With Leadership and Speaking Skills, Zelensky Shapes Narrative of the War

KYIV, Ukraine — The history of most wars is written by the victor after the fact. But Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has created his own sequencing: a story line of the war against Russia in real time that is intended to rally his people, and the Western world.

Mr. Zelensky has maintained a running narrative throughout the 10-month conflict — telling Ukrainians in nightly video addresses how they should view the battles, justify their hardships and believe in the country’s ultimate success.

He is scheduled to address the nation again on Saturday night in a traditional New Year’s Eve speech, when Mr. Zelensky sums up the year and offers predictions for what lies ahead. It is another opportunity for him to depict the war in a way that rallies his fellow countrymen behind the army.

Mr. Zelensky has also drawn praise for conveying Ukraine’s positions, often in passionate and eloquent language, in speeches by video link to foreign audiences, as he pleads for sustained military and financial support. Most recently, he made his first trip out of Ukraine since the war started to meet with President Biden and deliver a high-profile prime-time address to the U.S. Congress.

His arguments emphasize recurring themes: The Russian government is a terrorist state and will repeatedly attack Europe if not stopped now. Military support for Ukraine is the only solution, and Ukrainians are filled with pride and patriotism.

Mr. Zelensky shaking hands with Speaker Nancy Pelosi in December after addressing a joint session of Congress. He often tailors his speeches to fit his audience.Credit…Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

“Zelensky could hardly have done more, or done anything more effective, to get his country’s message across,” the journalist James Fallows wrote in a post on Substack, the blogging platform, after the Ukrainian president’s speech to a joint session of Congress.

At home, Mr. Zelensky has broadcast on television and has posted video addresses on social media nearly every night of the war. In recent months, he has defiantly declared to Russian leadership that Ukrainian resistance to Moscow’s goal of occupation would not dissipate.

He articulated this resolve in the fall, when Moscow began striking civilian infrastructure — a strategy on display this week when Russia unleashed a wave of missile and drone attacks, including explosions on Saturday in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital.

In comments in September that were aimed at the Russian leadership, Mr. Zelensky asked then, “Without light or without you?” making clear that Ukrainians would choose the hardships of war over Russian occupation and the brutality that has accompanied it.

“Without you,” he declared to Russia.

The line resonated. In dozens of interviews across the country as cities darkened and homes grew cold, Ukrainians repeated the message, sometimes word for word.

On the dark streets of Kyiv one recent night, Oleh Moor paused to admire a Christmas tree illuminated by a generator, an adaptation made in the face of electrical blackouts caused by months of Russian missile strikes.

Mr. Zelensky has used his addresses to Ukraine as a way to show the country’s resolve in its fight against Russia.Credit…Laura Boushnak for The New York Times

“Maybe there is no music and there are no concerts” this holiday season, said Mr. Moor, a cook on his way home from work who had joined a small crowd around the tree. “But we continue living.”

Mr. Zelensky’s reassuring messages began on the first day of the invasion in February when he posted a selfie video of himself on the streets of Kyiv, to show he had not fled.

In a video message on the second day of the war, as Russian forces were closing in on Kyiv, he stood in front of the presidential office flanked by his advisers. “We are here,” he said. “We are in Kyiv. We are protecting Ukraine.”

Some addresses are short and simple. Looking exhausted late at night, he once pointed his cellphone camera at a picture of his family to show what he was fighting for. Others are highly produced affairs, drawing on his background in show business, as an actor. His first address to the U.S. Congress, delivered via video, drove home his appeal for weaponry by cutting to scenes of Ukrainian cities bombarded by Russian rockets and artillery.

Most messages are delivered from behind his desk in Kyiv, dressed in a green T-shirt or fleece. He rallies Ukrainians, calls attention to atrocities, thanks supporters and cajoles allies for aid.

Before the war, Mr. Zelensky was criticized for appointing colleagues from the entertainment industry to top positions in his government — including Andriy Yermak, a movie producer who is now his chief of staff, and Mr. Yermak’s deputy, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, a director of a video production company. But producing powerful messages, especially over video, has become one of Mr. Zelensky’s strengths.

As president, Mr. Zelensky oversees the army with direct power over military commanders. Aides say his day begins with a conference call with generals and the chiefs of his intelligence agencies. He presides over meetings of the National Security and Defense Council and cabinet.

Ukrainian soldiers firing a self-propelled howitzer at a Russian target in June in the Donetsk region. Mr. Zelensky frequently uses his speeches to plead for continued military and financial support.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

He entered the war with firm political control in Ukraine, after a strong electoral mandate from the 2019 presidential elections followed by parliamentary elections later in the year when his party, Servant of the People, won a majority.

The electoral successes before the war tamped down years of back-stabbing politics between presidents and Parliament that had plagued Ukraine since independence, allowing Mr. Zelensky to appoint a cohesive team, which he now works with behind the scenes.

The public appearances, though, have been the hallmark of his leadership.

In speaking to foreign leaders and groups, Mr. Zelensky has shown a knack for tailoring his message to his audience, a tactic that has often helped his addresses resonate even over a video link.

In a videotaped message to Congress in March, for example, he invoked the attacks on Pearl Harbor and on Sept. 11, 2001, to urge the United States to help Ukraine defend democracy. The video clips of Russian destruction moved some lawmakers to tears.

He quoted Shakespeare and Winston Churchill in a speech to Britain’s Parliament. To French lawmakers, he recalled Verdun, where France’s Army repelled a devastating monthslong assault by Germany during World War I.

And in a surprise, prerecorded message played at the Grammy Awards in April, he said to the recording industry’s elite: “What is more opposite to music? The silence of ruined cities and killed people.”

Public appearances have become the hallmark of Mr. Zelensky’s leadership since the war began in late February. Above, T-shirts, including one featuring him, on sale in Kyiv in November.Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

Before the war, millions of people tuned into Mr. Zelensky’s New Year’s Eve speeches, listening as he summed up of the year and offered some portrayal of what to expect in the year ahead. It was often delivered with humor.

The electric moment before midnight on New Year’s gave the speech a special significance.

Polling in 2020, for example, showed about 70 percent of Ukrainians watched Mr. Zelensky speak. In an address that year, he began what seemed a standard speech — talking into the camera in a wooden tone for a few seconds — before stopping. “Boring?” he asked.

The camera panned back revealing children in the studio with him, yawning in mock boredom. He then sat with the children and described the country’s challenges and goals in simple terms.

He called doctors treating Covid-19 patients “superheroes.” He said part of his job was “making friends” with countries that could help Ukraine, including Turkey, Poland and the United States.

A year ago, as Russian forces gathered near Ukraine’s border and the threat of invasion loomed, Mr. Zelensky had soldiers among his guests, signaling the threat of war.

He also helped set the tone for Ukraine’s response. “No army on the other side of the border scares us,” he told Ukrainians. “A great army protects us on our side.”

Shashank Bengali contributed reporting from London.

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