KYIV, Ukraine – Russian tanks rolled over the border and Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, was gripped by fear and panic. Street fighting broke out and a Russian armored column, storming into the city, advanced within two miles of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office.
In those tense early days of the war, almost everyone — Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, military analysts and many Western officials — expected Ukraine’s leadership to break. Instead, Mr. Zelensky personally stayed in the capital and took selfies as he crossed Kiev to reassure his people. And he ordered his senior aides, many cabinet members and much of his government to sit down, too, despite the risks.
It was a crystallizing moment for Mr. Zelensky’s government, which ensured that a wide range of agencies continued to operate efficiently and in sync. Leading politicians set aside the sharp infighting that had defined Ukrainian politics for decades and instead created a largely united front that continues today.
No senior officials defected or fled, and the bureaucracy quickly went on a war footing.
“In the first days of the war, everyone was in shock and everyone thought what to do – stay in Kiev or evacuate,” said Serhiy Nikiforov, Mr Zelensky’s spokesman. “The president’s decision was that no one goes anywhere. We stay in Kiev and we fight. That confirmed it.”
In much of the world, Mr. Zelensky is best known for appearing via video link with a daily message of courage and defiance, rallying his people and urging allies to provide weapons, money and moral support. On Sunday, he once again attracted global attention during a meeting in Kiev with two top US officials, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, who pledged increased military support. and – in a move of symbolic importance – said the United States would try to reopen its embassy in Kiev.
But behind the scenes, Mr. Zelensky’s success so far is also rooted in the government’s ability to operate smoothly and take measures to help people cope, such as sweeping deregulation to keep the economy afloat and deliver goods and services.
For example, by easing the rules on the transportation of cargo, the government was able to address a dire risk of food shortages in the capital’s Kiev in the early days of the war. And in March, he cut the business tax to 2 percent — and then only if the owner wanted to pay.
“Pay if you can, but if you can’t, no questions will be asked,” Mr Zelensky said at the time.
More controversially, he combined six television stations that previously competed against each other into one news channel. The merger, he said, was necessary for national security but frustrated political opponents and advocates of free speech.
He also signed a truce with his main domestic political opponent, former President Petro O. Poroshenko, with whom he feuded until the start of the war.
A huge war effect from rallying around the flag has undoubtedly lightened Mr. Zelensky’s job, said Volodymyr Yermolenko, editor-in-chief of Ukraine World, a political magazine. “The peculiar thing about Ukrainian politics is that the bureaux come from society, not from the political leaders,” he said. “Zelensky is who he is thanks to the Ukrainian people, who stand behind him and show courage.”
He added that “this is not intended to undermine his efforts” and commended Mr Zelensky for adapting his populist pre-war politics to an effective leadership style in the melting pot of conflict.
Today, Mr. Zelensky’s workplace on Bankova Street is a quiet, dark space filled with soldiers; there are sandbag protected firing positions in the corridors and on the stairs. “We were prepared to fight right in this building,” said Mr. Nikiforov.
The Ukrainian leader, a former comedic actor, has surrounded himself with a group of loyalists from his televised days, relationships that have sparked accusations of favoritism in the past but served him well during the conflict through his leadership team at the same time. keep page. And Mr. Zelensky has structured his days in a way that works for him.
Zelensky receives telephone briefings several times a day and often early in the morning from General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, the commander of the armed forces, aides and advisers said.
This is followed by a morning video conference with the prime minister, sometimes other cabinet members, and leaders of armies and intelligence services in a form that combines military and civilian decision-making, said his spokesman, Mr Nikiforov.
Certainly, the video speeches of Mr. Zelensky — to the US Congress, the British Parliament, the Israeli Knesset and other governments — remains the defining and most effective element of his wartime role. The Ukrainian and Russian armies are still fighting in the eastern plains, but in the information war, Kiev has clearly won.
Delivered with passion by a former actor with a keen sense of story and drama, Mr. Zelensky gathered his compatriots and sparked international support.
Some are ad-libbed and others more scripted. A 38-year-old former journalist and political analyst, Dmytro Lytvyn, has reportedly served as Mr. Zelensky. Mr. Nikiforov, the spokesman, confirmed that the president is working with a writer, but declined to say with whom.
Politically, Mr. Zelensky made some early steps that enabled him to reduce any internal strife that could detract from the war effort.
One was the uneasy rapprochement with Mr Poroshenko, who had sharply criticized Mr Zelensky since losing to him in the 2019 election. Their bickering continued even as Russia gathered troops at the border, with Mr. Zelensky’s prosecutor placing Mr. Poroshenko under house arrest for several politically motivated cases.
But the day Russia invaded, the two leaders came to an agreement. “I met Mr Zelensky, we shook hands,” Poroshenko said in March. “We said we will start from scratch, he can count on my support because now we have one enemy. And the name of this enemy is Putin.”
Mr Zelensky banned another major opposition party, a political party leaning towards Russia.
It helped that Mr Zelensky’s political party, Servant of the People, won a majority of seats in parliament in 2019, enabling him to appoint a cabinet of loyalists before the war. Previous Ukrainian governments have been split between arguing presidents and cabinets controlled by the opposition.
“Not on paper, but in reality it’s all one big team,” said Igor Novikov, former foreign policy adviser. “It’s very close.”
Tymofiy Mylovanov, a former economy minister and now an economic adviser to the president’s office, likened Ukrainian politics to “fighting of lovers.”
“It’s a family fight,” he said. “But the family comes first.”
The inner circle is largely made up of veterans of the media, film and comedy industries from backgrounds similar to Mr. Zelensky.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
A bolder American stance. Speaking after a risky and secretive visit to Kiev, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said the United States wanted Russia to be “weakened” and unable to rebuild its military from the many losses in Ukraine. , reflecting an increasingly encouraged approach by the Biden administration.
Andriy Yermak, the chief of staff and former film producer, is widely regarded as the second most powerful politician in Ukraine, although the constitutional successor is the Speaker of Parliament, Ruslan Stefanchuk, who was evacuated to western Ukraine early in the war. Mr. Yermak oversees foreign and economic policy.
Other key advisers include Mykhailo Podolyak, a former journalist and editor who negotiates with the Russians; Serhiy Shefir, a former screenwriter, now a domestic political adviser; and Kirill Tymoshenko, a former videographer who now oversees humanitarian aid.
The highest military command is made up of officers, including General Zaluzhnyi, who has experience fighting against Russia during the eight-year conflict in eastern Ukraine.
In the early days of the war, Mr. Zelensky three priorities for his government’s ministries, according to Mr. Mylovanov: arms procurement, transportation of food and other goods, and maintenance of stocks of petrol and diesel. The ministries were instructed to rewrite the regulations to ensure fast delivery on all three tracks.
That was perhaps most helpful in the frantic rush to get food to Kiev, which risked being besieged and starved.
With the supply chain disrupted, the presidential office brokered a settlement between supermarket chains, trucking companies and volunteer drivers to create a single trucking service that supplies all food stores. Stores would post a request on a website and the driver that was available would fulfill the order for free or at the cost of gasoline.
Perhaps the most controversial move Zelensky made was to combine the six television editors into one channel with a single report. Left out of the group was the opposition’s main television station, Channel 5, affiliated with Mr Poroshenko.
Mr Zelensky positioned the move as necessary for national security. Opponents saw it as a disturbing example of the government suppressing dissent.
“I really hope that wisdom will prevail, and the intention is not to use this to stifle political competitors,” said Volodymyr Ariev, a member of Mr Poroshenko’s political party Solidarity.
Transparency in the Ukrainian parliament has also been a casualty of war.
Parliament meets at irregular, unannounced intervals of about an hour for security reasons, fearing a rapid targeted attack from Russian cruise missiles.
To expedite the sessions, according to Mr. Ariev, members debate not publicly in the room, but privately while they are being drafted. Then parliamentarians gather in the stately, neoclassical chamber, vote quickly and disperse.
Mr Mylovanov, the president’s economic adviser, said Ukraine’s pluralistic political culture would recover. Unity is needed now, he said.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “We will fight again about liberal versus protectionist economic policies, price controls, how to attract investment, and everything else.”
Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Kiev.