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Zelenskyy's aides kept an emergency escape train on standby for him at the start of the war. He never took it.

Mia Jankowicz   

Zelenskyy's aides kept an emergency escape train on standby for him at the start of the war. He never took it.
  • Zelenskyy's aides had a train ready for him to escape on in February 2022, a new book says.
  • Back then, it wasn't clear if the Ukrainian president would flee the capital, it said.

At the outbreak of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's security service kept a train idling in Kyiv to enable a quick escape out of the city, according to a new biography.

The detail features in the recently-published biography "The Showman: Inside the invasion that shook the world and made a leader of Volodymyr Zelensky," by TIME correspondent Simon Shuster.

In February 2022, as the early days of Russia's devastating onslaught unfolded, the train — held empty and ready to depart Kyiv's central station at a moment's notice — was periodically inspected by security guards for any threats, Shuster writes.

But Zelenskyy never boarded it.

Zelenskyy's decision not to flee — as some had expected him to do — has long been recognized as an early turning point in the war, and in Ukraine's ability to resist Russia's advance.

Ukraine's then-defense minister, Oleksiy Reznikov, said that Russia was trying to make Zelenskyy panic and run, according to Shuster. "The Russian tactic was to push the president out of Kyiv," he said. "They were testing our nerves."

But when offered an escape route on February 25, Zelenskyy reportedly — albeit somewhat apocryphally — told US officials: "I need ammunition, not a ride,"

First Lady Olena Zelenska and their two children did ultimately leave Kyiv on the private train, accompanied by a group of bodyguards and a single roller suitcase, according to the biography.

There was no certainty that, in the event of a full-scale invasion, Zelenskyy would stick around. His predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, bolted to Russia when the Euromaidan protests overran Kyiv in 2014.

Even within Zelenskyy's own intelligence services it wasn't clear what approach he would take, according to the book.

"It's the one factor you can never calculate," Oleksiy Danilov, Zelenskyy's defense council chief, told Shuster.

The danger was acute — Kyiv was vulnerable to both ground and aerial attack, and Zelenskyy was urged to relocate to bunkers at the edge of the city, or even move his seat of government to the Polish border, the biography reports.

Some lawmakers were fleeing the city, while a glut of officers in the upper and middle ranks of the SBU, Ukraine's main intelligence agency, told an unnamed security advisor they were packing their bags.

The advisor quoted them as saying: "'Resistance is futile. The Russians will beat us,'" Shuster reported.

In those early days, the idea of Russian tanks rolling into the capital was very real. By 25 February, the city was under aerial bombardment, with artillery fire audible from the outskirts, Reuters reported at the time.

Meanwhile, Ukraine's Western allies — including President Joe Biden — were offering to help Zelenskyy set up a government abroad, the book says.

One suggestion, Shuster reported, was to conduct Ukraine's defense from eastern Poland.

Instead, Shuster reported, Zelenskyy continually tried to bring the discussion back to how the West could support Ukraine's defense.

By then, Zelenskyy had already made an address, trying to calm the nation, from his desk. But the message that captured global attention was on 25 February, when Zelenskyy made it clear that he was staying in Kyiv in a selfie-style video filmed on Kyiv's Bankova Street.

"We're all here, defending our independence and our country," he said, standing alongside some of his closest aides.

He added: "And we'll go on doing that."

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