Kyiv’s mayor, a former boxer, becomes an agitated warlord

KYIV, Ukraine – The black SUV drove up to a ruin site: A badly damaged apartment building. A broken tram. Blood coating on the sidewalk.

Just about an hour earlier, a suspected Russian attack had hit this residential area of ​​the Ukrainian capital. Vitali Klitschko stepped out of her vehicle and ducked under the red and white ribbon, keeping civilians away from the scene. For a war mayor in a city under siege, it was an all-too-familiar stop.

A decade ago, Klitschko was best known as a legendary boxer and world heavyweight champion. His nickname was Dr. Ironfist – a nod to both his doctorate in sports science and his hands the size of dinner plates.

Now he has emerged as a major figure in Russia’s war in Ukraine. For more than six weeks, his city has resisted the imminent threat of Russian takeover, with him – standing 6 feet 7 inches tall – at the helm.

“We are very ready. Every day we see the Russian army destroying our cities … We do not want to leave; we want to live in our homes … But we do not want to live in dictatorship either.[ship.] Right now we are staying with millions of people in Ukraine and defending, defending the future, our families, our country. “- Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko (Video: Washington Post Live, Photo: Washington Post Live)

While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, an actor who became a politician, has been hailed around the world for refusing to leave the capital, it is Klitschko who has been far more visible on Kiev’s transformed and barricaded streets.

As Russian forces invaded the capital, the mayor visited scenes of attacks right after they took place. He comforted the survivors and greeted the first aiders. He was a guest at a Territorial Defense Forces checkpoint wedding. He posted his tours around the city on Instagram and expressed anger over Russian assaults on civilians. On a visit to the suburb of Bucha a few days after its liberation, when the bodies were still lying on the street, he declared that what he witnessed there was a genocide.

“My priority as mayor of my hometown: Save the lives of citizens of our city,” he said in a recent interview. Staying in the capital was not so much a decision, he said, but fulfilling a “mission.”

“I’m present right now, everywhere he said.

It includes on social media, where his post is part of the PR campaign, his relative lightness on camera, indicating his many years under bright light in a boxing ring. Many in the capital suspect he is planning to run in the presidential election. But his consistent appearances in crisis-stricken Kiev have also served as a unifying force for Ukrainians. Residents – even those who disliked Klitschko’s policies before the war – say his unconventional approach works.

“Our president was not a politician, our mayor was not a politician,” said Kostya Suspitsyn, a product designer and now a war volunteer who took a break earlier this month at one of the city’s few open cafes. “That’s why we are so strong today.”

Klitschko was born in 1971 in modern Kyrgyzstan to a Soviet-era air force pilot. He and his younger brother Wladimir started boxing as children and then rose to star status and became two of the world’s most legendary boxers. But as professionals, they never fought against each other – and kept a promise they made to their mother.

Although they secured heavyweight titles, they also pursued their educations and advanced degrees. Eventually, Elder Klitschko chose to commit to living in Kiev and trying his hand at government.

In politics, as in boxing, Klitschko is known for his little awkwardness. Even his fans acknowledge that he tends to lose track of his thoughts or speak in shaky, incomplete sentences. Some of his more well-known misspeaks have been widely shared as mocking memes.

Yet he proved to be a serious figure in Ukrainian politics, founding the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for the Reform Party. In 2012, he won a seat in parliament. He formally withdrew from boxing in 2013 and then rose as the leader of the massive protest movement that began in response to then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to reject a European agreement and instead adapt to Russia. The pro-Western movement, now known as the Maidan or the Revolution of Dignity, marked a turning point in Ukrainian history and spurred a reworking of the country’s political order.

Klitschko initially used momentum to pursue a bid for president. When he dropped out to support chocolate magnate Petro Poroshenko, he again focused his own gaze on the mayor’s office. He has been running Kiev since 2014.

In February, he faced his biggest – and most unexpected – fight yet. Despite the warnings, he never thought a Russian invasion would happen, and he interpreted the build-up of troops around Ukraine’s borders this winter as little more than Russian President Vladimir Putin flexing his muscles. So on February 24, the capital woke up to a storm of boom.

“We did not prepare well because no one believed in it,” he said. But when the invasion began, “we [didn’t] have another choice, we had to defend our country. “

Throughout March, the cities around Kiev were relentlessly shelled by the advancing Russian forces. Civilians were killed. In the capital, air raid sirens howled endlessly. By the end of the month, about 80 apartment buildings had been damaged and about 100 civilians killed during the siege attempt, Klitschko said.

But the Russian troops never managed to capture the city – they withdrew in recent days after failures that defied the expectations of military experts and Western officials. Klitschko attributes to the successes of Ukrainians a sense of duty to defend their lifestyle.

Russian troops are “fighting for money,” he said. “Ukrainian soldiers are defending the future of our families, our women, our children and our families, the future of our country.”

One recent morning, Klitschko pulled up to a fire station in the northern part of Kiev. For once, his brother was not with him, but instead traveled to Germany to push for more humanitarian and military support from the country where both lived for years.

In boxing, the two have referred to their relationship as the “secret weapon” their opponents must face. In connection with the war, this has meant that people gather behind each other in the defense of the capital.

“I am very happy that my brother is using his status and international contacts” to raise money for Ukraine, Klitschko said. “My brother supports me a lot.”

For some residents, the fraternal bond has also helped to improve the mayor’s image. “Before the war, I did not have a very good opinion of him,” said Andrii Schavinskyi, a 26-year-old software developer. “But that he stayed in Kiev, and the fact that his brother supports him, makes me feel good.”

Klitschko walked through the fire station, inspecting new equipment and greeting those responsible for putting out fires caused by Russian strikes.

The firefighters beamed as they shook the mayor’s hand and showed him the rooms where women wove the camouflage to cover checkpoints and civilians trained to learn first aid.

“When those in power come to people involved in fighting, it helps morale,” Sgt. Volodymyr Taran, who has spent two years as a firefighter. “It means they do not forget the people who save lives.”

Outside, Klitschko posed for pictures and threw his arms around the firefighters. Some Russian forces were still lingering on the outskirts of the city. In the background, the sound of outgoing artillery could be heard.

Serhii Korolchuk and Serhiy Morgunov in Kiev contributed to this report.

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