KYIV, Ukraine – Russian tanks rolled across the border, and Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, was struck by fear and panic. Street fighting broke out, and a Russian armored column bartering into the city advanced within two miles of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office.
In the tense first days of the war, almost everyone – Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, military analysts and many Western officials – expected the Ukrainian leadership to collapse. Instead, Mr. Zelensky personally decided to stay in the capital and take selfies while crossing Kiev to reassure his people. And he ordered his senior aides, many cabinet members, and much of his government to remain in office as well, despite the risks.
It was a crystallizing moment for Mr Zelensky’s government, which ensured that a wide range of agencies continued to run efficiently and in sync. Leading politicians set aside the sharp elbow fight that had defined Ukrainian politics for decades, instead creating a largely unified front that continues today.
No high-ranking officials jumped off or fled, and the bureaucracy quickly went to war.
“In the early days of the war, everyone was in shock and everyone was thinking about what to do – stay in Kiev or evacuate,” said Serhiy Nikiforov, Mr. Zelensky’s spokesman. “The president’s decision was that no one went anywhere. We stay in Kiev and we fight. It cemented it.”
For large parts of the world, Mr. Zelensky is best known for performing via video link with a daily message of courage and defiance, to rally his people and exhort allies to provide weapons, money and moral support. On Sunday, he drew global attention again at a meeting in Kiev with two top US officials, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, who promised more military support and – in a move of symbolic significance – said the United States would move to reopen its embassy in Kiev.
But behind the scenes, Mr Zelensky’s success so far has also been rooted in the government’s ability to function smoothly and take measures to help people cope, such as sweeping deregulation to keep the economy afloat and to provide important goods and services.
By easing the rules on the transportation of goods, for example, the government was able to address a serious risk of food shortages in the capital Kiev in the early days of the war. And in March, he reduced the business tax to 2 percent – and then only if the owner wanted to pay.
“Pay if you can, but if you can not, no questions are asked,” said Mr. Zelensky at the time.
More controversially, he combined six TV stations that previously competed against each other into one news channel. The merger, he said, was necessary for national security, but the frustrated political opponents and advocates for free speech.
He has also entered into a ceasefire with his main domestic political opponent, former President Petro O. Poroshenko, with whom he had quarreled right up until the start of the war.
An enormous wartime effect of rallying around the flag undoubtedly eased Mr Zelensky’s job, said Volodymyr Yermolenko, editor-in-chief of Ukraine World, a magazine covering politics. “The peculiarity of Ukrainian politics is that the agency comes from the community, not the political leaders,” he said. “Zelensky is who he is because the Ukrainian people behind him show courage.”
He added that “this is not to undermine his efforts” and credited Mr. Zelensky for adapting his populist pre-war policy to an effective leadership style in the crucible of conflict.
These days, Mr. Zelensky’s workplace on Bankova Street is a muted, darkened room filled with soldiers; there are shooting ranges protected by sandbags in the hallways and on stairwells. “We were ready to fight exactly in this building,” said Mr. Nikiforov.
A former comedian actor, the Ukrainian leader has surrounded himself with a group of loyalists from his days on television, relationships that led to accusations of camaraderie but which have served him well during the conflict by keeping his leadership team on the same page. And Mr Zelensky has structured his days in a way that works for him.
Mr. Zelensky receives one-on-one phone briefings from General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, the commander of the armed forces, several times a day and often the first thing in the morning, aid workers and advisers said.
This is followed by a morning video conference with the prime minister, sometimes other members of the cabinet, and leaders of the military and intelligence services in a format that combines military and civilian decision-making, according to Mr. Nikiforov, his spokesman.
Certainly, Mr Zelensky’s video addresses – to the US Congress, to the British Parliament, to the Israeli Knesset and other governments – remain the crucial and most effective element of his wartime role. The Ukrainian and Russian armies are still in combat on the eastern plains, but in the information war, Kiev has clearly won.
Delivered with the passion of a former actor with a keen sense of narrative and drama, Mr. Zelensky’s speaks collectively to his countrymen and encouraged international support.
Some are ad-libbed and others more scripted. A 38-year-old former journalist and political analyst, Dmytro Lytvyn, has reportedly served as Mr Zelensky’s speechwriter. Mr. Nikiforov, the spokesman, confirmed that the president is collaborating with a writer, but declined to say with whom.
Politically, Mr. Zelensky took some early action that enabled him to reduce any internal strife that might impair the war effort.
Among them was the uneasy approach to Mr Poroshenko, who had sharply criticized Mr Zelensky since losing to him in the 2019 election. under house arrest for various political cases.
But the day Russia invaded, the two leaders reached an understanding. “I met with Mr Zelensky, we shook hands,” Mr Poroshenko said in March. “We said we are starting from scratch, he can trust my support, because now we have one enemy. And the name of this enemy is Putin.”
Mr. Zelensky banned another main opposition faction, a Russian-oriented political party.
It has helped that Mr Zelensky’s political party, the Servant of the People, won a majority of seats in parliament in 2019, allowing him before the war to appoint a cabinet of loyalists. Previous Ukrainian governments were divided between warring presidents and opposition-controlled cabinets.
“Not on paper, but in reality it’s all one big team,” said Igor Novikov, a former foreign policy adviser. “It’s very close together.”
Tymofiy Mylovanov, a former finance minister and now financial adviser to the president’s office, compared Ukrainian politics to “dear ones who are struggling”.
“It’s a family battle,” he said. “But the family comes first.”
The inner circle consists mainly of veterans from the media, film and comedy industry with backgrounds similar to Mr. Zelenskys.
Andriy Yermak, the chief of staff and a former film producer, is widely regarded as the second most powerful politician in Ukraine, although the constitutional successor is the Speaker of Parliament, Ruslan Stefanchuk, who was evacuated to western Ukraine early in the war. Mr. Yermak oversees foreign and economic policy.
Other key advisers are Mykhailo Podolyak, a former journalist and editor who is a negotiator with the Russians; Serhiy Shefir, a former screenwriter, now domestic policy adviser; and Kirill Tymoshenko, a former videographer who now oversees humanitarian aid.
The supreme military command consists of officers, including General Zaluzhnyi, who have experience in fighting Russia through the eight-year conflict in eastern Ukraine.
In the early days of the war, Mr. Zelensky set three priorities for his government ministries, according to Mr. Mylovanov: arms purchases, shipments of food and other goods and maintenance of petrol and diesel. Ministries were asked to rewrite the rules to ensure fast delivery on all three tracks.
It was perhaps most helpful in the hectic early rush to get food to Kiev, which was in danger of being besieged and starved.
When the supply chain was cut off, the presidential office mediated an agreement between grocery chains, haulage companies, and volunteer drivers to establish a single haulier service that supplies all grocery stores. Stores would post a request on a website, and no matter what driver was available, it would complete the order either for free or for gasoline costs.
Perhaps the most controversial move Mr Zelensky made was to combine the six TV newsrooms into one channel with a single report. Excluded from the group was the largest opposition television station, Channel 5, affiliated with Mr Poroshenko.
Mr. Zelensky placed the move as necessary for national security. Opponents saw it as a worrying example of the government suppressing disagreement.
“I hope that wisdom will prevail and the intention is not to use this to keep political competitors down,” said Volodymyr Ariev, a member of Mr Poroshenko’s political party Solidarity.
Transparency in the Ukrainian parliament has also been a victim of the war.
Parliament sits at irregular, unannounced intervals lasting an hour or so, for security reasons, so as not to quickly target Russian cruise missile attacks.
To speed up sessions, members do not debate bills publicly in the hall, but privately while drafting them, according to Mr Ariev. Then parliamentarians gather in the stately, neoclassical chamber, vote fast and disperse.
Mr. Mylovanov, the president’s economic adviser, said Ukraine’s pluralistic political culture would return. Unity is now needed, he said.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “We will be back to fighting for a liberal versus protectionist economic policy, price controls, how to attract investment and everything else.”
Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Kiev.