Zelensky is PR Man of the Year
Zelensky emerges a master messenger who expertly deploys the foundational elements of plot and character
Volodymyr Zelensky emerges from this week’s riveting visit to Washington, and indeed from the year, as a master messenger who expertly deploys the foundational elements of plot and character.
Ukraine’s president never strays from the message of good versus evil, David versus Goliath and democrat versus despot. With a straight face and a gruff voice, ignoring the stunning fact that he’s a Jew leading a country with a major anti-Semitic past, he never betrays that he is acting out a role. He subtly challenges us to admit: we’re all acting out a role, and it may not even matter.
He took a risk of sorts (though Ukraine is risky as well) in travelling halfway across the world with Russia potentially aiming at his head. Was it worth it? Strictly speaking, almost no non-personal travel is worth it. All talking can be done remotely. But theatrics cannot; they are the exception. And the theatrics were masterful to be sure.
Even while meeting President Biden at the Oval Office, and also in the U.S. Congress where he addressed a joint session, Zelensky stuck to his costume: fatigues and hard boots. That aligned with his positioning as a man at war. In its brazenness the costume also supported the narrative of hard-boiled honesty — as Zelensky admitted that while he certainly asks for much ($100b and counting in 2022), it’s actually not enough and soon enough he’ll ask for more.
The only new messaging wrinkle on the trip was surely calculated as well: unlike on the recent Netflix David Letterman interview from Kyiv, during the visit he spoke in English. Heavily accented, doubtlessly scripted, and surprisingly plausible English. That concession aimed to symbolize the special gratitude he rightly feels for the United States, by far the main supporter of the scrappy fight waged by Ukraine.
It is brilliant PR, but of the best sort: the sort that feels genuine and true.
That this is a person who a few years ago was Dancing with the Stars – and more recently played a non-politician who bumbles into the presidency in a TV comedy – makes him one of the most absurdly remarkable figures in history. So extreme is the Zelensky story that his role in the impeachment of Donald Trump is almost forgotten.
The result of his cleverly stage-managed leadership is that Ukraine may actually see off the Russian invader – still just perhaps, and either way just barely. But if so, Ukraine will emerge – after rebuilding from this catastrophe – with advantages.
The Ukrainians enjoy a global coalition behind them, which is almost as effective as if they were a NATO member already (Article V does not stipulate precisely what actions are triggered if a member state’s attacked). It will also probably face a far easier path than anticipated to membership in the European Union. This means that in the future, Ukraine will be a free country of at least medium-level prosperity.
For all this, Zelensky has attained a rare form of global hero status last experienced by Nelson Mandela.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin has bested Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro in the race for loser of the year. Never a democrat but still a leader once admired by some, he will be remembered by posterity as a butcher. Putin bet the farm for no good reason, and lost. The only way he’s going to win this war is through a level of barbarism that cannot constitute true victory. And Russia will probably wallow in poverty for a generation or more.
I suspect Zelensky will face pressure soon to sue for peace. In the end, Putin may indeed make the world’s largest country a little bit bigger, but he has wasted his legacy and robbed Russia of any semblance of democracy.
Yet we should understand what remains at stake.
There is a terrible choice facing the US and the West. You won’t get far as a global superpower never calling the bluff of bullies. But calling Putin’s bluff on the use of nuclear weapons and losing carries consequences devastating to the world. The irony is that many of the same people insisting that Putin isn’t mad are also arguing that it was madness to attack Ukraine.
All this reinforces the value of nuclear weapons for countries like Iran who seek them — and for potential bullies of the future like China, who have them. That’s because it is clear that to a considerable degree everyone’s hands are tied because of Russia’s nukes. The US may receive Zelensky with fanfare and may fork over Patriot missiles and huge amounts of aid – but at the end of the day, Biden’s hands are tied.
Understanding this should remind us that we are witnessing a major tragedy with consequences beyond Ukraine. For being the brilliant messenger of this critical message, Zelensky merits this coveted accolade.