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What to know about Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky attended a joint press conference with his counterparts from Lithuania and Poland following their talks in Kyiv on Wednesday.SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

As Russia continues to attack Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is at the center of the conflict, as Ukrainians and world leaders turn to him to respond on behalf of the besieged country.

Zelensky has been vocal during the invasion, providing regular updates on his Twitter account, issuing televised addresses, and posting videos of himself speaking in which he has sharply denounced the Russian attack and issued impassioned pleas to Ukrainian, Russian, and global citizens.

As he faces Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military, he is continuously under threat, as Russian troops began attacking the capital city of Kyiv and Zelensky himself has warned that his life and those of his family are at risk.

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Here’s a look at what to know about him.

How has Zelensky responded during the invasion?

Zelensky has provided frequent updates on Ukraine’s response to Russia’s attacks, regularly tweeting after speaking to world leaders and posting a number of video addresses.

In his most recent address, Zelensky said he and his family are Russia’s top targets.

“[The] enemy has marked me down as the number one target,” Zelensky said in a video message on Friday. “My family is the number two target. They want to destroy Ukraine politically by destroying the head of state.”

Zelensky said during the address that Ukraine had information that “enemy sabotage groups” had entered the capital city of Kyiv. Top Biden administration officials warned Congress late Thursday that they feared Kyiv could fall quickly, The New York Times reported.

Zelensky said during the address that he planned to stay in Kyiv, and that his family is also in Ukraine.

On Thursday, Zelensky spoke directly to the Russian people, describing the toll of the conflict on Ukrainian people and appealing to Russian people to question the war the country is engaging in.

“I know that they [the Russian state] won’t show my address on Russian TV, but Russian people have to see it,” Zelensky said in the address. “They need to know the truth, and the truth is that it is time to stop now, before it is too late. And if the Russian leaders don’t want to sit with us behind the table for the sake of peace, maybe they will sit behind the table with you. Do Russians want the war? I would like to know the answer. But the answer depends only on you, citizens of the Russian Federation.”

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In a video address on Thursday morning, Zelensky declared martial law in response to Russian strikes on Ukraine’s military infrastructure and urged civilians to remain calm.

What did he do before entering politics?

Before becoming the Ukrainian president, Zelensky earned national recognition for playing one on TV.

In the television series “Servant of the People,” Zelensky played a teacher who accidentally becomes the president after a video in which he rants about corruption goes viral.

He also founded a comedy group, Kvartal 95, that began producing TV shows.

He has amassed a large social media following over the years, with 10.6 million Instagram followers and 1.1 million followers on Twitter.

When was he elected?

Zelensky, who is 44 years old, was elected president in April 2019, beating the incumbent.

He won the election handily, with about 73 percent of the vote to beat out former president Petro Poroshenko. The victory made him the first Jewish president of the country, The New York Times reported at the time.

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Zelensky campaigned on an anti-corruption platform and pledged to end the war in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine that was seized by Russian-backed separatists.

The BBC reported that throughout the presidential campaign, Zelensky avoided serious interviews and discussions about policy in favor of using social media to post lighthearted videos. Zelensky ran under a political party with the same name as the show, “Servant of the People.”

At the time of his election, critics expressed skepticism that Zelensky could effectively push back against world leaders like Putin, according to the BBC. He was also criticized for his ties to Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky.

He played a role in Trump’s first impeachment

Just months after Zelensky took office as president, he found himself participating in a phone call that would lead to former president Donald Trump’s first impeachment.

During the phone call with Zelensky in July 2019, Trump asked the Ukrainian president to investigate Democrats as a “favor” right after Zelensky discussed the need for more aid from the United States.

The House alleged that Trump withheld millions of dollars in military aid for Ukraine to pressure the country to announce an investigation into Trump’s political rival, now-president Joe Biden.

A number of Trump administration officials testified that Trump was conditioning the aid for Ukraine on Zelensky announcing an investigation into Biden, Biden’s son, and other Democrats.

Trump was impeached by the House in December 2019 for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress but was acquitted in the Senate in February 2020.

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Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.


Amanda Kaufman can be reached at amanda.kaufman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandakauf1.