The traditional war in Ukraine is also doubled by a genuine PR war, a battle in which the two sides are trying to reach out and win over the public – their own, their enemy’s or international audiences. President Volodymyr Zelensky is one of Ukraine’s top communicators and icons. As part of a campaign Kyiv authorities launched to rally decision-makers and international public opinion to Ukraine’s cause, with a view to securing vital support in order to fend off Russia’s attacks, Zelensky spoke up for Ukraine in front of numerous legislative and international bodies. Each time, the message carried a call for help and a plea to stop Russia. The speeches that conveyed this message were adapted to the specific audiences Zelensky addressed, including references to historical figures and events, as well as shared ideas and values.
The message to British MPs: Ukrainians “will fight until the end”, just like Winston Churchill
On March 8, Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the Parliament of the United Kingdom, calling for continuing the enforcement of sanctions against Russia and the provision of concrete support to Ukraine. The president said Kyiv is fighting the most powerful military force in the world, a message he repeated on a number of occasions.
Political pundits have warned that Zelensky’s speech echoed the speech Winston Churchill read before the House of Commons in June 1940, when the British army was pushed out of France by the Nazis. Zelensky said: “We will continue to fight for our land, at whatever costs, in forests, on fields, on the shores, in the streets.”
The Presidential Administration continued the series of speeches adapted to the symbols and political thinking of every state in order to obtain as much support as possible at international level. Zelensky often invoked political leaders from the past or paraphrased messages with deep historical meaning for European audiences.
In his address to the Bundestag, Zelensky compared Nord Stream 2 with a new Berlin Wall
Addressing the Parliament in Berlin, Volodymyr Zelensky called for additional military support for Ukraine and argued in favor of severing Germany’s trade relations with Russia, a country that attacked Ukraine. The president said Vladimir Putin is building a new wall in Europe. Drawing a comparison to the Berlin Wall, Zelensky said the Nord Stream 2 project – which Ukraine has ardently criticized and which Germany suspended only after Russia invaded Ukraine again in February – was the mortar for the new wall. Zelensky also tried to reawaken Cold War-era sentiments. “I have seen your intention of continuing to do business with Russia. Peace is more important than the money that is to come. Russian forces were on the border a long time before the invasion, but Western leaders acted too late. All that matters to them was the economy”, the Ukrainian president added.
In his speech to the US Congress, Volodymyr Zelensky mentioned Martin Luther King Jr.
Addressing members of the American Congress, Volodymyr Zelensky appealed to values they are bound to. The Kyiv leader said this was not just Russia’s war against Ukraine, but a war against all democratic values and the freedom of a people to decide its own future.
Zelensky also referred to Martin Luther King Jr., starting with “I have a dream”, the famous phrase underlying the 1963 speech delivered by the civil rights activist, and continued with “I have a necessity – the necessity to protect our sky”. The Ukrainian president also brought up the no-fly zone, stating that if this is too much to ask, then Kyiv will need aircraft and air-defense systems.
Courting France with “liberty, equality and fraternity”
“You should know best what liberty, equality and fraternity are all about, and we expect France to convince Russia to end the war”, Volodymyr Zelensky told the French Parliament, invoking the values that underlie the French Republic. The Ukrainian official thus made a new diplomatic effort to convince the West to defend Ukraine and block Russia’s aggression. On the other hand, Zelensky criticized certain French companies that have not yet withdrawn from the Russian market. “Renault, Auchan, Leroy Merlin must stop sponsoring the Russian war machine, must stop financing the murder of women and children and the raping”, Zelensky went on to say.
Zelensky’s message to Italy: Mariupol – a Genoa in ruins
In his address to Italian MPs, Volodymyr Zelensky compared Kyiv to Rome and Mariupol to Genoa. “Mariupol had half a million inhabitants before, almost the same as the city of Genoa in Italy. Now, there is nothing in Mariupol, only ruins. Imagine Genoa completely destroyed after three weeks of blockade and bombings that did not stop for a minute”, Zelensky said, trying to persuade Italian lawmakers to adopt harsher sanctions against Russia and turn up the pressure.
Canada: “Imagine Vancouver under siege”
The parallel between Ukrainian cities under attack or under siege with those in the West was also used in other speeches. In his address to the Canadian Parliament, Ukraine’s president urged Canadians to imagine “someone would siege Vancouver.” “Can you picture the famous CN Tower in Toronto being hit by Russian bombs? Of course, it’s not something I wish to any of you, but this the reality we live in”, Zelensky also said, trying to raise the awareness of Canadian audiences.
Like in the case of other states, the president of Ukraine asked for broader support and more pressure on Russia to end the war.
In the European Council, Volodymyr Zelensky scolded Viktor Orban and reminded him Budapest hosts a Holocaust Memorial
Zelensky also delivered a videoconference speech in the European Council, where he analyzed the support of every state to Ukraine. The president asked Viktor Orban to decide whose side he is on. He recalled a monument in Budapest devoted to the victims of the Holocaust. The monument consists of shoes lined up on the Danube bank, as Hungarian extremists made Jews take off their shoes during WWII before shooting them, so the river would take them further away. “Listen, Viktor, do you know what’s going on Mariupol? Please, if you can, go to your memorial. Look at all those shoes, and you’ll see how mass killings can happen again in today’s word.” Volodymyr Zelensky said he doesn’t understand why Budapest is still hesitating to impose sanctions against Russia, and why it is still hesitating to let defensive weapons transit its territory.
Israel: Ukrainians saved Jews, now it’s time for Jews to save Ukraine
Volodymyr Zelensky also delivered a speech before the Knesset. His request to address the Israeli legislative body was rejected, since Parliament was in recess. Israeli MPs were able to watch Zelensky’s speech in a different room or tune in live to the video feed, which was also broadcast in a public square in Tel Aviv. Zelensky – who was born into a family of Jews that suffered during the Holocaust – again invoked history to secure diplomatic and military support. “Ukrainians made a choice 80 years ago. They saved the Jews. […] Citizens of Israel! Now, you are faced with a similar choice”, Zelensky said, comparing the Holocaust to the crimes in Ukraine right now – a move that was ill received by the Israeli far right.
Australia: let us put an end to nuclear warfare
Addressing Australian politicians, Zelensky said the two countries are separated by hundreds of thousands of kilometers, but despite that, “no one can claim any part of this world is safe from radiation pollution if nuclear weapons are used. A country that uses nuclear blackmail should receive sanctions that should demonstrate such blackmail has devastating consequences to the blackmailer.”
Whereas in the case of European countries Volodymyr Zelensky favored historical references, in the case of more geographically remote countries the president focused on comparisons with cities in Ukraine, or discussed global issues that might be generated by a nuclear war or disrupting world order, which would open a Pandora’s box.
The Ukrainian who freed Norway
Addressing Norwegian members of Parliament, Zelensky called for support for Ukrainian defenders and for support for anti-Russian sanctions. He recalled that, 77 years ago, it was an Ukrainian who first entered the city of Kirkenes, that was freshly liberated from Nazi occupation, Fedir Kompaniyets, who at the time was fighting for the Soviet army. Therefore, Zelensky suggested the liberation of Norway was accomplished with support from Ukraine, and right now Ukraine is expecting Oslo to do the same. The website of the Ukrainian presidency has published the transcripts of every speech delivered before scores of parliaments and international organizations, steeped in symbolism and using forced, often illogical comparisons, yet all united by a clear purpose – to put a stop to Russia’s acts of aggression.
The success of Zelensky’s PR campaign is owed to his staff, but also draws on his experience as an actor
In fact, there’s a whole team working on Zelensky’s speeches. Some of its members have been schooled abroad, whereas others have a vast experience working in cinematography, television and acting. The activity of this team is coordinated by Serhiy Shefir, currently Zelensky’s presidential adviser, a former film director, script writer and producer at Studio Kvartal-95, which Zelensky founded before becoming president.
Moreover, Volodymyr Zelensky’s addresses are also discussed with Andriy Yermak, the head of the Ukrainian Presidential Administration, who has a law degree and owns a number of consultancy companies that worked with important national TV stations. Zelensky has mobilized the teams he used to work with, tasking them with writing political speeches in times of war. Equally helpful to him in choosing the right tone for conveying these messages is his experience as an actor. Every speech is designed to mobilize the international community against Russia’s military actions, and to obtain a broader support for Ukraine’s defensive efforts.
One of the authors of Zelensky’s addresses is Yuri Kostyuk, an ethnic from the Zakarpattia Oblast in Western Ukraine. 35-year-old Kostyuk is known in Ukraine primarily as the script writer for “Servant of the People”, a TV series where Volodymyr Zelensky played the leading role as Ukraine’s president. A year ago, Yuri Kostyuk explained how Zelensky’s speeches are written.
He said that Zelensky himself pitches in, along with Serhiy Shefir, the president’s adviser, Andriy Yermak, the head of the Presidential Administration, Kyrylo Timoshenko, the deputy head of the Presidential Administration, and Mykhailo Podoliak, an anti-crisis adviser to the President’s Office. Most are young people with successful careers in the media, cinematography, television of political consultancy. Mykhailo Podoliak has worked with a number of politicians before Zelensky, whereas Kyrylo Tymoshenko was part of the PR staff of a number of MPs. Tymoshenko also studied the work of his US peers in the field of advertising and scooped the Omni Award for a video about Ukraine.
This is a team made up of journalists and political advisers. There are also many other specialists unknown to the public. Yuri Kostyuk told the Ukrainian media that there is a Department for International Communication tasked with adapting speeches once they are drafted by the staff of presidential advisers.
Therefore, the success of Zelensky’s speeches is owed, in part, to a team effort, whereas on the other hand it draws on the president’s talent, who has a vast experience in public speaking. On behalf of the whole Ukraine, Zelensky calls for support against the Russian invasion, each time informing the international community that a global catastrophe (a much bigger war, a nuclear war, a global humanitarian crisis) can still be averted.