With Leadership and Speaking Skills, Zelensky Shapes the Story of the Russia-Ukraine War

From a New York Times story by Andrew E. Kramer headlined “With Leadership and Speaking Skills, Zelensky Shapes Conflict’s Story“:

The history of most wars is written by the victor after the fact. But Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has created his own sequencing: a story line of the war against Russia in real time that is intended to rally his people, and the Western world.

Mr. Zelensky has maintained a running narrative throughout the 10-month conflict — telling Ukrainians in nightly video addresses how they should view the battles, justify their hardships and believe in the country’s ultimate success.

His New Year’s Eve address to the nation on Saturday night offered another opportunity for him to depict the war in a way that rallied his fellow citizens behind the army, using the electric moment before midnight to give the speech a special significance.

“This year began on Feb. 24,” he said, the date Russia first invaded Ukraine. “It can still be dark, loud and complicated for us. But we will definitely never be afraid again.” The year, he said, was “our year. The year of Ukraine. The year of Ukrainians.”

And a hard one it was. Ukraine, he said, overcame the panic of confrontation with a much larger foe and fought back. But there were losses too. Interspersed in his recorded speech was video footage of the carnage wrought by Russian attacks: leveled apartment blocks and a teddy bear spattered with blood from a missile strike at a train station in April that killed several children.

Ukrainians, he said, had “cried out all the tears” in 2022.

Mr. Zelensky also tallied victories, including the defeat of the Russian army in the battle for Kyiv in the war’s first month and two successful counterattacks in the northeast and south in the fall. By the New Year, 311 days into the war, Ukraine had liberated almost half the land it lost in the initial invasion.

In a first, Mr. Zelensky spoke of an explosion on the Kerch Strait bridge, which connects the occupied Crimean Peninsula to Russia, as a success of the Ukrainian military. Ukraine had not previously claimed responsibility the attack on the bridge in October.

Mr. Zelensky offered no specific timeline for the war’s end but reiterated the goal of reclaiming all territory, or “the return of what has been stolen from us.” He cheered on his people, saying much of the world supported them. “Ukrainians surprise,” he said. “Ukrainians are applauded. Ukrainians inspire.”

In a reminder of the ongoing threat, air raid sirens wailed in Kyiv shortly after midnight on Sunday, and several explosions were heard in the ensuing hours. There were no immediate reports of injuries. Those explosions followed an aerial assault on Saturday that left at least one person dead.

Through the year, Mr. Zelensky has drawn praise for conveying Ukraine’s positions, often in passionate language, in speeches by video link to foreign audiences, as he pleads for sustained military and financial support. Most recently, he made his first trip out of Ukraine since the war started to meet with President Biden and deliver a prime-time address to the U.S. Congress.

His arguments emphasize recurring themes: The Russian government, he says, is a terrorist state and will repeatedly attack Europe if not stopped now. Military support for Ukraine is the only solution, and Ukrainians are filled with pride and patriotism.

“Zelensky could hardly have done more, or done anything more effective, to get his country’s message across,” the journalist James Fallows wrote in a post on Substack, the blogging platform, after the Ukrainian president’s speech to a joint session of Congress.

At home, Mr. Zelensky has broadcast on television and has posted video addresses on social media nearly every night of the war. In recent months, he has signaled to Russian leadership that Ukrainian resistance to Moscow’s goal of occupation would not dissipate.

He articulated this resolve in the fall, when Moscow began striking civilian infrastructure — a strategy on display this week when Russia unleashed a wave of missile and drone attacks, including explosions on Saturday in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital.

In comments in September that were aimed at the Russian leadership, Mr. Zelensky asked then, “Without light or without you?” making clear that Ukrainians would choose the hardships of war over Russian occupation and the brutality that has accompanied it.

“Without you,” he declared to Russia.

In dozens of interviews across the country as cities darkened and homes grew cold, Ukrainians repeated the message, sometimes word for word.

On the dark streets of Kyiv one recent night, Oleh Moor paused to admire a Christmas tree illuminated by a generator, an adaptation made in the face of electrical blackouts caused by months of Russian missile strikes.

“Maybe there is no music and there are no concerts” this holiday season, said Mr. Moor, a cook on his way home from work who had joined a small crowd around the tree. “But we continue living.”

Mr. Zelensky’s wartime leadership has not been without hurdles. Last summer, as the Russians pummeled his army in the east, he publicly aired his own misgivings about the wisdom of trying to hold onto cities at a great cost of Ukrainian lives.

His relationship with Western allies has at times grown tense as he pressures them for more aid and resists suggestions from some that he should negotiate a peace deal. He has also consolidated news outlets under government control, drawing criticism from opposition figures who say he is repressing free speech.

But his reassuring messages have earned him a reservoir of good will with most Ukrainians. They began on the first days of the invasion in February when he posted selfie videos of himself on the streets of Kyiv, to show he had not fled.

In a video message on the second day of the war, as Russian forces were closing in on Kyiv, he stood in front of the presidential office flanked by his advisers. “We are here,” he said. “We are in Kyiv. We are protecting Ukraine.”

Some addresses are short and simple. Looking exhausted late at night, he once pointed his cellphone camera at a picture of his family to show what he was fighting for. Others are highly produced affairs, drawing on his background in show business, as an actor. His first address to the U.S. Congress, delivered via video, drove home his appeal for weaponry by cutting to scenes of Ukrainian cities bombarded by Russian rockets and artillery.

Most messages are delivered from behind his desk in Kyiv, dressed in a green T-shirt or fleece. He calls attention to atrocities, thanks supporters and cajoles allies for aid.

Before the war, Mr. Zelensky was criticized for appointing colleagues from the entertainment industry to top positions in his government — including Andriy Yermak, a movie producer who is now his chief of staff, and Mr. Yermak’s deputy, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, a director of a video production company. But producing powerful messages, especially over video, has become one of Mr. Zelensky’s strengths.

Mr. Zelensky has benefited from the firm political control he enjoys in Ukraine. He received a strong electoral mandate from the 2019 presidential elections followed by parliamentary elections later in the year when his party, Servant of the People, won a majority.

The electoral successes before the war tamped down years of back-stabbing politics between presidents and Parliament that had plagued Ukraine since independence in 1991, allowing Mr. Zelensky to appoint a cohesive team, which he now works with behind the scenes.

In speaking to foreign leaders and groups, Mr. Zelensky has shown a knack for tailoring his message to his audience.

In a videotaped message to Congress in March, for example, he invoked the attacks on Pearl Harbor and on Sept. 11, 2001, to urge the United States to help Ukraine defend democracy. The video clips of Russian destruction moved some lawmakers to tears.

He quoted Shakespeare and Winston Churchill in a speech to Britain’s Parliament. To French lawmakers, he recalled Verdun, where France’s army repelled a devastating, monthslong assault by Germany during World War I.

And in a surprise, prerecorded message played at the Grammy Awards in April, he said to the recording industry’s elite: “What is more opposite to music? The silence of ruined cities and killed people.”

Before the war, millions of people tuned into Mr. Zelensky’s New Year’s Eve speeches, listening as he summed up of the year and offered some portrayal of what to expect in the year ahead. It was often delivered with humor.

Polling in 2020, for example, showed about 70 percent of Ukrainians watched Mr. Zelensky speak. In an address that year, he began what seemed a standard speech — talking into the camera in a wooden tone for a few seconds — before stopping. “Boring?” he asked.

The camera panned back revealing children in the studio with him, yawning in mock boredom. He then sat with the children and described the country’s challenges and goals in simple terms.

A year ago, as Russian forces gathered near Ukraine’s border and the threat of invasion loomed, Mr. Zelensky had soldiers among his guests, signaling the threat of war.

He also helped set the tone for Ukraine’s response. “No army on the other side of the border scares us,” he told Ukrainians. “A great army protects us on our side.”

Andrew E. Kramer is a reporter covering the countries of the former Soviet Union. He was part of a team that won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting for a series on Russia’s covert projection of power.

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