A modern Churchill? Zelenskyy praised as a war communicator | Way of life
To the world watching him, his message is this, both in his words and in his resolute, sometimes haggard appearance: he stands as a mirror of the suffering and spirit of his people.
It seems to pass. Just days after the start of the war that engulfed his nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is drawing historic comparisons as an effective and moving wartime communicator – but with a decidedly modern twist inflected by live TV sensibilities. and the personal feel of social media.
His baby complexion is now generally puffy and pasty, with slight beard growth. Suits and dress shirts were replaced with olive military style clothing. His hoarse voice betrays exhaustion. Together these help form a tale of personal courage, of David battling the mighty Goliath and refusing safe passage out of his homeland – epitomized by his phrase that he needed “ammunition, not a round”.
It’s quite a development for a former TV actor and comedian who a few weeks ago was scorned in some corners as a political novice too eager to seek compromise with Moscow.
“Here’s a guy who was basically considered a lightweight, out of his element, about to be crushed by a major superpower next door. And it didn’t happen,” says Andrew J. Polsky, professor of political scientist at Hunter College in New York and author of a book on America’s wartime presidents “I think people really expected him to run away…and I think he surprised people by sharing the danger they shared.”
This, says Polsky, created “a reciprocal relationship between Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people. I think they took energy from each other and confidence from each other. It is an impressive communication achievement for a leader to be so in touch with his people in the midst of a crisis.
Winston Churchill, who rallied Britain during the darkest days of World War II, is a name frequently invoked, even by Churchill’s biographer. One analyst has 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 declared to the European Parliament “we are only fighting for our land and our freedom”, the translator had a hard time not crying.
Speaking the other day at a fundraiser in San Francisco, US First Lady Jill Biden said, “I just have to turn on the TV every morning and pray that Zelenskyy is always safe. life”.
Some of Zelenskyy’s appearances seem designed to offer that simple reassurance. Shortly after the invasion of Russia, he was seen in what appeared to be cellphone video of a dark Kiev street, 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 to protect our independence, and we will continue to do so. Glory to the defenders of Ukraine.
Zelenskyy’s insistence on staying, along with his wife and children, was a turning point, says Orysia Lutsevych, researcher and head of the Ukraine Forum for the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “People saw that he had courage,” she said.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared detached and aloof, addressing aides by videoconference or at the end of an almost absurdly long table, with speeches that Polsky says display a sense of history self -created.
The Ukrainian president’s words projected a mixture of defiance and growing desperation, and he doesn’t seem afraid to alienate those he might need help from. For example, he told NATO officials that they would be responsible for civilian deaths if they did not enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
Through these messages, he is not just speaking to NATO leaders, but directly to citizens who could pressure them to do more, says Kenneth Osgood, professor of history at the Colorado School of Mines and propaganda and intelligence expert.
Zelenskyy’s pleas remind an analyst of Benjamin Franklin’s trip to France in 1776 to gain French support for the American Revolution – a trip that ultimately proved pivotal to the story.
“The British had a military superiority,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a political communications specialist and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “If France had not joined the war in 1778, the result might have been different.”
The Ukrainian leader’s personality, message and delivery are mutually reinforcing, says Jamieson. “His delivery straight to camera in close-up is effective social media – unscripted, clear, direct and brimming with determination.”
Her messages do not necessarily all have the same impact, she notes. Saying “Don’t let them exterminate us” is a more effective framework, she said, than “calling a NATO summit weak and confused”.
Jamieson says TV stations amplified the power of Zelenskyy’s appeals with powerful visuals, “overlaying evocative images of damaged buildings, fleeing mothers and children, menacing Russian tanks, empty store shelves, etc.” Moreover, she says, the specter of his demise still looms: “His increasingly unshaven look, the body armor in public and the repeated reminders to world leaders that this may be the last time ‘they see him alive add immediacy to his calls.’
That same message – this may be the last they see him alive – was delivered to members of the US Congress via Zoom over the weekend.
U.S. Representative Mike Quigley of Illinois told ABC News he took notes as Zelenskyy spoke. “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 motivated,” said Quigley.
He cited Churchill’s 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 spruce things up.
Zelenskyy does not possess the same rhetorical prowess Churchill did in radio messages as German bombs rained down on London, says Osgood, the propaganda expert. “Zelenskyy is much more direct – sort of, ‘Here’s the story. I’ll just give it to you straight. So there’s not the same poetry. But there’s the same desperation.
Indeed, in style, the more formal Churchill and Zelenskyy couldn’t be more different. But each man, says Polsky, mastered the media of his day.
“Churchill made good use of the radio, as well as the written word,” he says. “And Zelenskyy makes great use of the occasional social media. He walks the streets and holds his cell phone up, and he talks to people.” His off-the-cuff remarks, without having time to prepare a long speech, add to the authentic nature of his presentations, they and others say, and resonate with a younger generation.
Few in Ukraine considered Zelensky a great leader before the war, Lutsevych told the Ukraine Forum in London. Now, however, he has become the voice of the nation.
“He has a personal quality, including being sensitive to your environment, being able to play different roles, being sensitive to your audience,” she says. “He’s quite empathetic as a leader.”
Correspondent Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal contributed to this report. David Bauder is the Associated Press’ media editor. Jocelyn Noveck is an AP National Writer.
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