Volodymyr Zelenskyy's Former Spokesperson Calls Ukrainian President 'The Most Devoted Person I've Ever Known'

"He's like the captain of a ship," Volodymyr Zelenskyy's former spokesperson Iuliia Mendel tells PEOPLE of the Ukrainian President

Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Iuliia Mendel
Photo: Ukrainian Presidency/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty; Lina Reshetnyk/Shutterstock

Volodymyr Zelenskyy is earning praise from his former spokesperson.

Iuliia Mendel, 35, recently chatted with PEOPLE about the Ukrainian president, 44, with whom she worked closely as his spokesperson from June 2019 to July 2021.

"He is the most devoted person I've ever known. He never gives up," she says. "I think his strength and courage have come as a surprise to the world, but not to me. I think people in the West thought of him as a comedian, but his background is actually as a lawyer."

Noting that Zelenskyy is a "good boss" and a "good manager," Mendel continues, "He's like the captain of a ship, and has actually said in the past that if anything happens with this ship, [he will] go down with it as the last man on board."

Adds Mendel: "The president looks like he's on the verge of his physical capacity, but he still manages, every day, to get his second breath."

Observers say much of Zelenskyy's political success can be attributed to the unrest and revolution of 2014, when popular protests brought down Ukraine's then-President Viktor Yanukovich.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy makes a speech on evaluation the 22nd day of the Russia-Ukraine war during virtually addressing in Kyiv, Ukraine on March 17, 2022.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Ukrainian Presidency/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty

By 2019, the disenchantment with the country's political elite had become even further ingrained, helping propel the political outsider to the highest office.

Zelenskyy — who ran with no party affiliation and no clear team of expert advisers until days before the election — attended no in-person campaign events and held no rallies, instead turning to social media to make a name for himself.

After appearing in a slew of YouTube and Instagram posts and making television appearances, he handily won a first-round election and later, a runoff.

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Zelenskyy is married to Ukrainian architect and screenwriter Olena Volodymyrivna Zelenska, and the couple has two children: Oleksandra and Kyrylo.

Continuing to speak with PEOPLE, Mendel says the politician differs from Vladimir Putin as Zelenskyy already has the success that the Russian leader strives for.

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"If you don't have success in your personal life, then how can you make a true success of your professional life?" she asks.

"This is the difference between Putin and Zelenskyy. Zelenskyy was already successful, famous, wealthy, happily married, and he brought that foundation of personal success and built on it to lead his country wisely," Mendel adds.

Mendel's comments come about as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues after their forces launched a large-scale invasion on Feb. 24 — the first major land conflict in Europe in decades.

Details of the fighting change by the day, but hundreds of civilians have already been reported dead or wounded, including children. Millions of Ukrainians have also fled, the United Nations says.

The invasion, ordered by Putin, 69, has drawn condemnation around the world and increasingly severe economic sanctions against Russia. With NATO forces massing in the region around Ukraine, various countries have also pledged aid or military support to the resistance. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for peace talks — so far unsuccessful — while urging his country to fight back.

Putin insists Ukraine has historic ties to Russia and he is acting in the best security interests of his country. Zelenskyy vowed not to bend. "Nobody is going to break us, we're strong, we're Ukrainians," he told the European Union in a speech in the early days of the fighting, adding, "Life will win over death. And light will win over darkness."

The Russian attack on Ukraine is an evolving story, with information changing quickly. Follow PEOPLE's complete coverage of the war here, including stories from citizens on the ground and ways to help.

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