'I work and I sleep': Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s evolution from entertainer to battle-ready defender of democracy

'I work and I sleep': Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s evolution from entertainer to battle-ready defender of democracy

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's ascension to power was unconventional. Prior to being elected in 2019, he was an actor and comedian with no political experience. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has revealed that Zelenskyy has the character and the grit to face down President Vladimir Putin and defend democracy. Or die trying.

"It's very serious, it's not a movie ... I'm not iconic, I think Ukraine is iconic,” Zelenskyy said on Tuesday in an exclusive joint interview with Reuters and CNN from a bunker inside the besieged Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. "Ukraine is the heart of Europe, and now I think Europe sees Ukraine is something special for this world. That's why [the] world can't lose this something special."

Zelenskyy demanded that Russia agree to a ceasefire before peace talks to end the worsening conflict can begin.

"It's necessary to at least stop bombing people, just stop the bombing and then sit down at the negotiating table,” Zelenskyy said.

"You have to speak first of all. Everybody has to stop fighting and to go [back] to that point from where it began five, six days ago,” the 44-year-old leader continued. "I think there are principal things you can do ... If you do this, and that side does this, it means they are ready for peace. If they (are not) ready, it means you're just wasting time."

Zelenskyy called upon President Joe Biden to convey a "useful" message about the Russian invasion to the American people during his first State of the Union address on Tuesday night. He also requested that the United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

Since Biden has said that the moment to implement such a measure has not yet arrived, Zelenskyy is demanding that NATO step up its game to support his country.

"This is not about dragging NATO countries into war. The truth is everyone has long since been dragged into war and definitely not by Ukraine, but by Russia - a large-scale war is going on," Zelenskyy said.

"Our partners, if they are not ready to take Ukraine into NATO ... because Russia does not want Ukraine to be in NATO, should work out common security guarantees for Ukraine," Zelenskyy said. "This means that we have our territorial integrity, that our borders are protected, we have special relations with all our neighbors, we are completely safe, and the guarantors that give us security, they guarantee this legally."

Zelenskyy re-emphasized that Russia’s incursion into Ukraine is a threat to the entire European continent.

“It is very important to know that if Ukraine falls, then all these (Russian) troops will be on the borders of your NATO member countries .... and you will be facing the same question there,” he warned.

Zelenskyy further stressed that "we have a war every day, we need help every day. There is not a lot of time for discussion” about critical financial assistance from the West.

Zelenskyy also briefly summed up his new daily routine. “I work and I sleep,” he said, noting that he has not seen his family in several days.

And while he cannot predict the future, Zelenskyy said that the Ukrainian people will never surrender to Russia’s aggression.

"We do not hold out, we fight, and our nation will fight to the end. This is our home, we are protecting our land, our homes. For the sake of our children's future,” he declared.

"We have something to defend, we are defending our right to live. And what are they (Russians) doing here? They don't understand our people, our state, our philosophy... They don't know anything here, they were sent here to kill and to die,” Zelenskyy proclaimed. “Therefore we are stronger on our own land, and we will be stronger."

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