Ukraine's Heroic Zelensky Unites Divided Americans Against Putin

Volodymyr Zelensky—comic actor, Ukrainian president, defiant hero facing down Vladimir Putin's army.

Yet while widely praised at home, his emergence as a war leader has had an unplanned effect: uniting a divided America.

In recent days, politicians on Capitol Hill and cable TV hosts from either side of the divide, have come together to praise his leadership.

Zelensky is a "bigger man" than Putin, said GOP Senator Ben Sasse said on Sunday.

A "lion of a leader," is how Texas Republican Rep. August Pfluger described Zelensky in an op-ed for USA Today that same day. "Bold courage in the face of evil," he called it.

"Incredible bravery," Democrat congressman Adam Schiff said of Zelensky.

Amy Klobuchar, a former 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful, shared Zelensky's self-shot video from Kyiv last week, in which he vowed to to stay and defend the capital against the Russian invasion.

The praise of Zelensky has even emerged from figures who have supported Putin.
Former President Donald Trump, who was repeatedly praised the Russian leader, called Zelensky a "brave man" during his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Saturday.

While former Hawaii Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who has defended Putin's actions previously, pleaded to the Russian leader over Twitter on Sunday to end the war.

"It's clear that the Russian people and the Ukrainian people both just want to live in peace so I implore you end this assault now before it gets to the point of no return and the suffering becomes unimaginable," she said.

In a rare sign of U.S. partisanship, lawmakers from both sides also expressed support for imposing tougher sanctions on Putin as Zelensky's public image increased.

In recent days, GOP Senator Lindsay Graham and Schiff called for Russia to be removed from SWIFT—the network that connects thousands of financial institutions around the world—in order to financially target Russia for invading Ukraine.

"When it comes to sanctions against Putin — If we are NOT doing everything possible, we are NOT doing enough," Graham tweeted. "Time is NOT on our side."

Fox News and CNN find common ground

What's even more remarkable about Volodymyr Zelensky is that he has not only garnered bipartisan support in Washington, but has also has cable news channels as ideologically opposed as MSNBC and Fox News praising his heroism.

Liberal anchors like MSNBC's Rachel Maddow and CNN's Don Lemon, appear to be singing from the same Zelensky hymn sheet as conservatives such as Fox News' Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson.

Volodymyr Zelensky
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has emerged as a new hero during Vladimir Putin's war against the country. EMMANUEL DUNAND-AFP/Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

Carlson—arguably one of the most influential figures in terms of shaping the GOP—recently expressed a shift in tone regarding the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Having originally downplayed the seriousness of the "border dispute," Carlson has since blamed the "tragedy" of the war on Putin.

"Vladimir Putin started this war, so whatever the context of the decision that he made, he did it," Carlson said on Thursday. "He fired the first shots."

Red or Blue? No matter. Everyone is seemingly in Zelensky's corner.

How Zelensky became a hero to the West

He was elected in 2019 with an astonishing 73 percent of a democratic vote, but in the last 12 months was increasingly viewed as out of his depth on the political stage.

War leader Zelensky has changed all that. His defiant social media videos and determination to remain in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv has won him old and new fans.

One such video, in which Zelensky turns down an offer from the United States to be evacuated out of Kyiv because "I need ammunition, not a ride," has since been viewed more than 18 million times on Twitter.

These clips have coincided with social media constantly abuzz with clips from his former life as a celebrity, including revelations he was the voice of the Ukrainian version of Paddington and won the Ukrainian version of Strictly Come Dancing.

In the U.S., Zelensky was previously best known for being on the other side of the controversial 2019 phonecall from former president Donald Trump, where he was accused of attempting to pressure the Ukrainian president to investigate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, ahead of ahead of the 2020 election, which lead to Trump's first impeachment.

The ensuing impeachment trial and subsequent fallout was just another example of the divisiveness the U.S. before and after the Trump presidency.

However, amid the war in Europe, Zelensky has managed to unite people across the political spectrum and helped ensure tougher responses against Putin.

Lecturer Natasha Kuhrt, at the department of war studies at King's College London, told Newsweek how Zelensky and his government have represented "a counterpoint to the authoritarian regime next door" during the conflict.

"In contrast to Putin, who receives even his own officials at the end of a very long table with an unsmiling, cold and intimidating demeanor, as in the recent bizarre Security Council meeting, Zelensky posts pictures of himself and his Defence Minister on social media hanging out together in relaxed fashion, smiling and joking," Kuhrt said.

"These may seem like small things but they have a big impact.

"The fact that Zelensky was the voice of the Ukrainian version of Paddington and won the Ukrainian version of Strictly Come Dancing only endears him further—he presents a very human face and one that is very relatable to us in the West, unlike Putin."

Kuhrt added that Zelensky's bravery in standing up to Russia is a prime example of a "David and Goliath" story which has played into the Ukrainian president's hands.

"Russia had calculated that Ukraine would cave in within a few days, but the reality is that Russia is suffering humiliating military losses," Kuhrt said.

"Ultimately, while Putin's goal was to stop Ukraine from entering the Western orbit, this has spectacularly backfired."

With America's political leaders and its news networks in lock-step, President Biden finds himself in a unique position of bipartisan support for tough actions against Russia.

"Biden clearly stated that Russia is a pariah state, and this resonates across party divides," said Orysia Lutsevych, a research fellow at the London think tank Chatham House.

"Biden has a bipartisan backing to play tough on Russia and this is where Ukraine and U.S. are allies," Lutsevych told Newsweek. "More defense assistance should be urgently delivered to Ukraine."