Vitali Klitschko—the heavyweight boxing champion turned mayor of Kyiv, Ukraine—announced last week that he has begun training with Ukraine’s military reservists in anticipation of escalating conflict with Russia.
Klitschko, who has served as Kyiv’s mayor since 2014, informed several Western outlets that Russian aggression would not be tolerated and that his decision to join the reservists was in preparation for a potential invasion.
“Many of us served in the army and those skills had to be restored,” Klitschko told The Daily Telegraph. “I think that such training is essential for top and middle-level officials of a country that has been at war for almost eight years.”
Though Ukraine has been in conflict with Russia since the fall of President Viktor Yanukovych after the Maidan uprising in 2013-14. According to most western media outlets Russia has spent the past few months building up its forces on the border with Ukraine. There are reportedly tens of thousands of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine, and U.S. officials have warned that the number may soon double, which has further raised the spectre of war.
During security talks with U.S. diplomats on Monday, Russia played down plans for a Ukraine invasion. Russian foreign deputy minister Sergei A. Ryabkov later told reporters that there was “no reason to fear some kind of escalatory scenario.”
However, despite the civil start to the security talks, it appears that the two sides have irreconcilable differences. Russian diplomats claimed that the U.S. requirement that Russia de-escalate is a “non-starter” and also refused to reverse their position on Crimea. Meanwhile, the U.S. pushed back against Russia’s demands that Ukraine not be admitted into NATO, and that the intergovernmental military alliance should end its security cooperation with Ukraine.
By minimizing Western military activity in Ukraine and elsewhere across Eastern Europe, the U.S. fears that Russia may be attempting to re-establish its sphere of influence on countries that used to be a part of the Soviet Union. Given the limited room for negotiation, U.S. President Joe Biden threatened Russian President Vladimir Putin with “severe sanctions” during a recent 50-minute phone call if Russia renewed aggression on Ukraine. Klitschko has since backed the financial and economic consequences, adding that the response against Russia should be “tough and unwavering.”
“We will not let [Putin] pull us back into the Soviet empire that we have rejected forever,” Klitschko said. “Ukraine has chosen the European path and wants to establish itself as a rightful member of the European family – historically, geographically and mentally.”
Though Klitschko may not be involved in the ongoing negotiations, it is evidently clear that the former boxer has risen to become one of the most influential politicians in Ukraine. How he handles the ongoing conflict may very well determine his future path to the presidency in Ukraine.
From Pugilist to Politician
Prior to his pivot to politics, Vitali Klitschko was considered to be one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time.
The only heavyweight boxer to have reigned as world champion in three different decades, Klitschko was known for his exceptional in-ring dominance, which included a 45-2 record and an 87 percent knockout rate. He was also the first champion boxer to hold a PhD degree, which helped give him the in-ring nickname “Dr. Ironfist.”
Klitschko’s political career began in 2005, when he was appointed an adviser to President Viktor Yushchenko. Soon thereafter, he announced his (first) retirement from professional boxing and vacated his title so that he could begin campaigning for the mayoral seat in Kyiv. He placed second in the 2006 mayoral election with 26 percent of the vote.
After being elected to the Kyiv City Council in 2008, Klitschko became the leader of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR) political party in 2010, which won seats in regional parliaments following the elections that same year. He was then elected as a member of the Ukrainian parliament in 2012 and served for two years before setting his sights on becoming president, for which he was considered a strong contender after playing a prominent role in the Euromaidan protest movement that led to the toppling of president Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014.
However, Klitschko upended the presidential race when he opted instead to throw his support behind billionaire chocolate maker Petro Poroshenko. Instead, he focused on the snap Kyiv mayoral seat in 2014, which he won with almost 57 percent of the vote.
Klitschko was officially sworn in as mayor of Kyiv on June 5, 2014, just months after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. He has since been reelected twice and has emerged as one of the main faces pushing for greater integration with Europe. During a keynote address in Hannover, Germany last September, Klitschko stated that Ukrainians “seek to transform our country according to the European values and standards into a democratic country each citizen of which is free to achieve his or her potential. This is the future we want.”
Beyond integration with Europe, Klitschko continued to press the anti-corruption narrative in Ukraine, explaining that corruption halted reforms in his homeland and “destroyed the country.” As mayor of Kyiv, he micromanaged the issue of corruption, building new infrastructure across the city while also focusing on issues such as plowing snow. He was even praised for his initial handling of the coronavirus pandemic, where his leadership and quick reaction in instituting lockdowns helped keep Ukraine’s death toll relatively low in comparison with many European nations.
After winning the 2020 mayoral race in a landslide, Klitschko has been embroiled in an increasingly public power struggle with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which raises interesting questions about whether the incumbent president views the former boxer as a potential threat in the 2024 presidential elections.
Dr. Ironfist’s Path to the Presidency
In May 2021, the State Fiscal Service and the Kyiv prosecutor’s office conducted investigations in various municipal companies as part of a probe into the alleged embezzlement of public funds and tax evasion. The investigations included a search of Klitschko’s apartment block, where a dozen men from the SBU security service armed with automatic rifles reportedly entered his building complex and gathered near the entrance to his apartment.
In a statement to the press following the incident, Klitschko accused President Zelensky’s office of “psychological pressure” and an illegal attempt to curb the mayor’s power. The SBU security service, which is led by a close ally of Zelensky, later claimed the raid had nothing to do with Klitschko, though critics have labeled it as the latest evolution in the ongoing standoff between two of the most influential politicians in Ukraine.
“It is no secret that the President Office often holds meetings on account of Klitschko,” the mayor said at the time. “Someone is very annoyed with the city initiatives.”
Zelensky’s Servant of the People political party controls a majority of Ukraine’s parliament, and it is possible that he is trying to have Klitschko removed from office so that he can install an ally as the mayor of Kyiv and extend his sphere of influence. It is also possible that Zelensky, a comedian-turned-politician, views the legendary boxer as a threat to his presidency.
“It seems to me that [Klitschko] forgot that he is a mayor and has begun his presidential campaign,” Zelensky said in a June 24 interview.
While Klitschko noted in May 2021 that he “never voiced” his intention to run for president and still has a “huge number of tasks in the city of Kyiv today,” he remains a leading rival for Zelensky come 2024. Despite his shortcomings, which include accusations of mismanagement and corruption scandals involving his allies, Klitschko remains one of the most popular politicians in Ukraine, in part due to his unrivalled success as a pugilist.
It is difficult to overestimate the Klitschko brothers’ popularity in Ukraine during the height of their boxing prowess. They repeatedly attracted between 10 and 20 million local viewers to their boxing bouts, making them two of the most influential and recognizable faces in Ukraine. Inter, a popular Ukrainian TV channel, even ranked them as number 15 in the list of 100 Greatest Ukrainians.
Klitschko is not the first athlete to pivot to politics following a legendary boxing career. In 2010, Manny Pacquiao—one of the greatest boxers of all time—began his political career as a congressman before transitioning to a senator five years later, eventually allying himself with Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ autocratic-minded president. Now as Duterte’s lone six-year term comes to an end, the former world champion boxer has emerged as a leading candidate for the Filipino presidency.
Pacquiao’s successful tenure in various political offices, though marred by his distressing views on same-sex couples and longstanding ties to a populist leader who rose to power by orchestrating a so-called war on drugs, is an interesting case study in the influence sports has on the political sphere. Athletes such as Pacquiao and Klitschko, both of whom became national heroes in countries starved for sporting icons, become household names in their homelands, able to transcend socio-economic and cultural barriers in a way that many politicians manage to achieve.
Boxers and other combat sports athletes also give the impression of strength and battle-tested resilience, which are characteristic attributed to strongmen leaders and authoritarian politicians. In Klitschko’s case, his status as a legendary boxer with an intimidating two metre frame was utilized by politicians such as Angela Merkel and those from the conservative European People’s Party, who reportedly wanted to set up Klitschko as a new strongman in Kyiv to counter the President Vladimir Putin—a supposed black belt in judo known for his love of sports—and the Kremlin’s growing sphere of influence in 2013.
Nine years later, Klitschko continues to set his sights on Putin, and believes his celebrity status will benefit him should conflict with Russia arise.
“I think it is more about character traits that all professional athletes share. Self-discipline, meticulousness, persistence and a strong sense of focus are key principles that help you succeed, no matter what you are doing,” he told the Telegraph.
“As for my celebrity status…My connections are very helpful and give me a big advantage. Because Ukraine cannot overcome the tough challenges it faces without friends and reliable partners.”
Under the threat of Russian aggression, Klitschko has positioned himself as Kyiv’s wartime leader—a politician with the physical experience to prepare for any conflict. Depending on how the next few months pan out, Dr. Iron Fist may emerge as the country’s primary presidential candidate.
About the author