Ukraine president suddenly thrust into hero role, mirrors one of the darkest chapters of the Cold War

February 25, 2022, 8:49 PM UTC

The fate of Volodymyr Zelensky appeared to be hanging by a thread on Friday amid fears the Ukrainian president may be captured or killed in Kyiv. 

As Russian military forces lay siege to Ukraine’s capital city on the second day since Putin launched a full-scale invasion of the country, Zelenskyy reportedly made a last-ditch appeal for help in a call with EU leaders, Axios reported.

“This might be the last time you see me alive,” the former entertainer told the assembled leaders on Thursday night, two sources briefed on the call told Axios. The next day, a BuzzFeed News reporter on the ground linked to a video of a defiant Zelenskyy, denying rumors in Russian media that he had fled the city: “We are here. We are in Kyiv. We are defending Ukraine.”

Many saw it as an extraordinary act of bravery, one that matches that of ordinary Ukrainians citizens taking up arms and scrambling to protect themselves as their country becomes a nightmarish scene of war. And Zelenskyy’s dispatch has uncanny parallels to one of the darkest episodes of the Cold War: the 1956 invasion of Hungary by Soviet troops.

Back then, Hungary kicked off a failed revolution against the Soviet Union and sought to ally itself with the West and the U.S. It was encouraged in that attempt, much like how Ukraine has sought closer ties with the EU since the Orange Revolution of 2004, in which mass protests successfully challenged a potentially rigged runoff election that kept a pro-Putin leader in power. The leader of 1950s Hungary, Imre Nagy, was ultimately captured and killed by the Soviet military, a fate Zelenskyy seems well aware might resemble his own.

While both Hungary then and Ukraine now faced the stark dilemma of how to respond to an invading nuclear power, this time the U.S. and its allies are prepared to weaponize the financial system for Ukraine’s benefit. Putin himself and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov came under sanction on Friday, and a debate about Russian firms’ connection to the SWIFT financial system is sure to grow more serious as the war rages on.

As Fortune previously reported, the mere threat of economic reprisals failed to deter Russia from invading Ukraine, but countries representing some 50% of global GDP have agreed to steadily dial up the pressure to the boiling point.

“Russia will pay a severe price for years to come,” pledged NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Friday, following an emergency meeting in which the alliance said it would provide more arms to Ukraine. The “unprovoked invasion” by Moscow posed, in Stoltenberg’s words, the “gravest threat to Euro-Atlantic security in decades.”

Ukraine resists

In Kyiv on Friday, Zelenskyy gave a press briefing in which he urged people in nearby countries to take up arms and help Ukraine repel the Russian attacks.

“If you have combat experience in Europe and do not want to look at the indecision of politicians, you can come to our country and join us in defending Europe, where it is very necessary now,” he said, according to AFP.

While the precise extent of Russia’s incursion into Ukrainian territory is unclear, U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told LBC radio on Friday that Putin failed to take any of his day one objectives, and said an estimated 450 Russian soldiers were lost in the fighting. 

“They haven’t been welcomed as liberators by the Ukrainian population, which I think President Putin expected them to be. The Ukrainians have fought and fought bravely,” he said, adding the unprovoked attack even elicited protests in 56 cities across Putin’s own country. 

These scenes, of mass protests, a defiant local head of state, and civilian resistance to huge Russian armaments, recall the story of the failed Hungarian Revolution. 

The CIA and U.S. Army’s ultimate failure to come to Hungary’s defense in the 1950s was devastating to some of the agents who believed they would, according to a new history about the conflict, The Quiet Americans. It argues that this failure particularly affected Frank Wisner, a senior CIA official who suffered a mental breakdown in 1958 and ultimately took his own life in 1965.

Hungary, meanwhile, is now home to one of Europe’s most right-wing and Putin-friendly countries, under the leadership of Viktor Orbán. Reuters reported on Friday that young Hungarians are largely opposed to his likely reelection, but unlike 1956, this time they have a vote.

Civilians take up arms

This week, social media accounts shared dramatic footage of explosions over the Kyiv sky, tanks crushing cars beneath them, and crowds of people attempting to pile onto a train to flee the bloodshed. 

Moldova’s president said on Thursday her country already counted 4,000 refugees crossing the border.

Some social media posts on the ground in Ukraine depicted boxes of Molotov cocktails to be passed out for those denizens that chose to stay behind and defend their city. Another showed the mayor of the city, former heavyweight champion boxer Vitali Klitschko, poised for the biggest fight of his life. 

The situation remained dire as Ukrainian civilians had little to repel the invading Russian troops, according to former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

“We don’t have tanks, we don’t have an armed personnel carrier,” Poroshenko told CNN on Friday standing next to a barricade. “There’s a long line of people who want to enlist in the battalion, but we don’t have enough arms.” 

As evening descended, Zelenskyy posted his video message to boost morale among the city’s defenders. Dressed in fatigues and standing next to his bespectacled prime minister, he told the population he had no intention of making a run for safety but would remain at their side, before signing off with Slava Ukraini.

“Glory to Ukraine.”  

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