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Behind the Scenes with President Zelensky
Ukraine's president tells me about tech, cyber-warfare and Elon Musk in WIRED
Photographs: Yan Dobronosov
Welcome to the first edition of The Burner Files, my newsletter on global tech, business, geopolitics, and reportage, which will be published twice a week. Every few weeks, I’ll interview someone who has something interesting to say.
My first interview is with President Volodymyr Zelensky on war, tech, and the future of Ukraine, which was published yesterday in WIRED.
“We are all in a social network,” said President Zelensky. “This is our world now. It is divided. The internet is a reality. It is not another world, but rather a modern reality.” (Read the full interview on WIRED.)
After the story went live, people asked me how I managed to get an interview with a nation’s president in a warzone. There is no direct line to President Zelensky. The backstory is three months old.
After Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, I arrived in Ukraine, hoping to see what the twenty-first century battlefield looks like. Drones had upended the traditional tank and naval warfare of the previous century. Cyber-warfare had transformed the stakes of the battlefield, with failed Russian cyber-attacks on Ukraine’s National Bank and the Cabinet of Ministers, as President Zelensky told me.
My goal from the beginning was to interview the president. But first, I had to find a way to get to him.
In March and April, with the help of Ukrainian journalists, I was able to interview President Zelensky’s former co-stars in Servant of the People, his satire show that is available on Netflix. Two actresses told me that he was a skilled improviser. Even when the show was being filmed five years ago, Ukraine’s tumultuous politics were changing by the day. Zelensky, who was then a successful comedian-actor, had to adapt.
“His character could not have been invented in advance,” Ekaterina Kisten, an actress who played his sister, told me. “He was invented on site.”
“The beauty of it all was that the scriptwriters kept track of Ukraine’s political situation. The script for the next day’s shooting was sent to me the day before, or someone handed it to me in the makeup room right before the shooting.”
Getting to know President Zelensky’s circle helped me to grasp his behind-the-scenes personality—beyond the persona we see on TV and social media—and come up with strategies to approach the president.
We put in the interview request with President Zelensky’s press office in March. We wanted this to be a tech interview rather than merely a general war interview that would reveal the fast-evolving events on the ground through the president’s eyes.
In early May, we were granted an interview. After passing through two military checkpoints, we were seated in a spacious room, where President Zelensky greeted us.
In addition to WIRED, check out my article in the latest issue of American Affairs, which looks at why Ukraine succeeded against a foreign invasion, while Afghanistan failed with foreign intervention. The article is based on my interviews with Ukrainian and Afghan leaders.
Geoffrey Cain is a senior fellow for critical emerging technologies at the Lincoln Network.
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