On day 50 of Russia’s invasion, Volodymyr Zelenskiy gave his nightly speech to the Ukrainian people. Vladimir Putin had confidently expected to conquer Ukraine in five days, said Zelenskiy, who stood outside his neoclassical administration building in central Kiev. Putin now became “friends with reality,” he added bitingly, praising the bravery and steadfastness of his citizens.
There was a reference to Russia’s flagship Moscow, which Ukraine says dared to sink last Wednesday with two deadly Neptune missiles. The warship has become a meme and symbol of national defiance, ever since Ukrainian soldiers stationed on Snake Island in the Black Sea told it in the first days of the conflict to “go and fuck yourself”.
Zelenskiy avoided the F-word. He praised those who “have shown that Russian ships can” – dramatic pause – “go to the bottom of the sea”. He also paid tribute to the men and women who had driven Russian troops from the north, stopped them in the south and heroically defended Mariupol. As usual, he ended his speech with: “Honor to Ukraine”- Honor to Ukraine.
On the battlefield, Ukraine’s fortunes have been mixed. Russia’s armed units have been forced to withdraw from the Kyiv region after failing to capture the capital. But they have made significant progress along the Sea of Azov, cutting a land corridor from Crimea to separatist-controlled territory in the east, where a Russian offensive is imminent.
On the information front, however, Ukraine has offered a masterclass in messaging. Zelenskiys speaks to his people and his addresses to foreign parliaments around the world have stimulated international support and strengthened morale at home. They have been grippingly seen, an unvarnished real-time video blog from Europe’s bloody front line.
The author of them is a 38-year-old former journalist and political analyst with fewer than 200 followers on Twitter. In an interview conducted via WhatsApp, Dmytro told Lytvyn Observer The ideas behind the speeches were Zelenskiys: “The president always knows what he wants to say and how he wants to say it.”
He added: “In speeches, emotions are most important. And of course, the president is the author of emotions and the logic of words.” Other world leaders “may learn how to do it”. In other words, they can mimic Zelenskiy’s powerful combination of honesty and emotional power.
Lytvyn is part of the president’s inner team. He and his colleagues have lived and worked in Bankova – Ukraine’s equivalent to the White House or Downing Street – since the early days of the invasion. A one-time columnist with Levy Bereg weekly news magazine, named after the left bank of the Dnipro river, Lytvyn was reluctant to say more. “I do not usually comment on this topic,” he said.
Serhiy Leshchenko, another former journalist who became a Zelenskiy adviser during the war, described Lytvyn as a literary and artistic assistant: “He collects the president’s ideas every day. He works as a collector of minds or senses. One day the theme may be the barbarism of Russian soldiers, the next Ukraine’s urgent need for defensive weapons.
Lytvyn has been inside Ukrainian politics for a while. He was a political analyst for the Servant of the People, Zelensky’s political party, and a bitter opponent of Petro Poroshenko, Zelensky’s predecessor as president. A former colleague said Lytvyn’s attack on the country’s leadership after 2014, after the pro-European Maidan uprising had divided Ukrainian society. “I’m not a fan. But he’s smart,” the colleague added.
Lytvyn wrote on Facebook at the beginning of the war and made several wise points about Putin. “His imagination is bad, so he always reflects something … We have to understand that objective reality does not control Putin. The sanctions of the West will not affect him. He seeks isolation.” Putin’s irreconcilable goal was to change the “political reality” of the state and Ukraine, he wrote.
Lytvyn’s method certainly works. Opinion polls show that 95% of Ukrainians believe that their country can repel Russia’s invasion, despite Kyiv’s inferiority in terms of tanks, troops and aviation. And 78% believe that Ukraine is moving in the right direction. Zelensky’s personal viewership, which was depressed in early February, has risen.
Orysia Lutsevych, head of Ukraine’s forum at foreign policy think tank Chatham House, said Zelensky’s previous career as an actress and comedian was the key to his success. Viewers were accustomed to seeing him in various roles on television and could therefore accept him as “commander-in-chief in a T-shirt” – a feat evading more conventional politicians.
“They know he can transform. He’s like metamorphosis Zelenskiy,” she said. “He is a modern statesman who came from entertainment. He is in his element. People around him understand the power of storytelling during a war. Following Bucha’s horrors, it’s important to have an enchanting story. The sinking of the Moscow is a powerful symbol. “
Lutsevych said Zelenskiy and his co-authors had created a sense of “historical mission” that linked Ukraine’s current struggle with previous battles against Moscow. They were also well versed in pop culture and presented the war as “light versus dark”. In this Lord of the Ringsdrama, Russian soldiers were “orcs” and Putin an invisible Sauron.
Many of Zelensky’s senior advisers come from television and worked with him on Quarter-95, his production studio. Their attempt to win global support is aided by the clear nature of Russia’s invasion. Ukraine is the victim. It fights for survival. This makes Zelenskiy the leader of what political scientist Ivan Krastev calls a “romantic constellation”.
Zelenskiy feels good in front of a camera, whether he is talking into his iPhone or addressing citizens from his bunker. When he was elected in 2019, he had few concrete political ideas. He tried to differentiate himself from his predecessors by holding long press conferences. These days, his interactions are faster. Lutsevych said his daily speeches “sound good”.
They are also impeccably tailored to specific audiences. When he addressed the House of Commons on day 13 of the invasion, Zelenskiy compared Ukraine’s fight against Russia to Britain’s fight against Hitler. “We will fight to the last, at sea, in the air. We will continue to fight for our country, no matter what it costs… We will fight in the forests, in the fields, on the coasts, in the streets.”
For the British, Zelenskiy thus invoked Churchill. For the Greek parliament, it was Mariupol – home to many ethnic Greeks – and for the Finns, Molotov cocktails, hurled at Soviet invaders. In a speech to Australians, Zelenskiy quoted MH17, the Malaysian Airlines plane shot down by Russia in 2014. In a talk with the US Congress, he compared the bombing of Ukraine with Pearl Harbor and 9/11.
Zelenskiy matches this high rhetoric with concrete desires. He has called for Ukraine to be handed over anti-aircraft systems, MiG fighters, tanks and armored vehicles. He wants further sanctions against Moscow, including a complete oil embargo. At times, he can reprimand. Last week, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was told not to visit Kiev because of his close ties to Russia.
Ihor Todorov, a professor of international relations at Uzhhorod University in western Ukraine, said Zelenskiy could be emotional and undiplomatic. His early presidency was often similar The people serve, the hit Ukrainian TV sitcom in which Zelenskiy played a history teacher who accidentally becomes president. The war transformed Zelenskiy, as it did Stalin in 1941, he said.
“Zelenskiy has responded well to the situation,” he said. “Many people who did not vote for him two years ago recognize this.” He added that the president’s wife, Olena, had a lot to do with the passionate tone of his speeches, and that other people were also involved, including Yuri Kostyuk, one of the screenwriters at The people serve.
So is Zelenskiy Ukraine’s response to Churchill? No, Tordorov said: “Comparing Zelenskiy to the Winston cult is too much.” Lutsevych agreed. “Churchill was much more charismatic and ego-driven,” she said. “But Zelenskiy is pretty effective.”