Snakes, Tractors, and Comedians On Edge – Ukraine’s Wartime Comms Campaign6 min read
On 23 June, the EU granted Ukraine candidate country status, less than four months after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy submitted his country’s membership application, which in turn he did only four days after the start of the Russian invasion. At the time no one could be sure whether Ukraine would survive as an independent country for much longer. It did, however, thanks to several key elements. First, the competence and bravery of its soldiers. Second, the relentless defiance of its citizens. Third, the most astonishing wartime communications campaign which rallied the world behind Ukraine’s cause.
Zelenskyy has not had an even remotely traditional path towards becoming the President of Ukraine. Yet even if he had been groomed for leadership his whole life, he would have never been prepared for leading his country’s defence against a full-scale invasion. When the war started, Zelenskyy needed not only to inspire his own nation to continue the at first seemingly hopeless fight, he also had to convince the world that it should actually care about Ukraine and provide it with material support needed to defeat Russia. He chose to fight for weapons with his words.
Starting with his powerful intervention at the Munich Security Conference, and his emotional plea to the Russian people on the eve of the invasion, Zelenskyy has mastered the art of delivering speeches which combine informative content, emotions and inspiration. His past career as an actor, frequently mocked before the war, turned out to be a remarkable asset in this regard. He speaks confidently and convincingly, he knows how to adjust the tone of his voice and his facial expressions. What he says is not acting – it is a combination of genuine feelings combined with professional knowledge of how to express them.
Zelenskyy’s speeches are meticulously tailored to every audience he speaks to, and they are meant to shock and shame those who are not doing enough to help Ukraine. Since 24 February, Zelenskyy has had no time to spare and both everything and nothing to lose. He could thus allow himself to abandon political correctness and polite diplomatic advances. The best example of this has been his speeches to over 30 national parliaments – an unprecedented online round-the-world trip aimed at ramping up support for Ukraine.
The German parliament heard about a new wall between freedom and slavery being erected in Europe. The MPs were reminded of how the Berlin Airlift was possible because “the sky was safe”, and they were shamed for caring about their economy more than about anything else. In front of the French parliament, Zelenskyy compared Mariupol to Verdun and underlined French leadership in contact with Russia over the past years. However, he also shamed major French companies still active in the Russian market. A lucky few avoided criticisms. Polish MPs were addressed as “brothers and sisters”, Zelenskyy recalled late president Lech Kaczyński’s visit to Georgia during the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, and Pope John Paul II naturally found his way into the speech as well.
Perhaps the most remarkable example of Zelenskyy’s communications campaign was his untamed speech to the European Council in March. In it, he addressed every one of the EU’s 27 Member States, summarising Ukraine’s sentiments towards them in but four or five words. He then spent an entire paragraph slamming Hungary, whose PM Victor Orbán was, and still seems to be, unsure about his actual stance on the war.
Whichever arguments Zelenskyy chose, the main message remained the same – give us weapons so that we can defend ourselves and the rest of Europe against Russia. Slowly, but surely, inspired by his words and the valiant defence efforts of the Ukrainian army, Ukraine’s allies started to answer Zelenskyy’s plea.
The legend of Snake Island
Anyone who follows the events in Ukraine will know at least part of the story of this defiant piece of rock which has been consistently standing up to the Russian army. This is not only because of Snake Island’s strategic location in the Black Sea. It is even more so because the Ukrainian authorities have built an entire campaign around it, making it one of the symbols of Ukraine’s resistance.
It all started on the first day of the invasion when the Russian cruiser Moskva approached the island and told the Ukrainian garrison located there to surrender. Their answer? The now-iconic reply “Russian warship, go f*** yourself”. Its author, Roman Hrybov, was subsequently released from Russian captivity in late March and welcomed home like a hero. A few weeks later, the Ukrainian state postal service released a stamp celebrating the legendary standoff. Within days one million stamps were sold and Ukrposhta announced that it would print five million more. In an uncanny coincidence, the Moskva cruiser sank during the same week the stamp was initially released, after getting hit with two Ukrainian-made Neptune missiles – communications heaven in the midst of wartime hell.
As the stamp was becoming a source material for a plethora of other souvenirs, Snake Island itself continued to pose a remarkable challenge to the Russian army, with precise Ukrainian strikes consistently preventing the invader from establishing a stable presence there. The last (so far?) instalment of this epic story has been the recapturing of the island by the Ukrainian forces at the end of June.
How to win on the news front
While Zelenskyy’s speeches and Snake Island constitute major examples of Ukraine’s wartime communications, there is much more that has been done in this domain. The sad truth is that in order to keep your country on the international agenda and remain in the news cycle, you need to constantly provide your audience with either very shocking or very amusing content. Ukraine’s communications campaign has been making the best of both options.
While the authorities have not shied away from publishing dramatic pictures and footage from places such as Bucha, Mariupol or Kramatorsk, they have also searched for humorous material wherever they could find it. They were supported by their own citizens, who eagerly picked up on all possibilities to ridicule the Russian army and bring at least a moment of laughter into each other’s lives. And so our social media filled up with jokes about Ukrainian tractors, Bayraktar drones, and Saint Javelins, contributing towards maintaining the interest and support of the country’s allies as well as millions of ordinary people.
It is unclear, however, how much longer the authorities can work their communications miracles. The longer the war drags on and the more localised it becomes, the higher the risk that we will stop paying as much attention to the atrocities committed by the Russian army, and the media will turn toward other topics. We cannot allow ourselves to do that. The bare minimum each of us can do is care.