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Vitaly Kim: South Ukraine leader with a sardonic side

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“Like many public officials he has aped the fashion of President Volodymyr Zelensky since the invasion began in late February, making public appearances sporting military drabs.”

By Joe Stenson

Vitaly Kim has a wicked sense of humor. Perhaps it’s necessary: he is governor of Ukraine’s southern region of Mykolaiv, where a fresh faceoff with Russian troops is rumored to loom.

Overnight missiles hammer the provincial capital. Water lines have been cut and Kim’s own office was plucked from existence by a missile strike on the building in the first weeks of the war.

When the block was bombed in March and Kim was announcing bleak updates on social media, he quipped that he had only escaped counting among the 37 killed because he overslept.

His selfie videos—gloating in a seized Russian vehicle, or giggling with glee over jokes at Moscow’s expense—have made him a cult persona in the months since.

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Through it all, there is an undeniable sense the round-faced 41-year-old is trying to make light of the grim crisis.

“There are different ways to manage a situation,” he told AFP this week with a hint of a grin. “This is my style, it doesn’t mean that it’s easy.”

Nevertheless, he insists: “I enjoy every job I’m doing.”

Comic relief

Kim’s region is a swathe of sunny southern Ukraine pressed up against the Black Sea coast, where the war with Russia is shifting as it approaches its seventh month.

Like many public officials he has aped the fashion of President Volodymyr Zelensky since the invasion began in late February, making public appearances sporting military drabs.

On Wednesday he spoke to journalists wearing camouflage trousers and a black T-shirt marked with the silhouette of the extraterrestrial “Predator” from the 1987 sci-fi/horror movie of the same name, incongruously captioned “department patrol police.”

Shadowed by the municipal building where his office once stood—and where the walls are still stained with bloody hand prints—he explains the philosophy of comic leadership he developed when the war started.

“I made the decision to make our enemy look stupid and foolish,” he said. “Many of our people needed this, not to be afraid.”

Those early days are now gone and people “now just like” his humorous style. They “mostly don’t need it” like they once did, he said.

His sense of humor seems to align with the broader “wink and nudge” comedic manner Ukraine has adopted to cope with months of violence and no end in sight.

When a Russian airfield in Crimea was the site of explosions last week, Ukrainian officials suspected of masterminding a daring raid reacted with coy glee, without officially confirming responsibility.

Kim also believes he introduced the use of the term “orcs” to jokingly refer to Russian soldiers.

The word—now used nationwide among servicemen—is lifted from fantasy novels and video games, alluding to goblin-esque evil creatures.

“They were truly like them because they were out of their mind,” he explained. “The propaganda in Russia for dozens of years changed their thinking.”

“Even they didn’t understand what they’re doing.”

Tactician in disguise

But Kim—a child of teacher parents—is not a full-time jester.

When quizzed about the supposed Ukrainian counteroffensive being mustered in his region, he becomes stoney faced.

He only says that there is a “good situation” on the front line. Planning an offensive is “not so simple”. And Ukraine is engaged in “active defense.”

“Counter-offensive is a very wide expression,” he says. “It is going, that’s all.”

Despite his effusive public persona, he is giving nothing away.

There is a sense that behind the man quick to quip there is another, making contingencies for any deadly serious new turn the unfolding war with Russia could take.

He said that some people mistook his lighter side as a sign of weakness.

“That’s not true, because I can smile and I can destroy something.”

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