To a watching world, his message is this, in both his words and his resolute, sometimes haggard appearance: He stands as a mirror to the suffering and spirit of his people.
It appears to be getting through. Just days into the war engulfing his nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is drawing horical comparisons as an effective and stirring wartime communicator — yet with a dinctly modern touch inflected the sensibilities of live television and the personal feel of social media.
His ba-faced complexion is now usually puffy and pasty, with a faint growth of beard. Suits and dress shirts have been replaced olive military-style garb. His raspy voice betrays exhaustion. Together, these help form a narrative of personal courage, of David fighting mighty Goliath and refusing safe passage out of his homeland — embodied his line that he needed “ammunition, not a ride.”
It’s all quite a development for a former TV actor and comedian who weeks ago was disdained in some corners as a political novice too eager to seek compromise with Moscow.
“Here’s a guy who was basically considered to be a lightweight, out of his element, about to be crushed a major superpower next door. And it didn’t happen,” says Andrew J. Polsky, a professor of political science at Hunter College in New York and author of a book on wartime U.S. presidents. “I think people really expected that he would flee … and I think he surprised people sharing the danger that they were sharing.”
That, Polsky says, has created “a reciprocal relationship between Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people. I think they have gotten energy from each other and confidence from each other. That’s an impressive communications accomplishment for a leader, to be that much in touch with his people in the middle of a crisis.”
Winston Churchill, who rallied Britons during World War II’s darkest days, is a name frequently invoked — even Churchill’s biographer. One analyst compared Zelenskyy to Benjamin Franklin and his success in soliciting French support for the American Revolution.
Through interviews and appearances via video link from hidden locations, Zelenskyy has sought to rally the world to Ukraine’s side. When he told the European Parliament “we’re fighting just for our land and for our freedom,” the translator struggled not to cry.
Speaking the other day at a San Francisco fundraiser, U.S. first lady Jill Biden said that “I just have to turn on the TV every morning and pray that Zelenskyy is still alive.”
Some of Zelenskyy’s appearances seem designed to deliver that simple assurance. Shortly after Russia invaded, he was seen in what appeared to be mobile phone video from a darkened street in Kyiv, four grim-faced colleagues standing behind him.
“We are all here,” he said. “Our soldiers are here, the citizens of our country are all here protecting our independence, and we are going to continue to do so. Glory to the defenders of Ukraine.”
Zelenskyy’s insence on staying, along with his wife and children, was a turning point, says Orysia Lutsevych, a research fellow and manager of the Ukraine Forum in the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “People saw he had courage,” she says.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has appeared detached and dant, speaking to aides via videoconference or the end of an almost absurdly elongated table, with speeches that Polsky says display a self-created sense of hory.
A woman walks a newsstand with a placard of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy on front page headlined “Who to stop Putin” next to the Saint Volodymyr Le Grand cathedral, in Paris, France, Thursday, March 3, 2022. (AP)
The Ukraine president’s words have projected a mixture of defiance and an escalating desperation, and he seems unafraid of alienating those whose help he might need. For example, he told NATO officials they would bear responsibility for civilian deaths if they didn’t enforce a no-fly Zone over Ukraine.
Through those messages, he’s not just speaking to NATO leaders, but directly to the citizens who may put pressure on them to do more, says Kenneth Osgood, professor of hory at the Colorado School of Mines and an expert on propaganda and intelligence.
Zelenskyy’s pleas remind one analyst of Benjamin Franklin’s trip to France in 1776 to elicit French support for the American Revolution — a trip that ultimately proved pivotal to hory.
“The British had military superiority,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a special in political communication and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “Had France not joined the war in 1778, the outcome may have been different.”
The Ukrainian leader’s persona, message and delivery are mutually reinforcing, Jamieson says. “His delivery straight to camera in closeup is effective social media — unscripted, clear, straightforward and brimming with resolve.”
In this photo provided the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to the nation via his phone in the center of Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 26, 2022. (Via AP)
His messages don’t necessarily all have the same impact, she notes. Saying “Don’t let them exterminate us” is a more effective frame, she says, than “calling a NATO summit weak and confused.”
Jamieson says TV networks have magnified the power of Zelenskyy’s appeals with potent visuals, “overlaying evocative images of damaged buildings, fleeing mothers and children, menacing Russian tanks, empty store shelves and the like.” What’s more, she says, the specter of his demise always looms: “His increasingly unshaven look, the flak jacket when in public and the repeated reminders to world leaders that this may be the last time they see him alive add immediacy to his appeals.”
That same message — it might be the last time they see him alive — was delivered to members of the U.S. Congress via Zoom over the weekend.
U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois told ABC News that he took notes when Zelenskyy talked. “Calm,” heroic” and “unprecedented” were among the words he wrote. “I don’t think you can sit there with human emotions and not be moved, not be motivated,” Quigley said.
He cited the Churchill comparison. So did Andrew Roberts, author of the 2018 biography “Churchill: Walking with Destiny”: Speaking on a Commentary magazine podcast, he noted both Zelenskyy’s personal bravery and his refusal to sugarcoat things.
Zelenskyy doesn’t possess the same rhetorical prowess as Churchill did in radio messages as German bombs rained down upon London, says Osgood, the propaganda expert. “Zelenskyy is much blunter — sort of, ‘Here’s the story. I’m just going to give it to you straight.’ So there’s not the same poetry to it. But there’s the same desperation.”
Indeed, in style, the more formal Churchill and Zelenskyy could not be more different. But each man, Polsky says, mastered the media of his era.
“Churchill made good use of radio, the written word as well,” he says. “And Zelenskyy makes excellent use of casual social media. He walks through the streets and holds his cell phone up, and he talks to people.” His off-the-cuff remarks, with no time to prepare a long speech, add to the genuine nature of his presentations, he and others say, and resonate with a younger generation.
Not many people in Ukraine saw Zelenskyy as a great leader before the war, says Lutsevych, at the Ukraine Forum in London. Now, though, he has become the voice of the nation.
“He has a personal quality, especially being sensitive to your environment, to be able to play different roles, to be sensitive to your audience,” she says. “He’s quite empathetic as a leader.”