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The men at the centre of the Russia Ukraine conflict: dictator billionaire Vladimir Putin and actor turned anti-corruption crusader Volodymyr Zelensky

As missiles fall on Ukraine and Russia makes nuclear threats, the world seems on the verge of global peril. And at the centre of it all are two unlikely adversaries.

By Nick Bryant
On December 31, 1999, as fireworks went off over Sydney Harbour to usher in a new millennium, word came through from the Kremlin in Moscow of a change in leadership that would dramatically alter the course of the 21st century. A former KGB spymaster by the name of Vladimir Putin would become the acting President of Russia.
Back then, the most immediate risk to the world seemed to come from what was called the Y2K bug, a flaw in computer operating systems that threatened to wreak global havoc. Little did we know that Putin posed a far greater threat to the international order, and would go on to become the mastermind behind so much misery and murder.
From Chechnya to Crimea, from Syria to the cathedral town of Salisbury in England, Putin has deployed his assassins and war machine. On February 24, 2022, a dark day that instantly drew comparisons with Adolf Hitler's Blitzkrieg assault on Poland in 1939, he mounted his most brazen attack yet by ordering
the invasion of Ukraine. It was the biggest assault on a European country since the end of World War II.
Vladimir Putin prepares to cast his ballot at a polling station in Moscow, December 19, 1999. (Image: Getty)
In this David and Goliath battle, Putin has come up against an unlikely adversary. Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, has personified the resistance of his people. Offered an escape route by America when Putin's tanks crossed the border, the 44-year-old told US officials he did not want to be airlifted out of the country. "I need ammunition, not a ride," he told them, a statement that immediately became a meme.
Then, amid rumours that he'd fled the country to avoid Russian hit men, he started delivering inspirational speeches to camera. "Listen, I am here," he said, as he played a deadly cat-and-mouse game with the Russians – a post on Twitter that now has almost 20 million views. Later, in front of the Presidential Administration Building in central Kyiv, he delivered another rousing address to his people.
"We are all here. Our soldiers are here. The citizens of our country are here. We are all here protecting our independence, our country, and it will continue to be this way. Glory to our defenders. Glory to our heroes. Glory to Ukraine."
In a matter of days, Zelensky had become a Churchillian colossus. What made that all the more remarkable was that prior to becoming President in 2019, he had been one of the Ukraine's most famous comedians.
Zelensky was just 21 years old when Putin became the President of Russia, and seemed destined for a life in comedy clubs rather than on the international stage. The son of a mathematics professor and engineer, he was born in what was then the communist Soviet Union, but was more interested in the British comedy troupe Monty Python than Trotsky or Lenin.
After years on the comedy club circuit, Zelensky first became a household name in 2005, when he was given his own satirical television show called Evening Quarter. The following year, he sealed his fame by waltzing and tangoing his way to victory on Ukraine's version of Dancing with the Stars. So impressive were his moves, as he strutted and gyrated to Elvis Presley's 'Blue Suede Shoes' and the theme tune from the Pink Panther movie, that he looked like a professional dancer rather than a plucky amateur.
Volodymyr Zelensky (R) acts on stage during the recording of his Evening Quarter comedian concert in Kyiv, Ukraine in March 2017. (Image: Getty)
Movie roles followed. In a 2012 film called Corporal vs. Napoleon, he starred as the diminutive French Emperor who, ironically, mounted a disastrous invasion of Russia. In the Ukrainian version of the Paddington Bear movie, Zelensky even became the voice of the marmalade-loving hero.
Next came a show that further endeared him to the Ukrainian people, and which offered a glimpse of his future. In Servant of the People, which he created, produced and starred in, Zelensky played a thirty-something high school history teacher who, miraculously, managed to get elected President. In a strange instance of art foreshadowing life, Zelensky's character becomes an overnight sensation when a student posts to YouTube a video of him railing against government corruption.
The show first aired in 2015. Four years later, leading a new political party named after his hit show, Servant of the People, Zelensky launched his campaign to move from being a fictional pretender to the real-life President of his country. Benefitting from his star power, popular touch and status as a political outsider – attributes that had helped Donald Trump reach the White House – Zelensky won in a landslide. More than 70 per cent of the Ukrainian electorate voted for him.
WATCH: Russian leader puts nuclear forces on alert in Ukraine. Story continues after video.
In his inaugural address, Zelensky told lawmakers: "I do not want my picture in your offices: the President is not an icon, an idol or a portrait. Hang your kids' photos instead, and look at them each time you are making a decision."
These kinds of humble words would never come from the lips of Vladimir Putin. The Russian President views himself both as a modern-day tsar bent on reclaiming Russian greatness, and a Cold War warrior who believes his country was humiliated after the fall of the Berlin Wall led to the dismantling of the Soviet Union.
Born in 1952, he grew up in Leningrad (a city which, after the fall of communism, reverted to its original name, Saint Petersburg) where he lived with his parents in a soulless housing development. Putin, who is only 170cm (5ft 7in) tall, often found himself in brawls with bigger boys in the neighbourhood, and learnt judo in order to fight back.
"Fifty years ago the Leningrad street taught me a rule," he later reflected. "If a fight is inevitable, you have to throw the first punch."
A school photo of Putin, dated 1966 in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Image: Getty)
Even as a child, Putin wanted to be a spy, so he could join in the Cold War struggle against the United States. "One man's effort could achieve what whole armies could not," he came to believe, having immersed himself in books about the adventures of secret agents. After studying law at university, he joined the KGB, Moscow's feared intelligence agency, and learnt much of his spy craft in communist Eastern Germany.
His years spent working in Dresden were thought to be formative, especially an episode that unfolded in the weeks following the fall of the Berlin Wall. After an angry crowd had stormed the offices of the Stasi, the much-hated East German secret police, their attention turned to the KGB headquarters on the same street. Putin emerged from the building to warn the demonstrators that they risked being shot if they ransacked his offices.
But the defining moment evidently came when Putin made a phone call to a Red Army unit asking for military help. "We cannot do anything without orders from Moscow," Putin was told. "And Moscow is silent." Not only was he disturbed by the powerlessness of Mother Russia, Putin got a sense of how easily regimes could be toppled. The experience fuelled his paranoia and made him crack down on any internal dissent in later years.
After the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 – a collapse that enabled Ukraine to finally achieve independence – Putin eventually became the head of Russia's Federal Security Service, which had replaced the KGB. But even though that made him one of Russia's most powerful and feared men, he was to rise further in the Kremlin. In August 1999, he was appointed Prime Minister of Russia by its vodka-swilling President, Boris Yeltsin. By the end of that year, as Yeltsin descended further into alcoholism, Putin had been installed in the Presidential office, with the launch codes to Russia's nuclear arsenal in his grasp.
WATCH: Kate Middleton and Prince William support Ukraine. Story continues after video.
At the time I was in Washington, where US officials mistakenly believed that Putin could be prodded further down the path of democracy. There was so much confidence that freedom and democracy had triumphed, that Russia would side more closely with the West and that even a former KGB spy could become a reformer.
When George W. Bush came face-to-face with Putin for the first time, at a summit in Slovenia in 2001, he delivered what turned out to be a spectacularly bad character assessment. "I looked the man in the eye," Bush famously said. "I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy … I was able to get a sense of his soul."
In his tenure as Prime Minister and President, Putin has made a mockery of that wildly optimistic assessment, and been responsible for a litany of crimes against humanity. In Chechnya, he waged a brutal war against separatist rebels, reducing the country's capital, Grozny, to rubble, and leaving 25,000 civilians dead. In Syria, he has aided and abetted the country's barbaric dictator, Bashar al-Assad, who used chemical weapons on his own people and mounted medieval sieges of cities like Aleppo, forcing starving women and children to eat grass in order to survive.
In what turned out to be a spectacularly bad character assessment, Bush described Putin as "straightforward and trustworthy". (Image: Getty)
In 2014, Putin shocked the international community by invading Crimea and arming pro-Russian militias in Eastern Ukraine. It was Putin's allies that shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, killing 298 passengers and crew, including 27 Australians. The surface-to-air missile that was used to bring down the aircraft had been supplied by the Kremlin.
At home, he has stamped out dissent by imprisoning journalists and political opponents. He is also suspected of ordering the assassination of democracy campaigners who have sought to mobilise the Russian people.
In 2015, Boris Nemtsov, one of Russia's most prominent protest leaders, was shot three times in the back as he walked across a bridge in Moscow, within sight of Red Square and the walls of the Kremlin. More recently, Putin's agents were thought to be behind the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, another crusading protest leader who has now been put in jail on trumped-up charges.
This image of Litvinenko on his hospital death bed is one of the most searing photos of the Putin years. (Image: Getty)
Putin has also hunted down his enemies beyond Russia's borders. In 2006, in what the UK government called a state-sponsored murder, Alexander Litvinenko, another prominent Putin critic, was poisoned in London with Polonium-210, a deadly radioactive substance. The photograph of Litvinenko on his hospital death bed, with his bald head and emaciated face, is one of the most searing images of the Putin years.
Twelve years later, Russian assassins were dispatched to Salisbury to poison Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military official who had defected to the British, and his daughter Yulia. Despite use of the Novichok nerve agent, a deadly chemical weapon developed in the Soviet Union, the murder attempt failed. Scenes that feel like they belong in a John le Carré thriller have played out in real life. Putin has been their author.
Throughout, he has tried to project the image of a Russian strongman, and dramatised himself as the heroic figure in a glorious national story. Putin loves being photographed bare-chested in manly pursuits – riding horses, fishing in Siberian rivers, hiking through the woods, submerging his body in freezing cold lakes, cradling a sniper's rifle in his hands. Photo ops where he appears fully clothed have also been bizarre, showing him cuddling leopards and stroking tranquillised tigers. To the outside world, they have turned him into a self-satirising figure – a James Bond villain on steroids. But to his supporters, they have sealed his reputation as the father of the nation.
Putin loves being photographed bare-chested in manly pursuits, dramatising himself as the heroic figure in a glorious national story. (Image: Getty)
What Putin has tried to hide from his compatriots is the mammoth wealth he has accumulated during his two decades in office. Officially, the Kremlin says he earns less than an Australian Prime Minister and owns a modest apartment in Saint Petersburg, along with a couple of Soviet-era cars and a truck. But his true riches, which have been concealed through a web of financial schemes, are estimated to be more than $275 billion, making him one of the richest people on the planet.
Among his treasures is a $135 million dollar super-yacht called Graceful and a palace overlooking the Black Sea. Thought to have cost 100 billion Russian rubles, the latter includes a casino, wine tasting room, theatre, helipad, Turkish baths and even a hookah bar.
Putin's personal life is also shrouded in mystery. We know that in 2013 he separated from his wife, Lyudmila Putina, a former flight attendant whom he met in the early 1980s. But he has tried to keep secret the details of his love life. When a Russian tabloid published details of an alleged relationship with Olympic gymnast Alina Kabaeva, it was shut down. The same secrecy surrounds his family life. Rarely does Putin speak publicly about his two daughters who are now in their 30s, one of whom is a geneticist, the other a mathematician.
In 2013 Putin separated from his wife, Lyudmila Putina, a former flight attendant. (Image: Getty)
On the world stage, the Russian President has never been more isolated. The West has provided military aid to Ukraine and imposed intense financial sanctions, which for the first time have targeted Putin personally. Countries have lined up at the UN to condemn him. Even Switzerland, which usually maintains strict neutrality in global crises, has made it harder for Russia to use its secretive banking system.
But there are limits to what the United States and its allies will do. President Joe Biden will not send troops to defend Ukrainian cities, nor will he send warplanes to patrol its skies, as that would risk a nuclear confrontation. Putin has ordered his nuclear forces onto a higher state of alert, which is unprecedented during the post-Cold War era. And while it would seem unthinkable for Putin to press the nuclear button, to him, alarmingly, it might seem thinkable.
For a leader who has always had a giant chip on his shoulder about being disrespected internationally, it must rankle Putin that his young adversary Zelensky is being lauded and lionised. The Ukrainian is being cast as the great defender of democracy in its hour of peril, while Putin is being likened to Hitler.
Zelensky is being lauded and lionised. The Ukrainian is being cast as the great defender of democracy. (Image: Getty)
At the time of writing, the Ukrainian people are still resisting the invasion, and their charismatic President remains the face of their defiance. But there is a real possibility that by the time you read this, he will have been killed or arrested by the Russians, and we will be composing his obituaries.
The hope is that Putin has overreached and that the invasion of Ukraine will cause as much personal harm to him as the occupation of Afghanistan did to his predecessors. War there led to the collapse of the Soviet empire. Though his forces will likely overpower the Ukrainian army, occupying a country with a population of more than 40 million people may ultimately be unsustainable. Putin may well claim victory. But he will never be the winner. Volodymyr Zelensky and the embattled Ukrainian people have already won the battle for hearts and minds.
You can read this story and many others in the April issue of The Australian Women's Weekly - on sale now

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