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MALTATODAY 6 March 2022

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OPINION Russia underestimated Zelenskyy's ability to forge a Ukrainian identity Brendan Zerafa Brendan Zerafa is a lawyer and freelance consultant specialising in politics and international law maltatoday | SUNDAY • 6 MARCH 2022 16 "UKRAINE is simply too divid- ed to stand strong in the face of Russian aggression" – this was the assumption, both in Mos- cow, as well as in other parts of the world, before Russia invaded Ukraine. Statistics show why such an assumption took root in the first place. In the 2001 Ukraini- an census, 17.1% of Ukrainians identified themselves as being ethnic Russians. According to data from the same census, 67.53% of the population spoke Ukrainian, while 29.59% spoke Russian. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself comes from a Russian-speaking family. Past voting patterns also speak for themselves. While in the 2010 election, the Western part of Ukraine voted for Yulia Tymoshenko, the East voted for Viktor Yanukovych, who even- tually became the last of the pre-Euromaidan Presidents. We all know what came after that: after failing talks with the EU, Yanukovych looked to- wards Russia and Putin for $15 billion in loans, a deal that an- gered the pro-European Union western Ukrainians. The protests that came after this deal took place would set the stage for what Ukraine is experiencing today. Owing to the annexation of Crimea, as well as its indirect support to the Autonomous Republics of Donetsk and Lu- hansk, Russia seemed well-pre- pared for the invasion of 2022. After all, Russia had found con- siderable support amongst the Russian speaking population in both Crimea and the Donbas Republics when both regions declared independence. Perhaps with a little bit of ef- fort, the rest of Eastern Ukraine would capitulate as well, right? Wrong. As fate would have it, not all Ukrainians who speak Russian identify themselves as ethnic Russians. Second- ly, the element of leadership, which was arguably absent in 2014, was also present in 2022. And Russia seemingly did not account for a President who could rally his "divided" popu- lation. A former comedian who had been accused of being in the hands of Ukrainian oligarchs, Zelenskyy himself comes from a Jewish Russian-speaking fam- ily. Within itself, Zelenskyy's background serves to neu- tralize Moscow's messaging, including the false narrative "that Kyiv has been infiltrated by Nazis." All evidence pointed to- wards the fact that the inex- perienced Zelenskyy was not well-equipped to lead Ukraine in such tumultuous times. In 2019, just after Zelenskyy had been elected, then-US Pres- ident Donald Trump even tried to bully the newly elected President into opening an in- vestigation into Hunter Biden. Given such abuse at the hands of allies, was there any reason why the Ukrainian President wouldn't suffer the same sort of abuse in the face of ene- mies? Evidence, however, can be very deceiving at times. And with what we've seen over the past week, Russia's invasion of Ukraine proves to be one of these times. While other leaders escaped when their countries were in- vaded, Zelenskyy stayed on to fight. When the United States offered to evacuate him, he was reported as saying, "I need ammunition, not a ride." From a predictable President with a soft response to American de- mands, Zelenskyy was trans- formed into an unpredictable Commander-in-Chief who'd do everything it takes to defend his nation. In the face of Russian disin- formation, Zelenskyy coun- tered with selfie videos from Kyiv. Needless to say, such ac- tions were widely successful. While Ukraine woke up to a strong Russian advance, Zelen- skyy's actions soon led to total mobilisation: both civilian and military. Whereas the Russian advance was a strong one, it soon be- came clear that the Ukrainian strategy of using Turkish-made drones to disrupt Russian sup- ply lines was paying off. In Turkish, "Bayraktar" means flag-bearer. And the Bayraktar TB2 drone is fast becoming the flag-bearer of Turkish military aviation, owing to its effective usage by the Ukrainian mili- tary. Putin expected Ukrainian civilians to flee the country. Zelenskyy inspired them to stay and to greet the Russian advance with Molotov cock- tails. In doing so, he's manag- ing to do something that other Ukrainian leaders have failed to for decades: to build a single and coherent Ukrainian identi- ty, an identity that is built on the nation's struggle for liberty and democracy. In 2019, when he was run- ning for President, Zelenskyy was characterized as a clown in Ukraine and abroad. Given Zelenskyy's ability to mobilize and inspire his pop- ulation, it's very visible that the clown will soon be the new king. Zelenskyy's background serves to neutralize Moscow's messaging, including the false narrative "that Kyiv has been infiltrated by Nazis" Volodymyr Zelenskyy

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