messaging that has come from the president’s office suggesting that generals should stick to fighting a war during wartime and not think about politics, you know, I’m quite sympathetic to that point of view, because I can imagine how destabilizing it would be for the country if the political and military leadership were to clash in some more public and fraught arena.
There’s a lot of implications in that statement. I mean, the idea that there might actually be a large enough disagreement between the two that they could actually face off in an election. But there’s also the implication that a highly competitive election during a war could actually be destabilizing. It raises the question of how Ukraine is going to hold elections while this war is ongoing. Do you expect there to continue to be democratic elections? I think this is the year for the presidential election, isn’t it?
That’s right. There’s normally scheduled to take place in April, I think, or in the spring. So, I talked at length to President Zelensky about that recently. My last trip to Ukraine was in October of last year, a few months ago. I traveled with the president to Odessa by train and we talked there at length. One of the questions on my mind and on their minds were the possibility of elections. Since then, they’ve made a pretty clear public position that they will not be holding elections this spring, but we talked a lot about it. They were sort of in the middle of weighing the pros and cons at the time, he and his advisors. I talked to a number of them, including the chief of staff, Andrij Yermak, who’s very, very central to this decision.
You know, I understand the arguments on both sides and both sides have a point. So, politically speaking, it makes sense for the president to lock in his high popularity now and win another five-year term in the current political arena with the players we know now to be participating. Zelensky wins easily. He’s very popular. The polls vary, but we’re talking about 60-70%, way ahead of any politician. So, there’s that argument that certainly exists within his circle. Let’s hold an election and lock in another five-year term. But his term runs out this spring, so then there’s like the question of legitimacy arising. That’s the argument for holding elections.
President Zelensky, in my conversations with him, and from what I understand of his internal conversations with advisors is like, ‘What are you guys talking about? What elections? We have six, seven million people living as refugees in the European Union. How are they going to vote? We have millions of people living under Russian occupation. What are they going to do? Are they not voters? Are they not citizens?’ So, practically speaking, he felt this was just impossible. He sensed that it would be very expensive. It would be very destabilizing also politically. He’s very frustrated with political forces, political leaders in the opposition, who pipe up and attack him in the media or social media. He still holds the position that now is not the time for these kinds of feuds and he tells people to pipe down.
In the context of an election race, even if you start talking about the possibility of an election, these political forces start bubbling up from everywhere and it would be very difficult for him to maintain a sense of national unity and public morale in a situation where all the political forces start attacking each other in the context of a presidential campaign. So, those were the arguments that led him to say ‘Guys, it’s not the time.’
And legally speaking, constitutionally speaking, he is on very firm ground. Under martial law, under the Ukrainian constitution, it is illegal to hold a presidential election. So, in order to hold an election, they would need to have serious legislative reforms. They’d probably have to temporarily lift martial law. They might have to change the constitution. It gets very messy if you do. Legally speaking under martial law, there are no elections. So that’s how he came to the current position. I didn’t get the sense that he was against holding elections. He’s quite confident in his popularity. It’s not like he’s going to lose. That wasn’t my impression at all. The reasoning that he laid out to me was very much practical.
My understanding is it would be a practical question of how do you actually conduct the elections in a wartime setting. I think that’s obvious. But it does raise concerns that if this war is about not just Ukrainian independence, but Ukrainian democracy, that if we’re not holding elections now when would you hold elections. I don’t know that there’s a sense that this war is going to end anytime soon. It may even become a frozen conflict where there’s occasional battles and occasional military conflict between Ukraine and Russia almost indefinitely, at least until far into the future. Is it possible that this could end up raising serious concerns about the future of Ukrainian democracy?
One thing you often hear from Ukrainian politicians, also people in the president’s administration, is we’ve got to remain a democracy. If we come out at the end of this war, after our victory, as some kind of authoritarian state, similar to Putin’s Russia in some ways, then what’s the point of any of it? They’re very conscious of this. They don’t want to do that. They want Ukraine to be the vibrant democracy that it was before the invasion. But under martial law, again, democracy is put on hold. So, there is a kind of practical answer to your question: when martial law is lifted.
This is a decision that will be made, yes, by the military leadership, but there’s also a lot of public pressure that’s going to be brought to bear on President Zelensky and the leadership saying there will be a time – it’s not now- after either a prolonged stalemate on the front lines or a point at which people start to say this is a frozen conflict – certainly not the case now – or some negotiated ceasefire or truce, possibly in the future – certainly not in the works now.
But if we look ahead to those kinds of eventualities there could be more pressure from the public to say let’s lift martial law. Things have stabilized enough for the strictures of martial law to be lifted. Lift all curfews. Allow men of fighting age to travel outside the country freely – these kinds of things. Allow the parliament to continue its normal functions. Stop the wartime propaganda that now exists on Ukrainian television.
The people will start to push for this, but I don’t know when this is going to happen. It could be months. It could be years, but we’re going to see some tension between the leadership and the public as to when it’s time to lift martial law and go back to some kind of normal functioning democracy. It’s going to be a big test. If President Zelensky is still in office at that time and leading the country, it’s going to be a big test for him – that transition. I don’t know how he’s going to handle it.
You actually just raised another question that’s been on my mind, which is how is Zelensky going to eventually transition to the next leader, the next president of Ukraine? Is he grooming anybody? Is there somebody in Ukrainian leadership that looks like they could become the next leader of Ukraine? Is there somebody who, whether it happens still during the war or whether it happens after the war? I mean, how do you foresee Zelensky’s transition away from the presidency in the future?
Looking so far ahead to even go there. But I’ll say this. He’s definitely not grooming any successors. On the contrary, over the course of the invasion, they’ve taken the clear position, not publicly, but implicitly in their actions and privately in their conversations, that there should only be one hero in this story. And that is President Zelensky. That helps their communications. That helps build the narrative of the war that they want the world to see to have only one hero leading the nation, symbolizing the resistance of the nation. This is fundamental to the narrative of the war that they have presented to the world that they’ve constructed and they’ve shown us since the invasion started. The book quotes Zelensky’s advisors talking about this strategy.
It’s very important that there are no successors in the wings or anything like that. There needs to be one symbolic, literal and figurative, head of state, commander in chief. So, no. No successors being groomed. How will he handle the transition? I think his heart is in the right place. I’ve talked to him about these things. He’s very sensitive to the judgment of history. He knows that. Ukraine has been fighting since long before he became president to be an independent sovereign democracy with freedom of speech.
His history and his career in show business also put him face to face with the forces of censorship and government control over television and he doesn’t like those things. He wants to be remembered as a wartime leader, but also certainly not one who led to some deterioration of Ukrainian democracy. So, we’ll see how he manages that transition. I think his intentions and his heart are in the right place, but it’s going to be difficult for him.
As we look to wrap up then, Ukraine faces just an enormous challenge. It looks like they’re going to be fighting this war with uncertain allies in a lot of ways. I mean, with the United States, there’s questions of whether or not they’re going to continue to provide at least as much aid or whether it’s going to be timely aid or in some ways whether they’re even going to deliver aid at all. Europe has similar questions in a lot of countries.
In the big picture here, do you think Volodymyr Zelensky and the Ukrainian leadership, do you think that they’re going to continue to find innovative and new ways to be able to defend their country over the course of this war? I mean, are they going to be able to continue to live up to the challenge that we’ve seen them do so far? Are they going to continue to meet these new challenges that they’re going to face in the near future?
Yes, absolutely. I think so. They are much cleverer, I think, than the world gives them credit for in terms of their military strategies, their strategies in this war. The main focus of my reporting in the last few months, well after the book was finished, has been the preparations that Ukrainians under President Zelensky are putting in place to prepare for the possibility, indeed now, I think the likelihood, that Western support, international support, would continue to decline. The main thrust of that effort is domestic production of arms. So, I’ve been looking very closely at how they’re doing that, where they started from which is a very low level. The military industrial complex in Ukraine is historically speaking, just a swamp of corruption and mismanagement.
It was very ineffective in the first year or so of the invasion, the period mostly covered in the book. Since then, as they’ve started to see that eventually the support could begin to decline, President Zelensky and his team have put a lot of resources and a lot of effort into reviving their domestic military production. They’ve had enormous success in drone technology, especially where they have something like 200 companies producing drones now. In Ukraine, these dramatic attacks that we see inside Russian territory in Belgorod, in Crimea, in Sochi – last year, I believe it was in May, there was even a drone strike on the Kremlin in Moscow. Those drones were made in Ukraine. That’s impressive stuff.
They’re also producing missiles. Historically speaking, Ukraine produced the most powerful ballistic missiles in the Soviet Union including the one, the SS-18 known as Satan. This massive nuclear armed missile that was made in the city then called Dnipropetrovsk, now called Dnipro. So that know how, that tradition, is still there and they’re using it. They’re ramping it up. It’s a gargantuan challenge, but that’s their plan and I think it means that it would be naive for someone like Donald Trump or any Western leader to think they could come into office, flip a switch, turn off the aid and force Ukraine to negotiate or capitulate. That is not going to happen.
Well, Simon, thank you so much for joining me today. I want to mention your book one more time, The Showman: Inside the Invasion that Shook the World and Made a Leader of Volodymyr Zelensky. It’s an absolute must read to be able to start out 2024. It’s an incredible book. It’s one of the best biographies that I’ve read in a long time. Thank you so much for writing it. Thank you for joining me today.
Thank you so much. Really an honor. Thank you.