Tuesday, Mar 8, 2022 • 33min

Why Zelensky Poses a Unique Threat to Putin

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Since the start of the war in Ukraine, no single figure has antagonized President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia as effectively or persistently as President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. His defiant videos and speeches have inspired the West into action and, by his own account, made him a target for Russian assassins. What is it about the comedian-turned-president and his rise to power that poses such a unique threat to Mr. Putin? Guest: Anton Troianovski, the Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times.
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Speakers
(2)
Anton Troianovski
Michael Barbaro
Transcript
Verified
Break
Michael Barbaro
00:33
I'm
Michael Barbaro
. This is The Daily.
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00:36
President
Zelensky
has stood down, and stood up to, and stared down President
Putin
. President
Putin
must be astounded, must be surprised, must be really disappointed.
Share
Michael Barbaro
00:52
Since the start of the war in
Ukraine
, no single figure has antagonized
Vladimir Putin
as effectively or persistently as Ukrainian
President Volodymyr Zelensky
.
Share
01:05
Ukraine's
Volodymyr Zelensky
has emerged as a hero in his nation and around the world.
Share
Michael Barbaro
01:10
Whose defiant videos and speeches have inspired the
West
and, by his own account, made him the target of assassination by
Russia
.
Share
01:21
Zelensky
says he is
Russia's
number one military target and that his family is number two.
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Michael Barbaro
01:27
Today, my colleague,
Moscow
bureau chief Anton Troianovski explains exactly what it is about
Zelensky
and his rise to power that poses such a unique threat to
Putin
. It's Tuesday, March 8th.
Share
01:59
Anton, How did you first get to know
Volodymyr Zelensky
?
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Anton Troianovski
02:03
I got to know him the way most people in both
Russia
and
Ukraine
got to know him, which is watching his stuff on TV. He had this Saturday Night Live type Show on Ukrainian TV that started airing in 2005, and he also had of course his breakout hit sitcom, called Servant of the People, which first aired in 2015, in which he plays a school teacher, who suddenly goes viral on social media and becomes the president of
Ukraine
.
Share
02:54
And you can imagine that hilarity ensues.
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Michael Barbaro
02:60
Of course. So, tell me more about this show.
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Anton Troianovski
03:03
It's this show that, you know, combines kind of the feel good, we're doing the right thing attitude of the
West Wing
with the this is how the sausage is made comedy of
Veep
. One of the most famous moments in the show is where he is negotiating with an official from the
International Monetary Fund.
Share
03:34
Where the
IMF
is trying to force
Ukraine
to meet all these conditions in order to get a loan that it needs. And
Zelensky
goes out with this
IMF
official to a press conference facing journalists and cameras and instead of giving the usual political lines about, you know, how we're going to be constructive etcetera,
Zelensky
just says in Russian, "What I want to say is you guys can go to hell" to the
IMF
.
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Michael Barbaro
04:14
And Anton, why was a show about a Ukrainian politician, an accidental Ukrainian politician, something you were watching in
Russia
? And sounds like became a hit within
Russia
.
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Anton Troianovski
04:27
Well, first of all, the show was in Russian.
Zelensky
is a native Russian speaker and that was the language that he used in his early and in fact through most of his career in show business.
Zelensky
grew up in
the Soviet Union
, in a working class Russian-speaking city in southeastern
Ukraine
.
Share
04:46
And you know, in the decades after the collapse of
the Soviet Union
, the kind of entertainment market of
Russia
,
Ukraine
,
Belarus,
Kazakhstan
, the whole Russian speaking former
Soviet Union
remained very much intertwined.
Share
05:04
Zelensky
actually spent a lot of his early career in
Moscow
. He toured as a comedian, he toured all around
Russia
and the former
Soviet Union
. You know, obviously if you're an Ukrainian comedian, you're probably looking to break into the Russian market, because it's much bigger.
Share
05:23
So, you know, I think the fact that his show was popular in
Russia
as well as in Ukraine kind of showed how those countries remained intertwined culturally, even after they started drifting apart politically in the early 2000s.
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Michael Barbaro
05:41
That's really interesting. Did the Russian-Ukrainian relationship ever appear within this show?
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Anton Troianovski
05:48
It did. You know, certainly the complicated issues of language and identity in
Ukraine
very much did, you know. There's this memorable moment where
Zelensky's
character in the show, this school teacher, Holoborodko, he is a Russian speaker. And then he gets into office and he suddenly has to learn Ukrainian, because, you know Ukrainian politicians are expected to speak Ukrainian in public.
Share
06:16
And then, you know, there's some humorous moments in which he's trying to learn the language and messing up the words. So yeah, you know, that kind of issue of Ukrainian identity was also something that he lampooned a bit in his show.
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Michael Barbaro
06:34
So if you're a Russian, tv consumer, like say, you, Anton. It would be easy to identify with
Zelensky
and his character on the show, and it sounds like the show itself is reinforcing the idea that there's a kinship between
Ukraine
and
Russia
.
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Anton Troianovski
06:51
Well, I mean, the show itself is not really all that much about the relationship between
Ukraine
and
Russia
, but if you look at the show kind of as a cultural object, you do see that, yes.
Zelensky
himself owes much of his career to
Russia
and the Russian market and the economic benefits of being successful in such a big country. The show itself is in Russian.
Share
07:22
So yes, it's you know, it's something that in this region it's kind of almost unsaid. Like, yes, there are so many cultural and linguistic connections still between the countries of the former
Soviet Union
and certainly between
Russia
and
Ukraine
. But that does not of course necessarily mean that they have to have a political kinship as well.
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Michael Barbaro
07:44
Right, but enough of a connection for this show to be a success.
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Anton Troianovski
07:49
Yeah, totally. And you know, between this show and
Zelensky's
clips on his variety show going viral on
youtube
, he became a star in
Russia
as well as in
Ukraine
.
Share
Michael Barbaro
08:01
So then how does it come to pass that this very successful actor runs for president of
Ukraine
?
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Anton Troianovski
08:15
So this was 2019. In fact, he announced his candidacy on the New Year's Eve edition of his show, December 31, 2018.
Share
08:34
So then he runs for president. I remember visiting
Kiev
at the time and talking to Western diplomats who were all feverishly catching up on his TV show, telling me this is just so strange, you know. It's becoming so hard to tell what's fact and what's fiction.
Share
08:54
Zelensky
is making good on his promise to in Ukrainian politics upside down.
Share
08:59
The campaign has been extraordinary, not least because Mr.
Zelensky
has avoided almost all of the things that candidates normally do in election.
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Anton Troianovski
09:06
Just as an example, in the TV show,
Zelensky's
character, as he's running for president, takes to addressing voters doing these selfie videos and recording himself talking to regular Ukrainians. And then
Zelensky's
real life presidential campaign videos take a similar style, and are also interspersed with clips from Servant of the People, the show. So yeah.
Share
Michael Barbaro
09:35
This is very, very meta.
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Anton Troianovski
09:37
It was very meta.
Share
09:38
This campaign has barely existed in real life. The only time the candidates have publicly exchanged views, by phone, was a disaster.
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Anton Troianovski
09:52
Also, by the way,
Zelensky
is political party is called Servant of the People, as in the name of his TV show.
Share
09:60
It's as if
Martin Sheen
ran for president and registered a party called The
West Wing
.
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Anton Troianovski
10:06
We don't know how serious
Zelensky
was, of course, when he first ran, but the fact is he proved remarkably successful as a candidate, you know? Because he just had such a fresh approach to politics, such a useful approach. It was such a contrast to kind of the state and many believed corrupt political establishment of
Ukraine
. It was a really remarkable rise that he had.
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Michael Barbaro
10:36
Well, explain that. What were his key messages in that 2019 campaign?
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Anton Troianovski
10:42
Well, one which was very popular was opposing corruption, promising to be a more running, more honest and clean government. And then the second one was to end the war in Eastern Ukraine.
Zelensky
really drew a contrast with
Petro Poroshenko
, the incumbent.
Share
10:59
Poroshenko
was someone with very close ties in Western governments and so
Zelensky
came in drawing a contrast to that.
Zelensky
talked about wanting to sit down with
Putin
directly and make a deal. You know, he signaled that he could be willing to compromise with
Putin
to basically stop the dying there in
Ukraine's
war with Russian backed separatists.
Share
11:25
And that was something that actually, at the time, made a lot of Western diplomats and others nervous. People thought that
Zelensky
might end up being too soft on
Putin
and lack the experience to really be able to take him on.
Share
Michael Barbaro
11:43
This is a fascinating piece of information in retrospect. hat 's Alinsky 's campaign for president made people think that he could be quite close to
Putin
and to
Russia
.
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Anton Troianovski
11:54
Yes, you know,
Zelensky
ran with no political experience, certainly with no foreign policy experience. I remember I was there at one of his first meetings with foreign correspondents. We asked him, so what are you going to do? How are you actually going to end the war? And he didn't have any specific idea.
Share
12:17
He spoke about sort of the idea that well, if he were to be able to sit down with
Putin
man to man, that they'd be able to make a deal and finally end this. So there was a lot of skepticism that
Zelensky
was the right man for the job, in particular when it came to foreign policy.
Share
12:36
But in the broader public that message of ending the war was extremely popular. And it was even popular in the more
Russia
friendly corners of
Ukraine
in the south and in the east, where people sort of were positive about the idea of kind of rebuilding some ties to
Russia
.
Share
13:08
A 41-year-old actor and comedian with no political experience whatsoever has won today's presidential election in
Ukraine
.
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Anton Troianovski
13:17
He wins in a blowout, 73% of the vote.
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Michael Barbaro
13:22
So just to recap. At the moment,
Zelensky
becomes
Ukraine's
president, overwhelmingly, given that vote tally. His relationship to
Russia
is as a celebrity, within
Russia,
because of his television shows. And a celebrity within
Russia
who has communicated that he thinks some form of peace with
Putin
and a good working relationship with
Putin
is possible.
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Anton Troianovski
13:50
Yes, exactly.
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Michael Barbaro
13:51
So, did
Putin
welcome
Zelensky's
victory? It would seem like he would.
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Anton Troianovski
13:56
There was optimism in
Russia,
certainly. I mean, you could see it in the polls when people were asked their views on
Ukraine
. It really, there was a big jump upward. And in the
Kremlin
yes, also. I mean, the reaction was more muted, but clearly there was an idea there too, that this was a guy that they could work with, someone who might be in the
Kremlin's
kind of conspiratorial thinking, a guy who is less dependent on the
West
and might act more independently.
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Michael Barbaro
14:31
So when does
Zelensky's
relationship with
Russia
as president start to change?
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Anton Troianovski
14:37
I think it starts to change pretty quickly, in that first year, 2019. He meets with
Putin
in person at the end of 2019 in
Paris
. You know, they try to get some peace talks off the ground, but it becomes clear pretty quickly, especially as the pandemic comes around in 2020, that it is much easier said than done that you're going to make a deal with
Russia
.
Share
15:04
And you could really see
Zelensky
becoming more and more frustrated. You know, there was one of the first points of tension where you could see there was a fork in the road and
Zelensky
when a certain direction, was when
Russia
was offering its Sputnik
Coronavirus
vaccine to
Ukraine
, which would have been a huge PR victory for the
Kremlin
if
Zelensky
had agreed to it, and he did not, he refused to do it. He held out for Western vaccines.
Share
15:34
So that was one early sign of
Zelensky
taking a pro-Western route and being skeptical, being cautious of getting too close to
Russia
. And then he became more outspoken about wanting to join the
NATO
alliance.
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Michael Barbaro
15:50
Which of course, as we now know, is seen as the ultimate act of provocation toward
Putin's
Russia
because he sees
NATO
as such a threat to his authority and his power.
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Anton Troianovski
16:03
That's right. And I should add that in addition to being frustrated with
Russia
,
Zelensky
was also seeing an increasingly receptive attitude in the West. You know,
Zelensky
was elected in 2019 when Donald Trump was president, a man who was not all that interested in helping
Ukraine
to take a pro-Western path and also was not all that critical of President
Putin
.
Share
16:29
But then
Biden
becomes president in January 2021. And he comes in, of course, with a message of much greater support for
Ukraine
to take a path that brings it closer to Western institutions and takes it farther away from
Russia
. So what happens is, just days after
Biden
is inaugurated,
Zelensky
cracks down on a business tycoon in
Ukraine
named
Viktor Medvedchuk
.
Share
16:59
And that's important because
Medvedchuk
is basically the closest link remaining between
Ukraine
and the
Kremlin
.
Putin
is the godfather of
Medvedchuk's
daughter,
Medvedchuk
runs a political party that is fairly pro-Russian, he was running several TV channels that were pro Russian. And early last year
Zelensky
closes those tv channels starts an investigation into
Medvedchuk
.
Share
17:31
Last May,
Medvedchuk
was put under house arrest under suspicion of treason. So
Zelensky
took all these steps that were very aggressive and that was something that clearly annoyed
Putin
greatly. And in retrospect was likely one of the factors that exacerbated the situation between
Ukraine
and
Russia
.
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Michael Barbaro
17:56
So Anton, you're saying the shift in the US Presidency from Trump to
Biden
represented to
Zelensky
that he had more Western support and that basically he had some backup if he wanted to cross
Putin
. And so it's then that he starts taking more and more aggressive steps to move away from
Russia
.
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Anton Troianovski
18:18
Exactly. And as his presidency progressed, he found himself more and more on a collision course with Vladimir
Putin
.
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18:31
We'll be right back.
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Break
Michael Barbaro
19:54
Putin
becomes more and more inflamed by
Zelensky
and by the possibility however remote that under
Zelensky
,
Ukraine
might end up joining
NATO.
Putin
begins amassing more and more troops on
Ukraine's
borders and eventually, of course, invading
Ukraine
. Given everything that you've just told us, what stood out to you about how
Zelensky
responded to that?
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Anton Troianovski
20:20
Well,
Zelensky
responds showing himself as a master communicator, you know? Showing his knowledge of how to get the gravity of the moment across in a moment of crisis that in some ways recalls his TV show. Remember we were talking about the selfie videos that he was doing as a presidential candidate on his sitcom and then as a real life presidential candidate?
Share
20:46
And recently he's been doing selfie videos from a city under siege, you know, in a T-shirt, unshaven, showing his people that he is there, he hasn't fled, he's ready to defend his country. And importantly too, he's not just speaking to the Ukrainian people, he's speaking to the Russian people.
Share
21:08
Remember I mentioned that whole bid in his TV show where he's a Russian speaker trying to learn Ukrainian, because Ukrainian officials are expected to speak Ukrainian in public? Well, recently he's doing public addresses in Russian. He's been speaking his native Russian in order to reach Russians directly.
Share
21:30
And the first such address was the night of February 23rd, in the early morning of the 24th, hours before
Russia
launched its attack.
Zelensky
posted a video to social media saying... I'm coming to you, to citizens of
Russia
, speaking your language, describing his attachment to
Ukraine
and really trying to counter
Putin's
fundamental message that
Ukraine
isn't even a real country.
Share
22:11
So he says, for instance, you are told that this flame, referring to the war, will bring freedom to the Ukrainian people. But the people of
Ukraine
are already free. Hear our voices, we want peace. And he ends the speech by saying, do the people of
Russia
want war? He asks, I would like to be able to answer this, but the answer depends only on you, the citizens of the Russian Federation.
Share
22:58
So he's telling Russians that
Ukraine
is not a threat to them, that even though these countries share all these ties, that doesn't mean essentially that
Russia
needs to invade the
Ukraine
in order to secure those ties.
Share
23:12
Putin's
argument, as you know, is Ukrainians and Russians are one people.
Putin
claims that the
West
is controlling
Ukraine,
that the
West
is using
Ukraine
as a platform to attack
Russia
, basically taking away any agency from the Ukrainian people.
Share
23:29
And here's
Zelensky
himself, in Russia, saying no, that's not true,
Ukraine
has made its own decision. And despite all those ties, despite all that kinship that of course,
Zelensky
himself and his personal story symbolizes,
Ukraine
has chosen a different path. That's
Zelensky's
basic argument.
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Michael Barbaro
23:48
Right. And that's the attitude it seems of most Ukrainians, and why they would be compelled to take up arms and fight so forcefully against
Russia
. But I'm wondering, how's
Zelensky's
message in this speech goes over with Russians?
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Anton Troianovski
24:03
Well, in the hours after that first speech, the invasion happens.
Russia
starts to bomb Ukrainian targets and Russian tanks move across the border into
Ukraine
.
Zelensky's
speech in Russian is ricocheting through Russian social media accounts, people are clearly seeing that in the country.
Share
24:27
And then, that first day, February 24th, Russians take to the streets. Dozens of cities across the country. There are thousands of arrests off people who are doing things like chanting "no to war" on the streets of
Moscow,
Saint Petersburg
and elsewhere.
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Michael Barbaro
24:54
Very much doing what
Zelensky
is, in a sense, asking them to do. Oppose this war.
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Anton Troianovski
25:01
Exactly! I mean, it's a very, I think visceral feeling for many Russians that this war is an abomination. And certainly hearing
Zelensky
address them, you know, you can't discount the influence of that either.
Share
25:13
So not long after that,
Zelensky
posts another one of these videos where he's basically saying, thank you for hearing us, to the Russian people. He says, to all the citizens of the Russian Federation who come out to protest, I want to say we see you. This means that you heard us. This means that you're beginning to trust us. Fight for us. Fight against the war.
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Michael Barbaro
25:45
So,
Zelensky
is having a kind of running conversation with the Russian people, and knowing what you've told us about his celebrity within
Russia
and how Russians feel about him, that kind of running conversation must resonate in a unique and powerful way.
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Anton Troianovski
26:03
That's right. I think for a certain segment of the population, his message is landing. And again, this isn't just a faceless president of another country. This is a film celebrity that a lot of people knew long before he became president.
Share
26:20
And
Zelensky
becomes relentless about these communications in the days after the invasion. He's doing these speeches on video every day, multiple times a day. Of course, a lot of them are directed at Ukrainians, some are directed at the
West
, where he's saying that the
West
needs to do more to help
Ukraine
financially and militarily. But he also continues to direct some of these dispatches at Russians, who he refers to at one point as peaceful people of a belligerent state.
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Michael Barbaro
26:52
It seems he's working very hard to separate the Russian people, in this moment, from their leader. He's saying, I'm speaking to you because
Putin
doesn't represent you. He's trying to drive a wedge between the leadership of
Russia
, in this moment, and the Russian people.
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Anton Troianovski
27:07
Exactly.
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Michael Barbaro
27:09
So how does the leader of
Russia
, Vladimir
Putin,
and the
Kremlin
respond to the
Zelensky
communications?
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Anton Troianovski
27:16
Well,
Michael
, their message is
Zelensky
is totally out of his depth. They're saying he's controlled by Western puppet masters and what the
Kremlin
calls falsely Nazis in
Ukraine
.
Zelensky
also keeps saying he wants to talk to
Putin
directly. He wants to negotiate an end to the fighting. While the
Kremlin
has been saying there's nothing to talk about, sort of very dismissive of
Zelensky
as a leader and of the idea that he may have any influence.
Share
27:48
And the fact is there are plenty of Russians who are willing to believe that narrative. I was actually, just before we got on, looking at some of the comments on Russian social media about the
Zelensky
videos. And one typical kind of comment is, oh, he's a great guy, cool, looks just like a typical Russian or Ukrainian working class man, but it's too bad that all those neo-nazis have gotten to him.
Share
28:13
That's the
Kremlin
propaganda breaking through. So we have to be cautious not to overstate, I think, the impact of the strategy that
Zelensky
has taken.
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Michael Barbaro
28:23
Understood. But it is clear that
Zelensky's
message, especially to Russians, is getting under Vladimir
Putin's
skin.
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Anton Troianovski
28:30
Absolutely, I think it is. And I think that what
Zelensky
symbolizes is really an existential problem for the
Kremlin
. Which is that he's someone steeped in the Russian-speaking culture of the post soviet space. He comes from a Russian-speaking city in southeastern
Ukraine,
and he's someone who has built his career on his appeal in
Russia
and elsewhere in the former
Soviet Union
.
Share
28:54
And despite all that, he wants to take his country on a pro Western path and does not want to subjugate to the dominance of Vladimir
Putin
. So that's what makes him such a potent symbol politically in the region across the former soviet space. And also, I think, makes him such a danger to
Putin
.
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Michael Barbaro
29:15
And so is that why so many people believe that
Putin
wants
Zelensky
dead, wants to kill him?
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Anton Troianovski
29:24
Yeah. And, you know,
Zelensky
talks about it himself all the time. He makes that a big part of his communications,
Zelensky
trying to show people that he's not afraid and trying to set an example, I think, for the people of
Ukraine
. And also show to the Russian people watching him, that he remains, and the Ukrainian people remain, defiant.
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Michael Barbaro
29:45
Right. And each one of these videos is also a way for
Zelensky
to say quite simply, I'm still here. I'm still alive. I'm still in charge. Which is itself a kind of provocation to
Putin
.
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Anton Troianovski
29:58
Exactly. Because, you know, the Russians, I think if you listen to Russian state TV and two Russian politicians, they clearly expected him to flee as soon as the war began.
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Michael Barbaro
30:09
But I'm really curious. Doesn't everything we're talking about here make
Volodymyr Zelensky
, someone whose death might backfire on
Putin
?
Zelensky
has deep connections to the Russian people, his effectiveness at communicating to both them and Ukrainians and this moment. If
Putin
were to take
Zelensky
out, couldn't he then become a martyr and wouldn't that end up being bad for
Putin
?
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Anton Troianovski
30:34
Well, I mean, this war has already been so shocking in so many ways that we can't really make predictions. And one of the things I think that's been shocking to the
Kremlin
is just how much of a determined and dignified leader
Zelensky
has emerged under this incredible pressure.
Share
30:53
And so if
Zelensky
were to be killed, there would be a cost to
Putin
, he will have inspired Ukrainians. And I think just as importantly, he will have really, I think, succeeded in drawing this line between the
Kremlin
and the people of
Russia
, you know? In this incredible position where his country is under fire, under attack from cruise missiles and artillery and tanks.
Share
31:25
And even as that's happening, he's reaching out to the Russian people next door and saying, we still kind of understand you, we don't throw you all into one pot with your leader. That message is resonating right now in this time of crisis, and no matter what, live or die, that'll be a big part of
Zelensky's
legacy.
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Michael Barbaro
31:52
Anton, thank you very much. We appreciate it.
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Anton Troianovski
31:58
Thank you Michael.
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Michael Barbaro
32:12
On Monday night, in his latest self recorded video,
Zelensky
spoke to Ukrainians from his presidential office in
Kiev
, the first time he has appeared there since the war began.
Share
32:32
In remarks seemingly aimed at
Putin
,
Zelensky
declared that he was not afraid of anyone and rebuked Russian forces for attacking civilian sites, including a bread factory. Think about it, he said: to fire at the bread factory. Who could you be to do that?
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33:13
We'll be right back.
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Break
Michael Barbaro
33:47
Here's what else you need to know today.
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33:51
On Monday, the state of
Florida
said it would recommend that healthy children not be vaccinated against
COVID-19
directly contradicting guidance from federal health officials. The recommendation was approved by the state's controversial surgeon general, a Republican appointee who has expressed skepticism of the vaccine's effectiveness.
Share
34:16
Is that a good policy?
Share
34:18
Absolutely not. Let me just-
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Michael Barbaro
34:21
Ask about the decision, White House Press Secretary
Jen Psaki
expressed alarm, citing data that shows unvaccinated teenagers are far likelier to be hospitalized with
Covid
than vaccinated teenagers.
Share
34:37
So it's deeply disturbing that there are politicians peddling conspiracy theories out there and casting down on vaccinations when it is our best tool against the virus and the best tool to prevent even teenagers from being hospitalized.
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Michael Barbaro
Anton Troianovski
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