A modern Churchill? Zelenskyj praised as a war communicator

His message to an observing world is, both in his words and in his resolute, sometimes sunken, appearance: he stands as a mirror to the suffering and spirit of his people.

It seems to be catching on. Just days into the war that is engulfing his nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is drawing historical comparisons as an effective and compelling war communicator – yet with a distinctly modern twist, that of the sensibility of live television and the personal sensibility of social media being affected.

His baby-faced complexion is usually puffy and doughy now, with a sparse growth of beard. Suits and shirts were replaced by military-style olive drab robes. His hoarse voice betrays exhaustion. Together these form a tale of personal courage, of David fighting the mighty Goliath and refusing to leave his homeland safely – embodied by his line that he needed “ammunition, not a ride”.

Quite a development for a former TV actor and comedian who, weeks ago, was in some quarters scorned as a political neophyte too willing to 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 science at Hunter College in New York and author of a book on US presidents at war. “I think people really expected him to flee … and I think he surprised people by sharing the danger they shared.”

This, according to Polsky, “created a two-way relationship between Zelenskyi and the Ukrainian people. I think they got energy and trust from each other. It’s an impressive communication feat for a leader to stay in close contact with people in the middle of a crisis.”

Winston Churchill, who rallied the British around him in the darkest days of World War II, is a name that comes up frequently – even by Churchill’s biographers. One analyst compared Zelenskyy to Benjamin Franklin and his success in wooing France to support the American Revolution.


Through video-linked interviews and appearances from hidden locations, Zelenskyy has tried to lure the world to Ukraine’s side. As he told the European Parliament, “We are only fighting for our country and our freedom,” the translator fought not to cry.

At a recent 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 alive.”

Some of Zelenskyj’s performances seem designed to convey this simple certainty. Shortly after Russia’s invasion, what appeared to be cell phone video showed him emerging from a dark street in Kyiv, four grim-faced colleagues behind him.

“We’re all here,” he said. “Our soldiers are here, our country’s citizens are all here to protect our independence and we will continue to do so. Glory to the defenders of Ukraine.”

Zelensky’s insistence on staying with his wife and children was a game changer, says Orysia Lutsevych, research fellow and manager of the Ukraine Forum in the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, a London think tank. “People saw that he had courage,” she says.


Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared aloof and distant, speaking to aides via video conference or at the end of an almost absurdly elongated table, with speeches that Polsky says show a self-created sense of history.

The Ukrainian president’s words reflect a mixture of defiance and escalating desperation, and he seems unafraid to alienate those whose help he may need. For example, he told NATO officials that if they didn’t enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine, they would bear responsibility for civilian deaths.

Through these messages, he speaks not only to NATO leaders, but directly to citizens who may be pressuring them to do more, says Kenneth Osgood, a history professor at the Colorado School of Mines and an expert on propaganda and intelligence.

Zelensky’s pleas remind one analyst of Benjamin Franklin’s trip to France in 1776 to enlist French support for the American Revolution – a trip that ultimately proved crucial to the story.


“The British had military superiority,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a political communications specialist and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “Had France not entered the war in 1778, the outcome might have been different.”

The personality, message and mediation of the Ukrainian leader reinforce each other, says Jamieson. “His presentation right in front of the camera in close-up is effective social media – unscripted, clear, direct and full of determination.”

His messages don’t necessarily all have the same impact, she notes. Saying “let’s not root them out” is a more effective framework, she says, than “calling a NATO summit weak and confused.”

According to Jamieson, TV channels have amplified the power of Zelenskyj’s calls with powerful images, “overlaying striking images of damaged buildings, fleeing mothers and children, menacing Russian tanks, empty store shelves and the like.” Beyond that, she says, the specter of his doom always lurks: “His increasingly unshaven appearance, the flak jacket in public, and the repeated reminders to world leaders that this may be the last time they will see him alive lend his.” appeals to immediacy. ”


The same message – it could be the last time they see him alive – was delivered to members of the US Congress via Zoom over the weekend.

US Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois told ABC News that he took notes as Zelenskyi spoke. “Quiet,” “heroic,” and “unprecedented” were among the words he wrote. “I don’t think you can sit with human emotion and not be moved, not motivated,” Quigley said.

He quoted the Churchill comparison. So did Andrew Roberts, author of the 2018 biography Churchill: Walking with Destiny: In a Commentary magazine podcast, he noted both Zelenskyy’s personal bravery and his refusal to sugarcoat things.

Zelenskyy did not have the rhetorical power that Churchill had in radio messages when German bombs fell on London, says propaganda expert Osgood. “Zelenskyy is much more blunt – sort of, ‘Here’s the story. I’ll just give it to you straight.’ So it doesn’t have the same poetry. But there is the same despair.”


Indeed, the more formal Churchill and Zelenskyy could not be more stylistically different. But every man, says Polsky, dominated the media of his day.

“Churchill has made good use of radio, including the written word,” he says. “And Zelenskyy makes great use of the occasional social media. He walks the streets holding up his phone and talking to people.” His offhand remarks, without time to prepare a long speech, add to the authenticity 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, Lutsevych said at the Ukraine Forum in London. Now, however, he has become the voice of the nation.

“He has a personal quality, particularly sensitive to his surroundings, able to play different roles, sensitive to his audience,” she says. “As a manager, he is very empathetic.”


Correspondent Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal contributed to this report. David Bauder is a media writer for The Associated Press. Jocelyn Noveck is an AP national writer.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.

https://www.local10.com/entertainment/2022/03/07/a-modern-churchill-zelenskyy-praised-as-war-communicator/ A modern Churchill? Zelenskyj praised as a war communicator

Justin Scacco

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