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Throughout my career at CIA, I was regularly struck by the extent to which our policymakers relied on analytical profiles of foreign leaders, especially during times of crisis. It is those leaders who make the most critically important decisions for their own citizens, decisions that can have a global impact as well.
British historian Professor Donald Cameron Watt, with whom I studied in the late 1980s, taught the importance of focusing on the key individuals who wielded the power of the state. Mr. Watt’s area of expertise was World War II, when extraordinary leaders like British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt forged an alliance that helped defeat Nazi Germany and save the world.
Churchill and Roosevelt had already served many years in government and had significant experience, including in Churchill’s case on the battlefield, before facing the trials of a world war. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, by contrast, could claim almost none of the seasoning they had as he faced the crisis now confronting his country.
How unexpectedly stunning, therefore, that in the most perilous time in modern Ukrainian history Mr. Zelenskyy, a former comedian with a law degree but no prior experience in the affairs of state, has emerged as an inspirational hero to his own citizens and democracies everywhere in his inspirational leadership in the face of a massive and unprovoked Russian invasion.
My former CIA colleague Scott Spellmeyer, who was part of the eight-man Team Alfa that was the first to fight behind Taliban enemy lines after the 9/11 attacks, told me that leaders always undergo a “flight or fight” defining moment during a crisis. When the U.S. reportedly offered him transport to leave Kyiv as invading Russian forces approached, Mr. Zelenskyy famously replied that he needed “ammunition, not a ride.”
“The fight,” the Ukrainian leader emphasized, “is here.”
My former CIA colleague Marc Polymeropolous, in his 2021 book “Clarity in Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the CIA,” wrote that leaders are “not born, they are created, most often in crisis situations.” We are witnessing in real-time Mr. Zelenskyy’s transformation into a wartime leader and a front-line defender of democracy.
With Ukraine’s very existence at grave risk, Mr. Zelenskyy has emerged as the most compelling, savvy and courageous wartime leader in years. He is inspiring his fellow citizens, tens of thousands of whom are voluntarily taking up arms and rushing to the frontlines. Mr. Zelenskyy has also galvanized the international community to deliver the support on which Ukraine relies to stay in the fight against Russia’s brutal, unprovoked aggression.
Mr. Zelenskyy is brilliantly playing to his strengths, most especially communication, which is one of the most critically important elements of great leadership. He is highly effective on social media and he understands how to maximize the value of pithy slogans and effective optics to win the information wars over the Kremlin.
While the KGB operative-in-the-Kremlin Vladimir Putin sits 30 feet away from his national security team during scripted “briefings,” Mr. Zelenskyy is posting on social media dressed in a T-shirt, hugging his defense minister.
Mr. Zelenskyy has awakened Western democracies from their post-Cold War slumber, with greater cohesion and throw-weight than former President Donald Trump’s strong-armed tactics or President Biden’s more kinder and gentler approach ever managed. Before Russia’s invasion, it was Ukraine that was petitioning — unsuccessfully — to join the European Union and NATO. Now it is the EU and NATO who are rushing to align themselves with a Ukraine that has demonstrated its willingness to fight for freedom, liberty and the right to make its own national choices.
A fluent Russian speaker born to Jewish parents, with family members who perished in the Holocaust and served in the Red Army during World War II, Mr. Zelenskyy has exposed Mr. Putin’s propaganda lies about removing Ukraine’s “neo-Nazi” leadership. He galvanized the West to take real measures against Moscow, including sanctions, humanitarian assistance and military equipment such as Stinger and Javelin missiles. Even neutral Switzerland has joined in the EU sanctions against Moscow, which have cratered the Russian economy.
Mr. Zelenskyy’s inspiring example will reverberate far beyond one war in eastern Europe. The example he sets will matter for nations like Taiwan, which is similarly under siege from a belligerent neighbor, communist China, and rests on the same geopolitical fault lines with Ukraine in the struggle between authoritarianism and democracy.
How humiliating it must be for Mr. Putin, whose formative years were spent serving in the KGB, to have committed such a colossal intelligence failure. He utterly failed to assess Ukraine’s capacity and willingness to fight, as well as Mr. Zelenskyy’s exceptional leadership and communications skills, which have handed Ukraine the clear moral and psychological advantage in the fighting. Mr. Putin’s war is laying waste to whatever semblance of the stability he promised after the wobbly Yeltsin era and the economic disasters of the immediate post-Soviet period.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has rightly called Russia’s invasion a “turning point in the history of our continent.” Mr. Zelenskyy has brought the democracies of the world together as a united and powerful force arguably in a way not seen since WWII and the days of Churchill and Roosevelt.
Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.