When Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy plunged into politics this year he promised to bring major changes to his homeland but, after less than four months as president, his impact is also being felt further afield. Zelenskiy and his allies have stripped deputies of immunity from prosecution, launched an anti-corruption court and created a procedure for impeaching the president. His ambitious domestic agenda has won the approval of western allies but it is his dealings with Russian president Vladimir Putin that have really caught the eye.
Zelenskiy welcomed home 35 Ukrainians from Russian captivity last weekend and allowed the same number of detainees to be flown to Moscow, in a deal he agreed during a series of telephone conversations with Putin. In taking the initiative, Zelenskiy showed he was ready to negotiate personally and to take risks.
The Kremlin tested him by demanding the handover of Vladimir Tsemakh, who led a militia air-defence unit close to where Flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine in 2014, and who could give important evidence to investigators who believe the missile came from the Russian military and was fired by separatist forces.
A secret raid to seize Tsemakh from separatist-held territory reportedly cost one Ukrainian intelligence officer his life and another his leg, and Dutch prosecutors leading the MH17 investigation were unhappy at his departure for Russia. But it proved to Putin that Zelenskiy would accept compromise and criticism to get results.
Zelenskiy (41) was praised by western powers that hope his boldness and pragmatism can revive a peace bid for Ukraine and open the door to an eventual rapprochement with Russia. French president Emmanuel Macron is now pushing hardest for progress. On Sunday, Macron and Putin discussed holding a possible Paris summit on Ukraine this month and a day later, in Moscow, French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Paris was pleased by a "new state of mind" around relations with Russia – a fresh outlook facilitated by Ukraine's novice president.