Modern Churchill? Zelensky praised as a military communicator

To the observing world, his message, both in his words and in his resolute, sometimes exhausted form: He stands as a mirror for the suffering and spirit of his people.

It seems to be passing. Just days after the start of the war that engulfed his nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky makes historical comparisons as an effective and exciting wartime communicator – but with a distinctly modern undertone that permeates the sensitivity of live television and the personal feel of social media.

His childish face is now usually plump and paste, with weak beard growth. Suits and shirts were replaced by olive-style military clothing. His hoarse voice betrays exhaustion. Together, they help shape the story of personal courage, of David fighting the mighty Goliath and refusing to leave his homeland safely, embodying his line that he needs “ammunition, not travel.”

For the former TV actor and comedian, who was despised in some corners a few weeks ago as a political novice who was too eager to compromise with Moscow, all this is quite a development.

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“Here’s a guy who was mostly considered light-hearted, not out of his element, about to be crushed by a major superpower next door. And it didn’t happen, “said Andrew J. Polish, professor of political science at Hunter College in New York, author of a book about U.S. wartime presidents. “I think people really expected him to run away … and I think he surprised people by sharing the danger they share.”

This, says Polish, has created a “mutual relationship between the Green and Ukrainian people.” I think they got energy from each other and confidence in each other. It is an impressive achievement in communication for a leader to be so in touch with his people in the midst of a crisis ”.

Winston Churchill, who rallied the British in the darkest days of World War II, often refers to the name of even a biographer of Churchill. One analyst compared Zelensky to Benjamin Franklin and his success in demanding French support for the American Revolution.

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With the help of interviews and video appearances from hidden places Zelensky sought to unite the world on the side of Ukraine. When he said in the European Parliament “we are fighting only for our land and for our freedom”, the translator did not cry.

Speaking at a fundraiser in San Francisco the other day, U.S. First Lady Jill Biden said, “I just have to turn on the TV every morning and pray that Zelensky is still alive.”

Some of Zelensky’s speeches seem to be intended to give this simple confidence. Shortly after the Russian invasion, he was seen in a video that seemed to be from a mobile phone from a dark street in Kiev, with four colleagues with grim faces standing behind.

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

Zelensky’s persistence in staying with his wife and children was a turning point, said Orysia Lutsevich, a researcher and manager of the Forum of Ukraine in Russia and Eurasia at the Chatham House think tank in London. “People saw that he had the courage,” she said.

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Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin looked isolated and distant, speaking to his aides via video conference or the end of an almost absurd stretched-out table, with speeches that, according to Polish, demonstrate a sense of history.

The words of the President of Ukraine predict a mixture of disobedience and escalation of despair, and he does not seem afraid to alienate those whose help he may need. For example, he told NATO officials that they would be responsible for the deaths of civilians if they did not introduce a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

Through these reports, he speaks not only to NATO leaders but also directly to citizens who can put pressure on them to do more, says Kenneth Osgood, a professor of history at the Colorado Mining School and an expert on propaganda and intelligence.

Zelensky’s requests remind one analyst of Benjamin Franklin’s trip to France in 1776 to gain French support for the American Revolution, a trip that ultimately proved to be a milestone in history.

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

According to Jamison, the identity, message and transfer of the Ukrainian leader are mutually reinforcing. “Putting it straight to the camera in close-up is effective social networking – no script, clear, simple and determined.”

Not all of his messages necessarily have the same impact, she notes. Saying “Don’t let them destroy us” is a more effective framework, she says, than “calling the NATO summit weak and confused.”

Jamison says television networks have stepped up the power of Zelensky’s appeals through powerful visual effects, “translating spectacular images of damaged buildings, mother and child escapes, threatening Russian tanks, empty store shelves and the like.” What’s more, she says, the specter of his demise is always looming: “His increasingly unshaven appearance, body armor in public and repeated reminders to world leaders that this may be the last time they see him alive add to his call for urgency. ”

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

U.S. MP Mike Quigley of Illinois told ABC News that he was taking notes when Zelensky spoke. “Calm,” “heroic,” and “unprecedented” were among the words he wrote. “I don’t think you can sit with human emotions, not get emotional, not be motivated,” Quigley said.

He cited Churchill’s comparison. So did Andrew Roberts, author of the 2018 biography “Churchill: Going with Destiny”: speaking in a podcast of the magazine “Commentary”, he noted both the personal courage of Zelensky and his refusal to cover things up.

Zelensky does not have the same rhetorical skills as Churchill in radio reports when German bombs fell on London, says Osgood, a propaganda expert. “Zelensky is much rougher – like:” This is the story. ” I’ll just give it to you straight. So there’s not the same poetry. But there is the same despair. “

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Indeed, stylistically more formal Churchill and Zelensky could not be more different. But everyone, says Polski, has mastered the media of his era.

“Churchill made good use of the radio as well as the written word,” he says. He and others argue that his non-standard statements, when there is no time to prepare a long speech, add to the true nature of his speeches, he and others say, and respond to the younger generation.

Few people in Ukraine saw Zelensky as a great leader before the war, Lutsevich said at the Ukrainian Forum in London. But now he has become the voice of the nation.

“He has personal qualities, especially sensitive to your environment, being able to play different roles, being sensitive to your audience,” she says. “He is very sympathetic as a leader.”

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Correspondent Barry Hutton in Lisbon, Portugal, contributed to this report. David Bowder is a media author for . Jocelyn Novek is a native writer of the AP.

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