Soon after the Russians invaded Ukraine, President Zelensky released a video to the world. Filmed on his mobile phone, it looked as if he could have been anyone else in the 21st century. He was tired and sad, and the skin was red around his eyes. Whatever a strong leader looks like, President Zelensky looked like the opposite.
That feels like a long time ago now. Somehow, the Ukrainians proceeded to launch the greatest PR operation of our times. How many people had heard of Zelensky, a veteran comic actor whose most significant action on the world stage since his electoral triumph in 2019 had been listening to Donald Trump’s ramblings, until a few days ago? How many people even knew there had been fighting in Donbass?
You have to wonder if the Russians, having seen the capitulation of the Afghan government, thought a Western ally would hightail it at the first opportunity. Zelensky, on the other hand, announced that he was staying in Kiev. His speech, addressed to the Russian people, was measured, dignified and eloquent. His little updates from the Kiev streets were mischievous and bold.
A weak country invaded by a powerful aggressor is naturally sympathetic. But the Ukrainian cause projected a uniquely irresistible combination of victimhood and strength. Theirs is not a tale of mere persecution but of underdog resolve.
What happened on Snake Island, for example, remains mysterious. The Ukrainians reported that their soldiers were killed after delivering a “go fuck yourself” to a Russian warship. The Russians claim they are alive. Still, the emerging image of unbreakable defiance, spreading across the vortex of social media, has won hearts and minds across the world.
People who would not be seen dead waving their own flag are saying slava Ukraini
What has been crucial is that people are not just pitying. They are inspired. We have heard relatively few tales of atrocities, because the Russians were attempting to minimise casualties, but also because the Ukrainians have attempted to maximise their triumphs. Did the “Ghost of Kiev” exist? Almost certainly not. But when such urban legends were combined with undeniably tough Ukrainian resistance in cities like Kharkiv, foreign sympathisers were encouraged to think that the Ukrainians, while embattled, had a fighting chance. This has been translated into sanctions on Russia and massive donations of arms and equipment.
No doubt some believe that the Ukrainians are NATO puppets. I am sure Zelensky and his aides have been collaborating with foreign governments and agencies when it comes to military and media operations. Media saturation has no doubt helped as well.
Still, I am not sure Westerners are capable of producing such effective wartime propaganda. It is too macho and too coarse — such as in a popular video in which a Ukrainian soldier, speaking to Russian troops, promises to “absolutely fucking molest you” — and relies on an appeal to the sort of primal nationalism that Westerners have forgotten but are drawn to when it is seen at its most oppressed. People who would not be seen dead waving their own flag are saying slava Ukraini.
A friend pointed out to me how much this brash heroism reflects regional history. Ilya Repin’s famous painting Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks shows gleeful Cossack men composing an obscene response to an Ottoman demand for surrender. (“The devil shits, and your army eats. Thou shalt not, thou son of a whore, make subjects of Christian sons. We have no fear of your army; by land and by sea we will battle with thee. Fuck thy mother”.)
Still, admiring as I am of Ukrainian efforts, I worry about where the war is going. Last week, in an excellent piece about what he called “shitpost diplomacy”, Tanner Greer wrote:
We find it harder and harder to distinguish the actual from the image; we struggle to disentangle perception management from problem management. This is what it looks like when the terminally online ascend to positions of real responsibility.
The Ukrainians have undeniably done a better job of resisting aggression and obtaining international support than most of us believed was possible. Still, the Russians have not taken their gloves off in the manner that they did when invading Chechnya (though Monday’s horrific attack on Kharkiv suggests they could). A lot of their heaviest equipment has been held back.
Western politicians may be participating in the propaganda war
Who knows? Perhaps exhausted and underpaid Russians will stage a mutiny. Anything is possible. But that remains improbable, and what we know for certain is that all-out war on the streets of Kiev is a horrifying prospect. Today, I am visiting a museum dedicated to the Warsaw Uprising, in which Polish men and women bravely, nobly fought the Nazis and were slaughtered by the thousand. God forbid that these horrors descend on Kiev. I hope that military and propaganda success has not made the Ukrainians and their allies too optimistic.
Certainly, our politicians have grown overexcited. From Tobias Ellwood sharing old footage of street fighting as if it were new, to the American Representative Adam Kingzinger hailing a photo of the mythical “Ghost of Kiev” that actually depicted the comedian Sam Hyde, influential men are either thinking with their hearts instead of their heads — or participating in the propaganda war.
Either is irresponsible. Western reactions must be measured and clear. We should not encourage the Ukrainians to fight longer than is in their interests — though, of course, they are free to define their interests for themselves — and above all, we should avoid the path towards open conflict with Russia. They are very much in the wrong, of course, and they deserve to lose, but they also have thousands of nuclear warheads, and a leader who might be cold or mad enough to use one.
We should do our best to imagine a settlement that will be acceptable to Ukraine and to Russia. God knows this is easier to say than to do. Having fought so hard against invasion from the East, Ukrainians are unlikely to accept neutrality. It is just as hard to imagine the Russians, with or without Putin, accepting Ukrainian accession to the EU or NATO. But the consequences of further international escalation could be hideous. No PR can make a flattened city look inspiring.
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