Facing threats, Ukraine is led by an optimist with slim options

Facing threats, Ukraine is led by an optimist with slim options post thumbnail image

KYIV (NYTIMES) – Russian attack helicopters were spotted buzzing within miles of his country’s borders on Sunday (Feb 13). The last strands of diplomacy were unravelling. Allies evacuated their embassies, airlines cancelled flights, and a large number of private jets departed from the capital.

For Mr Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s President and a former comedic actor who was elected three years ago on a message of optimism about his country’s relations with Russia – something that now seems a distant memory – room for manoeuvre narrowed over the weekend to a tiny selection of uncertain options.

During a phone call on Sunday with President Joe Biden, Mr Zelensky issued an invitation for a visit, so the American President could “contribute to de-escalation” with his presence in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. The United States has already ordered most American diplomats to leave, making a presidential visit unlikely.

“I am convinced that your arrival in Kyiv in the coming days, which are crucial for stabilising the situation, will be a powerful signal,” Mr Zelensky said, according to an official Ukrainian account of the conversation, adding that the Ukrainian capital is “safe and under reliable protection”.

Mr Zelensky also thanked Mr Biden for American support, including airlifts of armaments, and said that, “We hope that, among other things, it will help prevent the spread of panic.”

What is perhaps Europe’s most intense security crisis since the end of the Cold War appears to be nearing a climax, with Washington warning that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could begin at any moment. But the 44-year-old Ukrainian president is clinging to the strategy he has pursued for months, using every appearance to caution against panic and overreaction, to the point of seeming nearly delusional about the grave risks his country faces.

From early in his presidency, Mr Zelensky was seen as a novice playing a high-stakes game with a shrewd and experienced opponent, President Vladimir Putin of Russia. And gaps have opened with allies in recent weeks as Mr Biden and leaders of Europe’s great powers have raised a global alarm, treating the threat of an invasion much more seriously than Mr Zelensky has publicly.

Mr Zelensky has remained engaged in diplomacy even as no clear path to a settlement is in focus, while instructing his military to signal, as it said in a statement over the weekend, that Ukraine is “absolutely ready to fight”.

Adhering to a disciplined public relations strategy has been a hallmark of Mr Zelensky’s tenure, seen as springing from the background he and important aides share in the entertainment industry.

Supporters say he has little choice but to project calm whatever the circumstances, lest Ukrainians make runs on banks or grocery stores.

Ukraine is now nearly surrounded by Russian and Russian-backed forces on a high level of readiness, with the start of Russian naval exercises on the Black Sea on Sunday completing the noose in the south. Russian officials have said they do not intend to invade Ukraine.

Adding to the sense of alarm, some of Mr Zelensky’s main allies reduced staffing or evacuated embassies in Kyiv over the weekend. The US announced a drawdown at the US embassy except for a “core team” of senior diplomats, citing the risk of combat. Canada announced a pullback of diplomats to the western city of Lviv.

Russia, too, said it had decided to reduce the staffing of its missions in Ukraine.

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