The fate of Ukraine will be decided in the near future. We do not know if international pressure will deter Russian forces or if Russian military power will overwhelm Kyiv. But even now, it can be stated that the social-media campaign conducted by Ukraine is one of the most brilliant campaigns orchestrated by countries in recent decades.
The Ukrainians have taken a complex rather than one-sided political situation and managed to sweepingly mobilize public opinion in the West.
Zelensky’s clever use of his social networks managed to defeat a propaganda system that tried to spread fake news pretending that he fled or surrendered and ran away from the battlefield.
Zelensky operated his social networks himself, appeared before the public directly, conveyed the messages personally in his own voice and managed to dispel the fake news.
Russian propaganda would have won if not for Zelensky’s personal digital activity. Thanks to Zelensky’s digital activity, the Ukrainian army and Ukrainian citizens have sided with the President and with Western media.
Public relations and image are not everything. Russia’s military might may be decisive and even win over public opinion. This is a battle of the frontline, but another fight is afoot.
If Ukraine manages to survive, it will only be thanks to the influential campaign. The situation in Eastern Europe is complex. The United States is pushing Ukraine to join NATO. As far as Russian President Vladimir Putin is concerned, it is unacceptable that this anti-Russian military alliance would place American military forces hundreds of miles away from Moscow. Putin had warned repeatedly against this move. Even though this concern does not justify Putin’s actions it has to be taken into account as a relevant geopolitical fact.
Zelensky, maybe because of his background in public relations, comedy and television, made two smart strategic decisions. First, he portrayed Ukraine as the weak side. Once upon a time, being strong was considered an advantage. Today, thanks to social media, power has passed into the hands of the weak. Second, Zelensky did not try to reach a compromise with Putin; instead, he depicted Ukraine as poor and weak.
Zelensky did not mention NATO in his many speeches. Instead, he played on the western sentiment that whoever is weak is deprived, not accepted, and needs help. He quickly managed to convince the West that the complex situation is black and white – in the style of the late Arthur Finkelstein, it is “us” or “them.”
Zelensky’s second decision was to become himself the star of the war. In the West, characters are loved, and Zelensky is deemed a good character. He looks positive, indeed lovable, speaks firmly and confidently, and at eye level, and does not read his messages from papers, as is commonly done by politicians.
Western TV viewers do not see Ukrainian military officers on western television. Ukraine too has an army, and they also employ violence. But we do not see the Ukrainian military at all. It is entirely under the radar. We see only Zelensky and only civilians. The understanding that social networks are not propaganda tools but a tool for direct communication has given Zelensky a 90% approval rating.
Ukraine has added excellent gimmicks. The “hotline” opened for Russian mothers to talk to their captive sons in Ukraine well emphasizes Ukraine’s humanity. It portrays the country as peace-loving, caring also for enemy soldiers, whereas Ukrainian soldiers captured by Russia face an unknown fate. Zelensky’s press conference was also a strategically correct decision. While Putin is portrayed sitting in a golden cage in the Kremlin, Zelensky, who carried his chair with his own hands to the press conference, was surrounded by foreign journalists in a bunker, impressing all with a carefully choreographed and unmediated approach.
Ukraine has a weak army, but social networks are strong.
The West is excited about Ukraine. Zelensky has recognized the means of soft power and emotions in the Western World and is making the best of them to exert pressure and sanctions on Russia. Without it, he would have been very quickly defeated.
The writer is founder of perception.media, a strategic consultant and creative director to world leaders, including former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.