Advertisement

A Russian missile exploded near Zelenskyy. Experts say the Ukrainian leader's still Putin's top target

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, second from left, walks with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, third from left, in a residential area in the Ukrainian port city of Odesa on Wednesday. The sound of a large explosion reverberated around the port as the two leaders ended a tour of the war-ravaged southern city. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office/The Associated Press - image credit)

The war in Ukraine brings daily dangers for all who live within its borders — including its president.

A missile strike on Odesa on Wednesday put these dangers in full view of the visiting leader of Greece, as well as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, when the missile reportedly hit less than a kilometre from where they were meeting.

The Russian Defence Ministry said the Odesa strike was aimed at naval drones parked in a hangar. Ukrainian officials later said it appeared Moscow was targeting port infrastructure and that the presence of the two leaders was coincidental. On Thursday, a senior ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin said Zelenskyy was not being targeted.

Yet the proximity of Zelenskyy and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to the strike brings renewed attention to what's at stake when missiles fall on Ukraine — and what can happen in unexpected moments of wartime calamity.

"All Ukrainians are constantly at risk," said Marta Dyczok, a Ukraine expert at Western University, who says people across the country aren't necessarily safe in any particular location after more than two years of wide-ranging attacks.

But Zelenskyy has faced assassination threats throughout the war, and Dyczok suspects the Ukrainian leader is Moscow's top target.

Amid this backdrop, she and other analysts believe Russia would not hesitate to kill Zelenskyy should the right opportunity arise.

LISTEN | A two-year-old war with no end in sight:

"No one should have any illusions about Russian aims here. If they think they have a good shot at [Zelenskyy], they'll take it," Stephen Sestanovich, who served as the U.S. ambassador-at-large to the former Soviet Union from 1997 to 2001, said via email.

"Barely two weeks after Alexei Navalny's death, Putin isn't going to worry that killing the president of Ukraine would be bad for his global reputation."

A changed reality

Zelenskyy was plunged into a wartime leadership role two winters ago when Russian forces rolled across Ukraine's borders.

A Ukrainian serviceman walks next to the wreck of a Russian tank in Stoyanka, Ukraine, Sunday, March 27, 2022. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused the West of lacking courage as his country fights to stave off Russia's invading troops, making an exasperated plea for fighter jets and tanks to sustain a defense in a conflict that has ground into a war of attrition.

A Ukrainian soldier is seen walking near the remnants of a destroyed Russian tank, in a photo taken in Stoyanka, Ukraine, on March 27, 2022. (Vadim Ghirda/The Associated Press)

The UN estimates that at least 10,000 Ukrainian civilians have been killed in the war. That toll that does not include the tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers who have died defending their country.

Moscow has failed to topple the government in Kyiv despite its massive investment of soldiers, weapons and other resources into the invasion effort.

Throughout it all, Zelenskyy has been at the forefront of the battle to oust the invading forces. He's made a point of venturing into public spaces, as well as out onto the front lines.

"I think he's intentionally put himself in danger a number of times," said Dani Nedal, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto.

To Nedal, it seems unlikely that the Odesa episode would change Zelenskyy's approach, given what he's been through already.

"I think on this point, he's very committed to this," Nedal said.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy poses for a picture with an injured Ukrainian serviceman as he visits a military hospital, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Mykolaiv, Ukraine October 20, 2023
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy poses for a picture with an injured Ukrainian serviceman as he visits a military hospital, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Mykolaiv, Ukraine October 20, 2023

Zelenskyy stands with an injured Ukrainian soldier at a military hospital in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, last October. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Reuters)

Western University's Dyczok notes Zelenskyy addresses his fellow Ukrainians every night via video, as part of his efforts to stay connected to the people living through war on a daily basis.

And his appearances outside Kyiv — while carefully planned — help drive home his connection to the fight.

"He is not hiding in a bunker," she said.

The University of Toronto's Nedal said even the plain, military-like clothing that Zelenskyy wears is a way for him to convey that he's not simply "someone who wears a suit and sits in the capital" while a war is going on.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy does a livestream on his phone during a ceremony at Hostomel Airport in Kyiv on Saturday, February 24, 2024. The ceremony marks the second anniversary of the start of the war in Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy does a livestream on his phone during a ceremony at Hostomel Airport in Kyiv on Saturday, February 24, 2024. The ceremony marks the second anniversary of the start of the war in Ukraine.

Zelenskyy is seen holding a phone as he conducts a live-streamed broadcast at Kyiv's Hostomel airport last month. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

'Nothing can be ruled out'

If Russia were to somehow kill the Ukrainian leader, Dyczok said it would undoubtedly be "a huge blow" to the country — though it would not stop Kyiv's fight.

Oleg Ignatov, a senior Russia analyst for the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organization, said it's only possible to speculate what Russia could rule in — or out — when it comes to targeting Zelenskyy.

Ignatov said Moscow does not necessarily have good intelligence about Zelenskyy's daily activities. That could make it hard to reach him unless Russia had an insider to work with.

"But this is a severe war, and nothing can be ruled out," he said via email.

Ukrainian servicemen from air defence unit of the 93rd Mechanized Brigade monitor a sky at a frontline, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near the town of Bakhmut, Ukraine March 6, 2024.
Ukrainian servicemen from air defence unit of the 93rd Mechanized Brigade monitor a sky at a frontline, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near the town of Bakhmut, Ukraine March 6, 2024.

Ukrainian soldiers who are part of an air defence unit are seen near the front lines around Bakhmut, Ukraine, on Wednesday. (Serhii Nuzhnenko/Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe/Reuters)