As the Russian threat looms, the Ukrainian government is not laughing

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KYIV, Ukraine – Nations have chosen their leaders from many fields, including the military and academia, but the Ukrainian government may be the first to rely heavily on television and film.

Before turning to politics, President Volodymyr Zelensky was a television actor and comedian, and he placed allies with similar histories in key positions in government, including high-level advisers, lawmakers, administrators. and even a chief of intelligence.

At a time when Russia has reinforced its forces on the Ukrainian border and the fear of an invasion grows, Mr. Zelensky has surrounded himself with people from his comedy studio, Kvartal 95. Few of them have any experience of diplomacy or war.

“There is this risk that people do not have gravity and do not have experience,” Orysia Lutsevych, director of the Ukrainian studies program at Chatham House in London, said in an interview. “I wouldn’t want to be in the room when there are only a few guys who know how to produce videos. It is not a peaceful time. It is a time of war.

Mr Zelensky was elected two years ago as a stranger to dysfunctional and often corrupt Ukrainian politics and, trying to sidestep its bitter bickering and opaque motives, he inaugurated a government as unorthodox as himself. He appointed other veterans of the comedy industry, drawing on personal loyalty rather than expertise or building coalitions in Ukraine’s tense democracy, political analysts say.

Bihus, a Ukrainian investigative news site, deposit three dozen people with ties to the comedy studio of Mr. Zelensky and his family who are now in government, including in national security positions at the Defense Intelligence Agency, which is responsible for monitoring the Russian accumulation.

Mr Zelensky has repeatedly dismissed the frivolity accusations, and his allies say his background in comedy and his wry humor are in fact political assets.

Ukraine has been at war with Russia-backed separatists since 2014, long before Zelensky took office.

Today Russia has amassed troops in the north, east and south. The United States has leaked information showing that the Russian military has a war plan for an invasion with up to 175,000 troops which the Ukrainian military, despite the equipment and training provided by the United States, is believed to have little ability to stop.

US officials said it was not clear whether Russian President Vladimir V. Putin had decided to invade.

Russia demanded that NATO pledge to refrain from any eastward expansion, that Ukraine stop deploying NATO weapons and that Kiev comply with Russian conditions for a settlement of the war. in eastern Ukraine.

The build-up places Mr. Zelensky’s government in a melting pot of diplomacy and military posture, which has included U.S. and European military flights near Russia’s Black Sea borders and a video call between President Biden and Mr. Putin.

Military analysts have described a range of conflict scenarios, including Russia’s limited use of force. But a full invasion would become the biggest military action in Europe since World War II, harden the continent’s East-West divide, and kill untold numbers of soldiers on both sides, as well as civilians in Ukraine.

It’s no light moment, and yet comedy was an integral part of Mr. Zelensky’s political rise and personality, and his supporters defend its relevance in times of crisis.

On television, he plays a schoolteacher whose tirade against corruption is filmed by his students, ends up online and goes viral, propelling him to the presidency.

In a campaign of life imitating art, Mr. Zelensky named his political party after his TV show “Servant of the People”. Actors, filmmakers and media officials led the party and followed it to power.

The head of the presidential administration, Andriy Yermak, was a media lawyer and film producer. The head of the Home Intelligence Agency, Ivan Bakanov, had been the director of the Kvartal 95 studio. A chief presidential adviser, Serhiy Shefir, was a screenwriter and producer whose main credits included a successful romantic comedy film, ” Eight First Dates ”, and a television series,“ The In-laws ”.

Roman Hryshchuk was the head of a comedy show called “Mama Busted Up” before winning a seat in Parliament with Mr Zelensky’s party. Like the other actors in power, he does not apologize.

“Humor is a sign of intellect,” he said in an interview. “A sense of humor is a gift.”

In Ukraine’s international relations, “this is really an advantage,” he added. “In diplomacy, humor is always an instrument. You can set the right tone with a joke.

But the view that only comedians run the government is a “stereotype” promoted by opposition parties, Hryshchuk said, noting that many non-comedians also serve. To avoid playing on this criticism of Mr Zelensky, he said he had not told a joke in public for two years – and in the interview he flatly refused to do so.

“It would be used against us,” he said.

Mr. Zelensky joked, sometimes at times of tension. In what was seen as a threatening move in July, Mr Putin wrote an essay describing Russia and Ukraine as essentially one nation, text suggesting a rationale for the union of countries.

He was describing the fraternal ties. Mr. Zelensky replied, “like Cain and Abel.”

He also poked fun at Mr Putin’s roughly 5,000-word treatise exploring medieval history that the Russian president seemed to have a lot of free time.

“They think differently,” Tymofiy Mylovanov, former economy minister, said of comedy studio veterans. “They think in terms of dramaturgy. They think, “Who’s the bad guy, who’s the hero, what’s the roller coaster ride of emotions?” “

Behind closed doors, Zelensky and his associates are generally serious in meetings, former advisers and ministers said in interviews.

The comedy veterans are joking, but neither are the others in the room. “They’re just better than when I’m trying to play a joke,” said Mylovanov, whose major in economics is contract theory.

Serhiy Prytula, comedian and host of the “Ukraine Has Talent” TV show, said the problem was not comedy per se, but Mr Zelensky’s dependence on loyalists.

“We’ve all worked somewhere,” said Mr Prytula, who has announced plans to found his own comedy-led political party to compete with Mr Zelensky. “The question is: are you, as a politician, ready to surround yourself with people who are not only loyal but who have expertise? “

Beyond the general feeling that Mr Zelensky’s aides are overwhelmed, critics have pointed out what they call worrying mistakes in national security.

Mr Yermak, the former media lawyer, ordered a reckless postponement of a sensitive intelligence operation in 2020 that could have captured dozens of Russian mercenaries, according to Bellingcat, an open-source investigative group. The delay scuttled the operation.

And critics point to a decision this year to direct money raised through government borrowing not to military spending but to Mr Zelensky’s iconic domestic policy project, a road-building initiative called Big Construction overseen by Kirill Tymoshenko. , former director of a video production company. , Good media.

Volodymyr Ariev, member of the opposition European Solidarity party, joked that the allowance would now be used “to make the journey to Kiev more comfortable for Russian tanks”.

As Ukraine prepares for a possible war with Russia, concern grows that the inexperience of Mr. Zelensky’s entourage could have dire consequences, and not just for their own country. An amateurish faux pas could become a pretext for war, which would greatly increase friction between Russia and the United States.

Dmytro Razumkov, who was ousted in October as speaker of parliament – and replaced by former comedian Ruslan Stefanchuk – said Mr Zelensky’s appointment of show business figures betrayed a campaign promise by balance his government with technical experts. Mr. Stefanchuk is also a lawyer.

“We said, ‘In areas where we don’t have expertise, people who understand should step in,’ said Mr Razumkov, who was one of Mr Zelensky’s earliest supporters but has pivoted to criticize him for bringing in the unfortunate ministers and assistants.

Senior appointments are now “based on loyalty to the president and his entourage,” Razumkov said. “It is a comfortable way of working for the president but not for the country” at a time of military threat.

“We came for a comedy,” Mr. Razumkov said of Ukrainian politics under Mr. Zelensky, “and ended up watching a horror movie. It’s not funny at all.

Maria varenikova contributed to reporting from Kiev.


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