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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Ukraine’s President Zelensky Is Winning the Narrative Campaign

Filed under: Russia

Ukraine’s President Zelensky Is Winning the Narrative Campaign
Kyiv Metro, converted into an air raid shelter after Russian invasion, February 26, 2022 (Kiev City Council, Wikimedia)

The war between Russia and Ukraine, which has already radically changed the world order, is multidimensional. First, it has a military dimension, in which Ukraine, with limited Western assistance, mainly in the realm of intelligence, tries to make the most of the natural advantages that being the defending side in a conventional war inevitably confer. Ukraine strives to exact a high toll on the Russian military and prolong the fighting. At the same time, the Russians try to make the most of their superiority in the scope of their forces, the quality of their armaments, the crushing force deployed, the fact that they took the initiative, and their supposed ability to achieve their military objectives quickly.

The conflict also has an intelligence dimension, with a strategic layer (involving familiarity with the other side’s war objectives and strategy) and an operational/tactical one (which involves locating the other side’s forces and resources). In addition, this war, much more than previous ones, has a dimension of cyber and psychological warfare, which involves generating influence by issuing real and false information and cyberattacks to impair the enemy’s ability and readiness to act.

The Russians have developed an entire doctrine in this context, bearing the name of Chief of Staff Valery Vasilyevich Gerasimov, and they are implementing it in the campaign. (For those seeking to deepen their knowledge, I recommend “Cognitive Campaign” of Intelligence in Theory and in Practice of the Institute for the Study of the Methodology of Intelligence and the Institute for National Security Studies, issue 4 1.) Furthermore, this war has a significant political-security dimension, centering on the question of its long-term consequences for the balance of power between the liberal West (of which Israel is a part), and the West’s autocratic adversaries (Russia, China, and their proxies) and ideological enemies (radical Islam, especially Iran, as well as the ideological left and the far right in the West). Finally, the war has a critical economic dimension predicated on the mutual economic dependence between Russia and the West and the West’s sanctions on Russia. All of these dimensions have been discussed extensively by pundits and commentators in recent days, and it is too early to determine who will gain the upper hand in each of these issues in the short, medium, and long term.

The Campaign for the Narrative. What History Will Say

What can be said is that the results of the conflict will have a significant influence on still another dimension that is of crucial importance at this stage, namely, the campaign for the narrative. What is the story that each person or group of people tell themselves about what is happening, about themselves in the framework of the event, and about the other factors involved in it? It seems that the person who best understands the importance of the matter is the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. Even if he may soon be defeated and perhaps even lose his life, he has succeeded through personal example, determined and exhilarating messages, and leveraging the heroic conduct and sacrifice of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers, alongside the injuries and losses inflicted on Russian forces.

Zelensky visit troops
Ukraine’s President Zelensky visit troops in December 2021. (Presidential Office)

Zelensky has created a Ukrainian narrative of struggle, sacrifice, and pride, which likely will remain his legacy in the Ukrainian national ethos. Such a legacy can inspire resistance to the Russian occupier over time. Suppose Zelensky succeeds, against the odds, to survive at the top of the Ukrainian pyramid by the end of the campaign. In that case, he can then leverage the narrative to position Ukraine and himself as an example of fighting for freedom and present Ukraine as a role model for other nationalities, especially in Russia’s environment and perhaps even within Russia. Therefore, it is clear, in the campaign for the narrative, how great a danger Zelensky’s moves constitute in Putin’s eyes.

The other campaign elements are geared toward producing an immersive and exciting narrative. President Putin is obviously convinced of the justification of his effort to prevent NATO from continuing to expand toward Russia’s borders, and he is managing to create an effect of threat and intimidation toward his neighbors in the West and to position Russia as a superpower. But within Russia itself, Putin finds it difficult to mobilize popular support and identification with his modes of activity, let alone enthusiasm.

In Ukraine, he is currently unable to prop up a credible local figure who could lead a pro-Russian regime once the country’s takeover is completed. Even the Russian soldiers appear to be forcing themselves to fight and lack a fighting spirit. Economic sanctions, civil disobedience, and perhaps even ongoing guerrilla warfare are in the Russian background. In a clumsy attempt to improve their situation, the Russians tried to claim that they had halted their progress to enable negotiations, provided that Ukraine agreed to maintain neutrality and disarm. They claim they are also trying to avoid massive civilian casualties and severe damage to civilian infrastructure. These claims are inaccurate.

Apartment block in Kharkiv
Apartment block in Kharkiv, February 26, 2022. (State Emergency Service of Ukraine)

President Biden is also struggling to craft a sympathetic narrative for his American constituents. However, various actions by Biden have only managed to fashion a feckless narrative of avoidance of conflict, weakness, and indecision. These actions include Biden’s proposing to help Zelensky escape Ukraine, making the threat of rising fuel prices for Americans a central concern, showing laxity on sanctions (e.g., on the Swift issue), vowing not to act militarily, and demonstrating a willingness to continue cooperating with the Russians on the Iranian nuclear issue.

The public in the West sympathizes with Zelensky and is hostile to Putin. Only when it became clear that Zelensky had survived the first stage of the war and gained popularity, and that the Russian army was not rapidly winning did the West show greater resolve, adopt harsher sanctions, begin sending more military supplies to the Ukrainians, and strengthened its own military posture in NATO countries that neighbor the conflict.

Although the immediate significance of the narrative campaign for the outcome of the conflict may be limited, over time, this campaign may take on historical importance. On the one hand, it will create an effect of fear and deterrence in Europe, and especially in the east vis-à-vis Russia’s aggression and power, but on the other hand, Russia will have to deal over time with hostility from Europe and the liberal West, with the consequences of sanctions and with the increase of national sentiment in East European countries. The Soviet Union overcame the rebellions in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968), but the then-assimilated narrative continued to sputter and eventually led to the collapse, independence, and westward orientation of what had been the components of the Communist bloc.

Disabled Soviet ISU-152 assault guns in Budapest
Disabled Soviet assault guns in Budapest with an abandoned tank in the background. (Fortepan/Nagy Gyula)

For Israel, the conclusions are clear. Rallying around the Zionist narrative is more vital than ever. There is also a growing recognition that, given the narrative presented by the West, Israel must rely only on itself to secure its vital security interests. It must also ensure that the weakness of the West does not translate into a willingness to accept Iran’s demands for a nuclear agreement. With that in mind, Israel must keep territories vital to its security, such as the Jordan Valley, critical parts of Judea and Samaria, and the Golan Heights, under its control and not trade them for pieces of paper such as the Budapest Memorandum (in which the United States and the UK provided security assurances to Ukraine in exchange for giving up its nuclear arsenal). Israel must also increase and improve its capability to fight conventional wars. It should mount a diplomatic campaign to convince the U.S. administration to pressure Iran as it is now pressuring Russia, coercing it to stop its military nuclear program instead of promoting a deal that will give the radical Islamic regime a safe path to a large nuclear arsenal in less than 10 years.

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