Why is Ukraine's president Russia's "number one target?"
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says he and his family will remain in Ukraine despite information they have been targeted by Russian forces.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been thrust into the international spotlight as an unlikely wartime leader following Russia’s invasion of the country. Vladimir Putin ordered troops into the Donbas region of Ukraine in a dawn attack on Thursday and the battle has spread across the country, with Russian forces pressing in on the capital, Kyiv, late on Friday, after taking the Chernobyl nuclear power plant a day earlier.
Zelenskyy, who assumed office in May 2019 after a landslide victory over incumbent Petro Poroshenko, promised during the election campaign that he would seek to bring an end to the historical tensions between Moscow and Kyiv, unite the Ukrainian and Russian speaking areas of the country - having grown up in grew up in the Russian-speaking region of Kryvyi Rih - and to engage Putin in diplomacy. Less than three years later, following Europe’s emergence from the coronavirus pandemic, Zelenskyy now finds himself in a position few could have imagined when he swept to electoral victory: urging the Ukrainian people to resists a full-scale assault by Russian armed forces.
Before his rise to the Mariinskyi Palace, Zelenskyy was a proponent of Ukraine’s rapprochement with the EU and NATO, which Russia is fervently opposed to. However, as tension between the two territories has grown, the two presidents have met with the heads of other EU states. One such meeting between Zelenskyy and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz recently came to light.
Before the Russian assault was launched on Thursday, Zelenskyy had established 16 February – the day the attack was expected – as National Unity Day. “They tell us that 16 February will be the day of the invasion. We will turn it into a Day of Unity. The corresponding decree has already been signed,” he said at the time.
Zelenskyy’s rise to the presidency of Ukraine
Zelenskyy was elected to office as the president of Ukraine on 1 April, 2019, with little to no political pedigree. He graduated with a law degree from the Kryvyi Rih Institute of Economics, then a part of the Kyiv National Economic University, but never went on to practice. From 1997, he worked as an actor, script writer and producer for the Kvartal 95 comedy team, whose success led to international recognition and several tours of Russia and other former Soviet countries.
He went on to star in several films and became general producer of television channel Inter, but his most famous role came in the TV show Servant of the People, in which he played the role of a fictitious president of Ukraine, a school teacher who rose to power from obscurity. During that time, he was an active opponent of Ukraine’s moves to ban Russian artists, many of his films having been co-productions mainly in Russian.
Zelenskyy entered the political sphere in 2019 with the goal of “changing the mood and timbre of the political establishment.” During his successful campaign, one of the promises he made was that he would only serve one five-year term in office, something that has now potentially been taken out of his hands following Russia’s invasion and plummeting popularity ratings.
Zelenskyy Russia’s “number one target”
Shortly after the Russian assault was launched, US intelligence sources stated that the main objective of the invasion was to remove Ukraine’s democratic government.
"It is our assessment that they have every intention of basically decapitating the government and installing their own method of governance, which would explain these early moves,” a US Department of Defense official was reported as saying.
In an address to the nation on Friday, as Ukrainian civilians were being armed to resist the advanced of Russian forces, Zelenskyy said he had no intention of fleeing the country. “I remain in the capital, my family is also in Ukraine, my children are in Ukraine. My family are not traitors, they are citizens of Ukraine. Where they are exactly, I have no right to say. According to the information we have, the enemy has marked me as the number one target, my family as target number two. They want to damage Ukraine politically by destroying the head of state.”