Ukraine-Russia News: Zelensky Says Ukraine Is ‘Ready’ to Discuss Neutrality

By | March 28, 2022

KYIV, Ukraine — He has spoken with two movie stars by video call from the bombarded and encircled city of Kyiv.

His aides lobbied the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for an Oscar night show of support. He rereleased his own television show on Netflix in the middle of the war.

President Volodymyr Zelensky, the actor turned wartime leader of Ukraine, has dedicated most of his public appearances to appeals to Western nations for lethal weaponry to fight the Russians: tanks, jets and missiles.

But Mr. Zelensky, who before he became president had starred in romantic comedies and performed stand-up routines, has also pressed for celebrities and artists to speak up for his country, in what aides say is a worthwhile effort to solidify Ukraine’s global soft power advantage over Russia .

“We live in the modern world, and we know that opinion makers and celebrities are important,” said Ekaterine Zguladze, a former deputy minister of interior now involved in the Ukrainian government’s effort to win support from artists, musicians and celebrities. “Not only politicians shape the world.”

Ms. Zguladze added: “Right now, there exists genuine solidarity around the world for Ukraine. And this solidarity is not because of the heartbreaking images of destroyed cities and human tragedy, but because of the values ​​we all share.”

But Ukraine’s appeal to the academy, the organization that awards the Oscars, encountered drama of its own.

Before the show, organizers said the war would be noted and the human toll honored, but did not commit to a video appearance by Mr. Zelensky, said Brian Keith Etheridge, a sitcom writer based in Los Angeles. He helped coordinate the Ukrainian government’s outreach to the academy, with help from Mila Kunis, an actress of Ukrainian origin, and her husband, Ashton Kutcher.

“The concern that we were told is, they don’t want to overly politicize the show,” Mr. Etheridge said. “If Zelensky just says ‘thank you’ it will remind people, and it could raise millions of dollars. It’s such a giant platform just to have his face show up.”

Credit…Angelos Tzortzinis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Sean Penn, who had been filming a documentary in Ukraine when the war broke out, called for a boycott of the Oscars if Mr. Zelensky is not permitted to appear by video and vowed to smelt his own awards if the academy snubs the Ukrainian leader. The award statues are made of gold-plated bronze.

If the Oscar producers did not allow an appearance for “the leadership in Ukraine, who are taking bullets and bombs for us, along with the Ukrainian children that they are trying to protect, then I think every single one of those people, and every bit of that decision, will have been the most obscene moment in all of Hollywood history,” Mr. Penn told CNN in an interview.

Speaking at a news conference on Thursday, the producers said they intended to commemorate the war’s toll but did not commit to a video appearance by Mr. Zelensky.

“We’re going to be very thoughtful about how we acknowledge where we are in the world,” Will Packer, a producer of the Oscar ceremony, said Thursday at a news conference.

Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

The comedic actress Wanda Sykes, one of the ceremony’s co-hosts, noted of Mr. Zelensky, “Isn’t he busy right now?”

Mr. Zelensky did not appear on the show. Ms. Kunis did speak about the war when she appeared on the telecast to introduce a Reba McEntire performance of her song from Ms. Kunis’s movie “Four Good Days.”

Before turning the show over to Ms. McEntire, Ms. Kunis said, “recent global events have left many of us feeling gutted.”

“Yet when you witness the strength and dignity of those facing such devastation, it’s impossible to not be moved by their resilience,” Ms. Kunis continued. “One cannot help but be in awe of those who find strength to keep fighting through unimaginable darkness.”

The show also displayed three screens of gold text on black backgrounds after Ms. McEntire’s performance, calling on viewers to donate to the humanitarian effort.

“While film is an important avenue for us to express our humanity in times of conflict, the reality is millions of families in Ukraine need food, medical care, clean water and emergency services,” the message read. “Resources are scarce, and we — collectively and as a global community — can do more.”

While Mr. Zelensky’s aides had pressed for support during the show in whatever form it takes, seeking any avenue to win public backing in the West, the value of celebrity support in a shooting war is not universally acknowledged in Ukraine.

“Ultimately, it’s important what is happening on the ground,” Oleksandr Danylyuk, a former secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said. “Everybody is doing what they can. I don’t know if one more speech of Zelensky will make a difference. But it’s good those who initiate it want to do it. Everybody wants to help in any way possible.”

But Mr. Danylyuk said that “in the end, you need results,” like supplies of fighter jets, tanks or missiles for the Ukrainian Army.

Mr. Zelensky has pressed on all fronts to convey to a broad audience, and particularly to countries that are providing weaponry, the moral imperative of supporting Ukraine in the war.

Credit…Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times

“In general, Zelensky is really following the news from Hollywood and looking for opportunities for support,” Serhiy Leshchenko, an adviser to the president’s chief of staff, said in an interview.

The push for backing for Ukraine during the Oscars began a week ago, after Mr. Zelensky spoke on a video call from Kyiv with Mr. Kutcher and Ms. Kunis, to thank the couple for raising $35 million for Ukrainian refugees and humanitarian aid in a GoFundMe campaign, Mr. Leshchenko said.

Ms. Kunis most recently starred in “Breaking News in Yuba County” and has a planned movie release by Netflix, “Luckiest Girl Alive.”

“Ukrainians are proud and brave people who deserve our help in their time of need,” she wrote in the fund-raising appeal. “This unjust attack on Ukraine and humanity at large is devastating and the Ukrainian people need our support.”

After the video call, Mr. Zelensky’s aides sought a last-minute slot at the Oscar ceremony.

Mr. Zelensky has always had a keen sense of image and storytelling in politics. Earlier this month, he said he was aware that his repeated televised appeals for resistance, and continued presence in the beleaguered capital, had turned him into a symbol of bravery in many countries.

Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

The Oscars are also a natural fit for an appeal by his government for humanitarian assistance, as many of his top aides are also movie industry veterans.

The chief of the presidential administration, Andriy Yermak, was a media lawyer and movie producer. The head of the domestic intelligence agency, Ivan Bakanov, had been the director of the Kvartal 95 studio. A chief presidential adviser, Serhiy Shefir, was a screenwriter and producer whose major credits included a hit romantic comedy film, “Eight First Dates,” and a television series, “The In-laws.”

Before becoming president of Ukraine, Mr. Zelensky played a president in his own television series, “Servant of the People,” which was rereleased on Netflix this month. The character, a teacher, is propelled to the presidency after he goes on a tirade against corruption, which is filmed by his students in a video that goes viral.

Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Kyiv, and Matt Stevens from New York.

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