‘You’re My Hero!’: Ben Stiller Hobnobs with Volodymyr Zelensky in Ukraine

The Presidential Office of Ukraine/www.president.gov.ua/Andrew McConnell/UNCHR via AP
The Presidential Office of Ukraine/www.president.gov.ua/Andrew McConnell/UNCHR via AP/Instagram

Comedian Ben Stiller met fellow actor and current president of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv on Monday to return attention to the ongoing, eight-year-old war between that country and Russia on the occasion of World Refugee Day.

“You’re my hero!” Stiller can be heard exclaiming while shaking hands with Zelensky in a video of the meeting published by the president on his Instagram profile.

“You quit a great acting career for this,” Stiller remarked, to which Zelensky replied, “not so great as yours!”

Like Stiller, Zelensky began his career in comedy as part of the Kvartal 95 comedy troupe. He went on to star in that collective’s most successful venture, the television show Servant of the People, in which he played a schoolteacher who accidentally becomes president of Ukraine after his students film him ranting about the sorry state of the country. Zelensky went on to found a political party named after the show and win the presidency in 2019 – then considered a “pro-Russian” candidate whose poor grasp of the Ukrainian language became a campaign issue.

Russia has fueled a proxy war between pro-Moscow separatists and the Ukrainian government in the eastern Donbas region since 2014, the same year strongman Vladimir Putin colonized Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, with little material reaction from the Obama White House. In February, however, Putin expanded the war by sending official Russian troops into Ukraine and bombing the capital city and its suburbs, panicking the world and prompting multiple economic crises due to limits on supplies of oil, fertilizer, and wheat, among other goods.

The latest stage of the Russian invasion has prompted a refugee wave across Europe, affecting neighboring Poland most severely. The United Nations estimates that over 5 million Ukrainians have fled into Europe this year. At its peak, the war sent nearly 8 million Ukrainians across the border, but the U.N. estimates 2.6 million have returned home.

Stiller was named a “goodwill ambassador” for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the organization’s refugee agency, in 2018, and made the trip to Ukraine this weekend in that capacity. In addition to meeting with Zelensky, Stiller marked World Refugee Day by visiting Ukrainians in Poland. In a statement published by the UNHCR, Stiller asserted, “seeking safety is a right and it needs to be upheld for every person.”

“In so many parts of the world, war and violence devastate people and leave lasting traumatic effects. Wherever and whenever it happens, nobody chooses to flee their home,” Stiller said. “Protecting people forced to flee is a collective global responsibility.  We have to remember this could happen to anyone, anywhere.”

“The war in Ukraine is driving the fastest and one of the largest forced displacement crises since World War II,” UNHCR strated. “Families have been torn apart and the trauma of war will have a lasting impact on many of those forced to flee their homes, including women and children, who represent some 90 percent of those forced to flee.”

Stiller also visited some war-torn suburbs of Kyiv, telling Zelensky, “I feel it’s hard to understand what’s actually going on here if you haven’t been here.”

Zelensky thanked Stiller in a statement posted alongside video of their meeting on Instagram.

“Ukrainians feel the support of the whole world, many famous people. And Ben Stiller’s visit once again confirms this. Your trip to Irpin and Makarov, meetings with our people say a lot. We appreciate that you are here at this difficult time for our country,” Zelensky wrote.

Ukrainians leaders appeared to have a busy itinerary this week as footage surfaced on Tuesday of another American visitor, Attorney General Merrick Garland, making a surprise visit to the country to discuss potentially prosecuting war criminals in the Ukraine war. War crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide are considered peremptory norms – universal crimes that every court in the world has jurisdiction to prosecute, meaning a U.S. court could in theory prosecute a Russian soldier for a crime committed in Ukraine that did not occur on U.S. soil or involve any Americans.

“The United States stands in solidarity with the people of Ukraine in the face of Russia’s continued aggression and assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Garland said in a statement, according to the Department of Justice. “America – and the world – has seen the many horrific images and read the heart-wrenching accounts of brutality and death that have resulted from Russia’s unjust invasion of Ukraine.”

“There is no hiding place for war criminals. The U.S. Justice Department will pursue every avenue of accountability for those who commit war crimes and other atrocities in Ukraine,” he promised. “Working alongside our domestic and international partners, the Justice Department will be relentless in our efforts to hold accountable every person complicit in the commission of war crimes, torture, and other grave violations during the unprovoked conflict in Ukraine.”

Garland met with Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova but does not appear to have met with Zelensky at press time.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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