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From comedian to wartime leader: How President Zelenskyy is helping Ukraine win the information war

(NEW YORK) — 

Just after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was offered the chance by the U.S. government to leave the city of Kyiv for his own safety. What he is said to have responded has come to embody the defiance of the former comedic actor turned wartime leader: “The fight is here,” he reportedly said, “I need ammunition, not a ride.”

Early U.S. intelligence assessments suggested that Russia would take Kyiv within days of attacking Ukraine, but a succession of setbacks for the Russian military, and fierce resistance on the Ukrainian side, means the war is now dragging into its third month. Throughout it all, President Zelenskyy has been the face of Ukrainian resistance – addressing his people on social media daily, as well as parliaments and leaders around the world.

The Ukrainian government’s communications strategy has proved important in both rallying morale and helping the country secure key military aid as the war has progressed, experts and analysts say.

‘A man on the street’

In the early phase of the war, the defiant message of Zelenskyy’s early addresses, often filmed by himself in front of his office in the heart of the capital and posted on his social media accounts, was “critical,” according to Orysia Lutsevych, a research fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Programme at the think tank Chatham House.

“The very first weeks of war were very dark times where there was a lot of anxiety and uncertainty about Kyiv, whether it will be able to stand Russian assault,” she said. “And that voice of Zelenskyy, almost like it was breaking that darkness, gave a communication channel to the world.”

Zelenskyy has appeared in a constant stream of addresses since the war started, often decked out in combat fatigues, directly addressing the Ukrainian people but also the international media, who relied on these broadcasts as a daily source of information that would be reached by millions in the west.

By remaining in Kyiv at the time, Zelenskyy also faced personal danger, broadcasting from the capital despite Russian missiles hitting targets in the city every night and Russian saboteur units allegedly sent to kill him.

“We are all here. Our military are here, as are our people and whole society,” Zelenskyy said in one of his characteristic selfie-style videos posted at the time. “We’re all here defending our independence and our country. And we’ll go on doing that. Glory to our defenders! Glory to Ukraine.”

It’s a style which now seems familiar, but at the time was a clear indication that the current Ukrainian government had appreciated the importance of wartime messaging, according to David Patrikarakos, a contributing editor at the online magazine UnHerd and author of the book “War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century.”

“You see in those videos that Zelenskyy is both the President of Ukraine and a literal man in the street,” Patrikarakos told ABC News. “And the Ukrainian messaging at the beginning of the war was really focused on one message, which is, we will fight, but we are civilians who do not want to fight. The war has imposed this upon us.”

While Zelenskyy has a background as a performer — famously playing a teacher who accidentally become president in the sitcom ‘Servant of the People’ — as a leader on the international stage he was perhaps best known as a figure in the impeachment of U.S. President Donald Trump, during which he was notably quiet. Now, he has drawn praise for rising to the challenges of a wartime communicator.

“I think what is interesting is that he is metamorphosing, right, how he changed and completely and blended with the new reality fast,” Lutsevych said. “That transformation happened quickly, partially because he is an actor, he understands the new setting, the new scene and he plays it.”

Channeling Churchill, Shakespeare and MLK

Yet for all his success as a communicator, at the core of Zelenskyy’s success as been the moral authority he carries in the face of the Russian invasion, according to John Herbst, the senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

“His prominence is a result of his what I would call his sound and statesmanlike response to, again, this absolutely dreadful circumstance in which he found himself,” Herbst told ABC News. “He’s demonstrated courage, boldness and, of course, the ability to frame his dilemma and his needs for all who want to listen, which includes the entire Western world.”

That framing, as seen during his addresses to parliaments and legislatures around the world, has made his calls for international aid particularly effective. For the American people Zelenskyy invoked Pearl Harbor and quoted Martin Luther King. For the British, he quoted Shakespeare and Winston Churchill.

Zelenskyy’s tour was met with widespread acclaim, with tearful legislators resonating with his country’s struggle as Zelenskyy appealed for more armaments and aid. He has not held back his criticism too, particularly for the U.N. Security Council, who he accused of failing to stand up to the Russian veto.

“What he’s done is humanize the conflict,” Patrikarakos. “He made people care about Ukraine. And that’s what affects policy.”

The U.N. General Assembly has since adopted a procedure requiring a meeting of the body within 10 days if a veto is used in the Security Council by one of the five permanent members, including Russia.

“In an ideal world, if you have extraordinary needs, which Zelenskyy most definitely has, and you have nations that are sympathetic to you, they will meet your extraordinary needs when their interests require it,” Herbst said. “And then you do everything behind closed doors. The problem is that with this administration in Washington and with other governments in the West, you had the sympathy, but you had a certain nearsightedness that prevented them from doing what Ukraine needed. So he appealed publicly others in the United States and elsewhere to find satisfaction of his needs.”

Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, found a more mixed reception in the Israeli Knesset, where his evocation of the actions of Nazi Germany drew criticism from some lawmakers and the media.

“The war is terrible but the comparison to the horrors of the Holocaust and the final solution is outrageous,” one Israeli minister tweeted.

And his performances when being questioned by journalists have not been as strong as his pre-written speeches, according to Lutsevych, but Zelenskyy and his small team of advisers essential to shaping the communications strategy have largely been successful.

The regular communications of the government via social media, as well as the provision of translation and logistical services to news outlets, has proved important in disseminating their messages wider, according to Diane Nemec Ignashev, professor of Russian and the liberal arts at Carleton College.

“In terms of outreach, my estimation would be that Ukrainian official sources, insofar as they feed the Ukrainian news agencies, which in turn feed social media and the foreign media, are doing an excellent job getting information out to diverse audiences,” Ignashev told ABC News.

The future

For the most part, Zelenskyy has found a receptive audience in the west. Ukraine has also found a friendly reception in other key areas of diplomacy, with Politico reporting last month on Ukraine’s network of lobbyists — some of whom are working pro bono — who have pushed for military aid and sanctions on Russia in Washington, D.C., and London.

Now, the war looks set to drag on much longer than anticipated, with some analysts now suggesting the fighting could continue through to the end of the year, and with that the focus of messaging has already changed. Early on, Ukraine’s messaging highlighted its defiance, hammering home that there was a war that they believed they can win. Now the focus is on evidence of war crimes to keep the international community focused on meeting their obligations to Ukraine, Lutsevych said.

Russia has defended itself vigorously against accusations of war crimes, even alleging that photographs and videos published by the Ukrainian authorities alleging “crimes” by Russian troops in cities like Bucha were a “provocation.”

“That is important because that could also lead to defections and splits within the elite inside Russia,” Lutsevych said on Ukrainian efforts to demonstrate evidence of war crimes. “So I think we’ll see more and more information on war crimes and also what is happening on the occupied territories, temporarily occupied territories Russia controls.”

And the problem the Ukrainian authorities face is how to keep the international community fixed on their interests, continuing to send the arms and financial aid the country needs to fight and stay afloat.

“The challenge for the Ukrainians is how do you keep all this fresh. News cycles are fickle things, especially in this day and age,” according to Patrikarakos.

“In the final analysis, the war on the ground is the most important thing, that’s how people are getting killed,” he said. “But let’s not forget this: communications, information warfare, whatever you want to call it, affects policy. Policy affects war. If policy brings you Stingers and Javelins and N-LAWs, all those things that have faced the Russian army for the last two months, that’s what they’ve done very well.”

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