President Volodymyr Zelensky has an unconventional background. He has a law degree but was a comedian before going into politics. His most famous acting role was as a man who accidentally becomes President.
Like many eastern Ukrainians, Zelensky’s first language is Russian. He is Jewish, and his grandfather fought against the Nazis in World War II.
Zelensky was not a popular leader before the invasion. A January poll found most Ukrainians did not support him running for a second term as President.
In a guest essay for the New York Times last week, just before the invasion, Ukrainian journalist Olga Rudenko said he was “in over his head… [his] tendency [is] to treat everything like a show. Gestures, for him, are more important than consequences.”
However, Zelensky’s response to the Russian invasion has earned him praise. A new poll has shown 91% support his actions during the crisis. Anna Myroniuk, a Ukrainian journalist who says she did not vote for Zelensky, wrote in the Washington Post yesterday that “his bravery is inspiring” and that he now has “the trust of the nation”.
Ukraine sits between Russia and Western allies
To the east of Ukraine is Russia and to the north is Russia’s ally Belarus. To the west are several members of Western military alliance NATO, including Poland and Romania.
It is a young country with an old history
The modern state of Ukraine is only a few decades old in its current form, but Ukrainian cultural identity is much older. A standard Ukrainian language has existed since at least the 1800s. Ukraine was part of the Russian-led Soviet Union from 1922 until 1991. It is now a democracy but has often been subject to Russian interference.
Ukraine is divided by language and politics
Many people in the eastern parts of Ukraine speak Russian as their first language. Russian is the dominant language in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which Russia recently recognised as independent states. It is also the dominant language in Crimea, which was invaded and annexed by Russia in 2014.
The divide between Russian-speaking areas in the east and Ukrainian-speaking areas in the west has shown up in its elections. In 2004 and 2010, pro-Russian Presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych won strong support in the country’s east and little support in the country’s west.
Yanukovych became President in 2010, but wide-scale protests led to his removal in 2014 and he has since been convicted of treason for inviting Russia to invade Ukraine.
Like many European countries, Ukraine also has a significant far-right nationalist movement. The Azov battalion, a volunteer militia group which has fought pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine since 2014, has links to neo-Nazi groups. However, the far-right has had limited political success, receiving only 2% of the vote in the 2019 elections, much less than in several European countries including France and Germany.
Four things to know about the country of Ukraine: A background explainer