Ukraine has so many nightmares to contend with, but here’s one more: that Ukraine becomes Bosnia. By Bosnia I don’t mean the country itself so much as the war of a quarter-century ago and the way that conflict came to be seen from afar. For much of the 1990s, war in the Balkans was background noise, even to those who were just an hour or two’s flight away.
Every now and then an especially horrible episode might propel it to the top of the news; otherwise, Bosnia was a permanent fixture on the inside pages and halfway through the TV bulletin. Bridget Jones confessed to her diary that she felt guilty for not talking or thinking about it, but it just slipped out of view. Besides, you knew the war would still be there tomorrow.
That is the danger Volodymyr Zelensky faces now: that his struggle against Russian invasion becomes a long, slow war of attrition and so, with time, the world’s attention starts to wander. The war would go on; it would still be there on page 14. But newer stories would edge it aside. Soon, yellow and blue would be last season’s colors.
Zelensky seems aware of this danger, and if anyone can combat it, it’s him. He’s not merely a politician with a knack for communication. Often missed in descriptions of him as a former entertainer is the fact that he made his fortune as a phenomenally successful producer of television. His core team in the presidential palace is the same group that ran his production company: his speechwriter is a scriptwriter. The Kyiv-born author of This Is Not Propaganda, Peter Pomerantsev, says of the Zelensky inner circle: “They’re all showrunners.”
Note the present tense. There is nothing former about Zelensky and his colleagues’ vocation: they’re still producers now. Indeed, there is scarcely a gap between Zelensky’s two incarnations as politician and performer. His most famous hit show was called Servant of the People; his political party is called Servant of the People.
Zelensky is hardly the first to grasp the tight connection between politics and storytelling. In some ways, he is merely succeeding in doing what Donald Trump longed to do: conducting a presidency like a top-rated TV series, with great visuals, shocking plot twists and plenty of action. Except Trump not only lacked Zelensky’s talent, he had to rely on manufactured drama and imagined enemies. The Ukrainian president is in a bloody war against an enemy who is all too real.
His core team in the presidential palace is the same group that ran his production company: his speechwriter is a scriptwriter.
Of course, the primacy of “comms” long predates Trump and Zelensky. In David Hare’s new play Straight Line Crazy, the urban planner Robert Moses is hailed in the 1920s as “a new kind of man … the man who believes that the way you’re written about is as important as what you do”. But Zelensky has taken it to a new level, not least because he has adapted everything he learned from conventional TV to the idiom of social media.
He understands that in the new era, the war leader does not stand besuited at a podium, declaiming a speech packed with rhetorical flourish. Instead, Zelensky’s message is that he is a servant of the people because he is one of the people, no different from any of them. In his trademark short videos, he wears military olive-green, but it’s not a formal uniform, still less the ceremonial getup of a head of state. He wears exactly what a civilian volunteer would wear.
The locations are chosen just as deliberately. If he’s not at a simple desk in a plain office, he’s just outside the presidential palace, with landmarks Ukrainians would recognise visibly in shot. As David Patrikarakos, whose book, War in 140 Characters, was among the first to identify the changing face of battle in the age of Twitter, tells me: “In those videos, Zelensky is literally the man in the street.” Together with a knack for demotic, unflowery soundbites – “I need ammunition, not a ride” – he has become a master of what Patrikarakos calls “digital statesmanship”. He’s Churchill with an iPhone.
In some ways, he is merely succeeding in doing what Donald Trump longed to do: conducting a presidency like a top-rated TV series.
By comparison Moscow, until recently feared as the master of manipulation by social media, has looked lumbering, slow and old: “There’s Zelensky,” says Patrikarakos, “and then there’s this Botoxed Bond villain who won’t sit at a table with other people. All that’s missing is a trapdoor and a pool of sharks.” (As if to show he has not entirely lost his touch for fueling culture wars in the West, last week Vladimir Putin tried to cast himself as defender of JK Rowling against the Western malaise of “cancel culture” – which would be convincing but for the fact that Rowling is no ally of his, but is instead spending big money protecting vulnerable children in Ukraine.)
And yet, there are limits to Kyiv’s success in the messaging wars. For one thing, while it has made the Ukrainian president a hero in the West, it is not penetrating elsewhere. It was notable that the 35 countries that abstained on this month’s UN resolution condemning Moscow’s invasion account for half the world’s population. Zelensky is a hit in Paris and Berlin; in Beijing and Delhi, not so much.
But the other obstacle is the Bosnia problem, the risk that the longer this goes on, the likelier it is that fatigue and boredom set in. Social media in particular crave novelty. Once the initial shock of footage of bombed-out buildings or distraught victims wears off, Ukraine could recede from the public mind.
Perhaps mindful of that danger, Zelensky has been careful to offer variety. In his rolling series of video link addresses to the world’s parliaments – itself an innovation – he’s careful to tailor his message to his audience. Speaking to Westminster, he channeled Churchill. To Capitol Hill, it was America “the leader of the free world”. To Budapest, he invoked the memory of the Fascist massacre on the banks of the Danube. He is intensifying his language too, shaming Western allies for not doing enough. “Why can’t we get weapons from you?” he asked Israeli lawmakers recently, reminding them they would “have to live with” their decision. Visually, he’s mixing things up: this week saw a montage, complete with voiceover in English. It looked and sounded like a trailer for a Hollywood blockbuster.
But canny messaging and sharp production values take you only so far. Pomerantsev says: “Sympathy is not enough. He has to take people on a journey towards something.” There has to be a concrete goal, besides day-to-day survival: maybe Ukraine’s bid to join the EU. Yana Lyushnevskaya of BBC Monitoring tells me that Zelensky’s great gift as a comedian was his ability to know what his audience “were scared of”: maybe his next move will be to play on global fears of a Russian nuclear, chemical or biological attack. “That would be the most logical thing for him to do.”
In truth, this should not all be on Zelensky and his extraordinary team of TV maestros. Putin’s threat is not just to Ukraine, but to a wider world that has not fully absorbed the menace it now confronts: a dictator ready to obliterate cities in the heart of Europe, his head filled with fantasies of conquest and domination, happy to ward off any challenge by threatening to unleash nuclear havoc. Turning back that danger cannot be left to a small group of creatives in a bunker in Kyiv, no matter how gifted. This is a task for the world.
Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for The Guardian. He is also a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and presents BBC Radio 4’s The Long View