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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke live in Germany’s parliament on Thursday. To ask for help and support against Russia, he quoted the words with which, he says, every year politicians commemorate the victims of the Holocaust: “never again“. Contrary to this wish, he continued, the destruction of a people is now underway in Ukraine. In short, Zelensky tried to stir the consciences of the German parliamentarians with recourse to a particularly heartfelt and persuasive theme such as the extermination of the Jews.
Zelensky used the same strategy, with different references from time to time, in the parliaments of Canada and the United Kingdom, the European Parliament and, yesterday, the American Congress, managing in all these cases to rally his audience against Russia. Zelensky’s speeches are perhaps the clearest example of something that many have noticed in recent days: even if the Ukraine is the weakest side in the war, the besieged and bombed one, it is clearly outclassing Russia in the effectiveness of its communication abroad. Or at least in the West, the interlocutor who interests him right now.
Zelensky’s speeches, which on March 22 will also speak in the Italian Chamber of Deputies, are in a sense a format: on various occasions Zelensky has adapted his main message – in fact a request for help and military support – to the public who at a time he had before, choosing point references and linked to the history and identity of the countries to which it addressed.
In the UK House of Commons he sued the former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the famous English playwright William Shakespeare; to the Canadian Parliament, calling Prime Minister Justin Trudeau by namehe asked the parliamentarians in front of him how they would feel if Russia had besieged Vancouver, bombed the CN Tower, the great telecommunications tower of Toronto, or the playgrounds in which their children played; he also made a very engaging speech at the European Parliament. Addressing hundreds of MEPs he said: “Prove that you are truly European, and then life will win over death, and light will win over darkness.”
The last occasion was yesterday, at the American Congress: Zelensky compared the war in Ukraine to the attacks of theSept. 11 – perhaps the most tragic event in the recent history of the United States – and quoted the well-known phrase of Martin Luther King – «I have a dream»- to ask for the imposition of a” no-fly zone “on Ukraine, a hypothesis that Western countries immediately discarded because it would imply, in fact, entering the war against Russia.
During his speech to the American Congress, Zelensky then projected a very dramatic video, starting from the soundtrack, which showed the progressive fall of Ukraine into war and the tragic nature of the bombings, arousing the emotion of those present.
This video was shown by President @ZelenskyyUa to the US Congress🇺🇸
See the beautiful & free #Ukraine before the war vs the destructions brought to to our lands by the war.
Ruscism & putinism ideology must be banned worldwide, like nazism.#putin= hitler#NoFlyZoneOverUkraine pic.twitter.com/80YU2W9O4y
– Inna Sovsun (@InnaSovsun) March 16, 2022
For their communicative effectiveness and their ability to engage the recipients, Zelensky’s speeches have attracted a lot of attention in these first three weeks of the war: Kathleen Hall Jamieson, communications expert at the University of Pennsylvania, he defined Zelensky’s communication style «visually evocative and very theatrical», explaining that thanks to this he is having great success in making the rest of the world identify with the suffering of the Ukrainian people.
If Russian President Vladimir Putin is working to maximize his internal propaganda machine, including by strengthening censorship, Zelensky is instead investing a lot of energy in communication aimed at foreign countries, in what is in turn a form of propaganda aimed at receive more support and help. “The only audience that Putin really cares about is the one at his home”, he wrote John Thornhill on the Financial Times.
Zelensky’s investment seems to have worked: according to aanalyses of the Washington Post his speeches – and more generally the way in which he managed communication, including on social networks, with the frequent videos from the front – have really influenced the way in which Western countries have reacted to the war in Ukraine, pushing them for example to exacerbate their sanctions imposed on Russia and sending huge amounts of weapons to Ukraine, weapons that in some cases they gave the Ukrainians a real advantage.
Among other things, the Washington Post he cited some unspecified people, probably officials, who were in the same room as European leaders when they attended to a video call with Zelensky the day after the invasion began. They reported that the particularly engaging intervention (it was the one in which he said he wasn’t sure he would survive for long), prompted those present to impose harsher penalties than they initially thought.
From this point of view, Zelensky’s speeches are also having their usefulness in the internal politics of the various countries, managing to unite political factions that are also very distant and adverse, in a moment of strong popular pressure on the need to help Ukraine. Zelensky is the leader, at the front, of a country invaded, attacked and bombed by a superpower that justifies the invasion with abundant news and false interpretations: his message therefore has a great communicative power. The New York Times neither spoke about the United States, explaining that Zelensky’s speech led to a bipartisan agreement – a remarkable thing at a time of strong divisions in US politics – on aid to be sent to Ukraine.
Zelensky’s ability to communicate effectively did not emerge out of nowhere: as is well known, before entering politics Zelensky was a popular comedian. And he has invested heavily in communication even as president, in a way that, moreover, attracted several criticisms from those who considered him unusual and far from the sobriety that his role would have required.
Zelensky’s ability to communicate so effectively could be of lasting importance: according to Sean McFate of the study center Atlantic Council, his speeches demonstrate how much communication and use of the media will also count in future wars. For now, McFate said, “Russia may also win the war waged with arms, but Ukraine is winning that of communication, which is crucial for obtaining the support and proximity of the allies”.