In an age when the word hero is conflated with and attached to movie stars and athletes and people who risk nothing of consequence, it’s bracing to watch—even from afar—true heroes and true heroism in action. Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, never expected or aspired to be known as a hero. But in standing his ground, Zelensky inspired his countrymen to stand up to Vladimir Putin’s criminal invasion. Together, the Ukrainian people and the man they elected to lead them have reminded the world what real heroism looks like.
In an uncanny illustration not just of life imitating art, but of art foreshadowing real life, Zelensky starred in a hit TV series—aptly titled Servant of the People—about an everyman who is elected president of Ukraine after his rant against political corruption goes viral. Given his comedic roots, its unsurprising that Zelensky was widely considered a lightweight before Putin unleashed his behemoth army against Ukraine in February. Putin expected a lightning two-day war; the capture, surrender, assassination or flight of Zelensky; and a swift installation of a puppet regime.
Of course, none of that came to pass—largely as a result of Zelensky’s truly heroic decision to stay put in Kyiv. As Russia invaded, it pays to recall, Zelensky was offered a chance to evacuate. The defiant response attributed to him would send a message to Ukraine, to Putin and his henchmen, to Europe and America, and to the world: “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that Ukraine has held up—and chewed up Putin’s army—because Zelensky stood up when no one else did. He’s not perfect; he has flaws and foibles. But he’s a reminder of an eternal truth that too many in our post-heroic, post-modern age have forgotten or dismissed or never learned: Individuals can and do make a difference. Moses spoke the truth to Pharoah—and freed a people. David stepped up—and defeated a giant. Esther and Mordecai spoke out—and rescued a nation.
Every day that Zelensky exhorts his neighbors and his nation; every day he survives a missile strike; every day he escapes a Spetsnaz or Wagner Group kill team; every day he is alive and Kyiv is free is a victory for Ukraine and for freedom. Indeed, as so often happens in wartime, especially in democratic nations, a symbiosis and synergy have emerged: Zelensky has inspired the Ukrainian people, and the Ukrainian people have inspired Zelensky, which fuels and continues the cycle.
Inspired, Revived, Shamed
Above all, Zelensky is a reflection of a determined people fighting for a just cause. Far away from the battlefront—even far away from Ukraine itself—this display of authentic heroism has inspired some, revived others, and shamed still others into action.
“The government and people of Ukraine have been fighting with tremendous courage and determination,” says Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister. “Let me say this from the bottom of my heart: You have been an inspiration to the Taiwanese people”—and a terrifying warning to Xi Jinping.
Like the old follower of Christ refreshed upon encountering the on-fire zeal of a new believer, the Free World—uncertain and unsure for too long, tired and timid, seemingly worn out and worn down—has been revived and reminded that freedom is never free, that freedom has real enemies and real costs, that broken men in this broken world are not reformed by communiques or commerce. Without Zelensky standing his ground, NATO would have done little more than condemn Putin. But because Zelensky and his country refused to surrender, NATO could not help but help out.
And then there are those shamed into doing something and surprised by the latent power they possess—the power to do what’s right and good and meaningful. Some 400 multinational firms and organizations have pulled out of Putin’s Russia, ceased operations there, or expelled the country: the Council of Europe and OECD, the International Tennis Federation and World Cup, the NHL and WWE, FIFA and F1, Shell and ExxonMobil, American Airlines and United Airlines, Pepsi and Coke, FedEx and UPS, VW and Mercedes, Ford and GM, Honda and Toyota, IBM and Apple, McDonald’s and Burger King, Visa and MasterCard, Germany’s DeutschBank and China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. These organizations are not courageous or heroic for taking these baby steps toward justice, but Ukraine’s courage and heroism have stiffened their spines. The next step is to apply the same sense of right and wrong to the jailers of Xinjiang.
Political leadership—especially in wartime—is tightly connected to words and images. And Zelensky has been equal to the task. Just contrast the videos of Zelensky in fatigues defending Kyiv shoulder-to-shoulder alongside his countrymen against the bizarre footage of a paranoid Putin figuratively and literally isolated from his generals, his subjects, the world.
As for Zelensky’s words, they’ve sounded positively Churchillian at times. In fact, in remarks to Britain’s House of Parliament, Zelensky deftly mimicked Winston Churchill’s wartime words: “We will fight till the end—at sea, in the air… in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, in the streets.”
To America’s Congress, he described living through “a terror that Europe has not seen for 80 years,” invoked Pearl Harbor and 9/11, and explained that Ukraine “experiences the same every day.”
To the French National Assembly, he spoke of “freedom, equality, brotherhood… I feel it. Ukrainians feel it.” He explained how “Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities hit by the occupiers resemble the ruins of Verdun” and then described the last agonizing hours of a Ukrainian woman at the maternity hospital bombed by Putin’s mass-murderers: “She had a shattered pelvis. Her child died before birth. Doctors tried to save the woman… But she begged the doctors for her death. She begged them to leave her, not to help her. Because she didn’t know what to live for. They fought. She died. In Ukraine. In Europe. In 2022.”
To a gathering of NATO’s 30 leaders, he warned, “Russia isn’t going to stop at Ukraine. It will not. It will go further against the eastern members of NATO—the Baltic states and Poland.” He reminded the most powerful alliance in history, “We are defending all our shared values.” He again echoed Churchill, who in early 1941, beseeched President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Give us your faith and your blessing, and, under Providence, all will be well… Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.” In the same way, Zelensky declared, “We ask for planes so that we don’t lose so many people. You have these planes… We ask for tanks so that we could unblock our cities that are dying now… You have at least 20,000 tanks… We just want to save our people, to survive, just to survive.” And then he delivered the rhetorical equivalent of a gut-punch: “Please do not tell us that our army is not up to NATO’s standards. We have shown what our standards are worth, how much we can give to the overall security of Europe and the world.”
Indeed, Ukraine’s heroic people and leader have shown themselves to be tenacious warriors, earning NATO’s admiration—and if they survive the hell Putin has unleashed, a seat at NATO’s table. What Zelensky defiantly declared to Putin’s invaders on the very first day of the war proved prescient: “It will be our faces you see, not our backs.”
Whether Zelensky is killed, leads a guerilla insurgency, or oversees Ukraine’s rebirth and reconstruction, one gets the sense he’s secured a place alongside Judah Maccabee, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and other heroic wartime leaders under imminent threat.
There’s more here than myth and image and soaring rhetoric, important as those are. Zelensky has substantive ideas about international security.
He has proposed the creation of a United for Peace association (U-24), which he describes as “a union of responsible countries that have the strength and consciousness to stop conflict immediately, provide all the necessary assistance in 24 hours, if necessary, even weapons, if necessary, sanctions, humanitarian support, political support, finances—everything you need to keep the peace and… save lives.” Such an organization, he adds, “could provide assistance to those who are experiencing natural disasters, man-made disasters, who fell victims to humanitarian crisis or epidemic.” And he argues, poignantly, that “if such alliance would exist today… we would be able to save thousands of lives in our country.”
He has shared with NATO’s leaders a one-percent-for-security concept. “Ukraine asks for 1 percent…give us 1 percent of all your planes, 1 percent of all your tanks, 1 percent [of]… multiple-rocket launch systems, anti-warship systems, air-defense systems… When we finally have it, it will give us and you 100-percent security.”
For those with ears to hear, this is straight out of America’s Cold War playbook. President Harry Truman drafted America’s Cold War blueprint by vowing to “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” President Ronald Reagan ended the Cold War by declaring “support for freedom-fighters is self-defense.”
In these early hours of Cold War II, President Joe Biden should invite allies and partners to join the United States in pooling their resources to help free nations in the crosshairs of tyrant regimes. To borrow a phrase, the fight is here—in Eastern Europe and Northeast Asia, in the Taiwan Strait and the Persian Gulf, in Africa and the Arctic, in space, cyberspace, the information space—and free peoples need tools to defend and secure their freedom.