One is a former KGB agent and ruthless autocrat in energy for greater than 20 years. The opposite is a profitable comedian-turned-politician who discovered himself a war-time chief after lower than three years as president.
Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky are the faces of the year-long battle in Ukraine, Europe’s bloodiest battle since World Struggle II.
Each born within the USSR — although 25 years aside — they’ve change into the flag bearers of diametrically opposed visions of the post-Soviet world.
For Putin, 70, the Soviet collapse was a catastrophe that he’s decided to appropriate, hinting that nuclear weapons are wanted to return Kyiv into Moscow’s fold.
However Zelensky, 45, has aligned his nation’s future with the West, having been elected in a 2019 landslide on a wave of malcontent over Russian aggression and corruption amongst previous Soviet elites.
The gulf between them was unmistakable at their first face-to-face assembly in 2019 in Paris alongside French President Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, Germany’s then chancellor.
Zelensky, smiling sheepishly and having fun with the worldwide limelight at talks to finish combating in east Ukraine, at one level fortunately obeys cues from Putin to show and smile for the cameras.
“Each then and now it was apparent that these have been two essentially several types of leaders,” stated Andrei Kolesnikov, a Russian political analyst on the Carnegie Endowment for Worldwide Peace, a US assume tank.
“One trendy, younger, casual, targeted on growth; the opposite closed, archaic, authoritarian, with complexes and loopy concepts.”
– ‘Conceitedness, disrespect’ –
Because the Kremlin ordered Russian troops to topple the Ukrainian authorities one yr in the past, each males have defied expectations set out for them.
Zelensky not solely remained in Kyiv whereas it was being bombed within the opening hours of the invasion, however he has made quite a few journeys to the entrance line, together with to Bakhmut — the battle’s longest-battle and now the epicentre of combating.
Ukrainian political analyst Anatoliy Oktysiuk defined that previous to the battle, Zelensky offered himself as “a president of peace”.
“Putin handled him like a clown, a comic, a buffoon. The invasion that he began was the results of his underestimation, vanity, and disrespect for Zelensky,” Oktysiuk stated.
That every one modified after Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, displacing tens of millions and leaving tens of hundreds lifeless.
Putin’s place in politics has modified too.
Putin, who had cultivated his hardline picture with photoshoots within the Siberian wilderness, has failed up to now in his army targets in Ukraine and has shirked the entrance strains, as an alternative handing awards at secure distance within the Kremlin.
He has change into a global pariah overseas, whereas Zelensky has obtained a gentle stream of high European diplomats. Putin is excluded on the worldwide area whereas Zelensky is welcomed as a visitor of honour in Washington and London.
And — in contrast to in 2019 — Zelensky has now refused negotiations with Russia as long as Putin is in energy.
“Who’s he now? After (the) full-scale invasion, for me he’s no one,” Zelensky stated in an interview with British media earlier this yr.
– ‘Neo Nazi, drug-taking kidnappers’ –
The vitriol is mutual. The day after Putin despatched his military to Ukraine, he known as on Ukrainian servicemen to show their arms on their very own leaders.
“It is going to be simpler for us to return to phrases with you than with this gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis, who settled in Kyiv and took the whole Ukrainian inhabitants hostage,” Putin stated.
However the feeling in Moscow that the Kremlin could be unable to barter with Zelensky goes again to earlier than the outbreak of combating in February, Kolesnikov, the Russian political analyst, says.
“Putin doesn’t see Zelensky as the kind of politician with whom he is able to speak or negotiate. To him, Zelensky is an alien. They’re incompatible,” he informed AFP.
One yr into the battle, Zelensky has galvanised a global cohort of keen donors of army and monetary support, and Russian good points on the battlefield are excruciatingly gradual and dear — for either side.
Each seem decided to maintain combating, with Zelensky dealing with down the specter of battle fatigue at residence and overseas and the Kremlin compelled to battle to the tip.
“Putin is changing into much more intransigent and aggressive, he’s sinking into his conspiracy theories, and he is able to go to battle with out regard to his exhausting assets and popularity,” Kolesnikov stated.
What’s propelling this all-in strategy, Oktysiuk, the Ukrainian analyst stated, is Putin’s worry that the identical momentum for change that propelled Zelensky to energy might start to show heads in Russia.
“A clown, a comic, wins the election and tells how he’ll change the nation,” Oktysiuk stated. “If this occurred in Ukraine, why cannot it occur in Russia?”