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How Zelenskiy’s TV Writing Team Helps Get His Victory Message Home | Ukraine

On the 50th day of the Russian invasion, Volodymyr Zelenskiy delivered his nightly address to the Ukrainian people. Vladimir Putin confidently hoped to seize Ukraine in five days, Zelenskiy said, standing in front of his neoclassical administrative building in central kyiv. Putin was now “befriending reality,” he added scathingly, praising the courage and steadfastness of his citizens.

There was a reference to Russia’s flagship Moskva, which Ukraine says it boldly sank last Wednesday with two deadly Neptune missiles. The warship has become a meme and symbol of national defiance, ever since Ukrainian soldiers stationed on Snake Island in the Black Sea told it in the early days of the conflict to “fuck off”.

Zelenskiy avoided the F-word. He praised those who “have shown that Russian ships can” — dramatic pause — “go to the bottom of the sea.” He also paid tribute to the men and women who drove Russian troops out of the north, stopped them in the south and heroically defended Mariupol. As usual, he ended his speech with: “Glory to Ukraine” – Glory to Ukraine.

On the battlefield, Ukraine’s fortunes have been mixed. Russia’s armed units have been forced to withdraw from the kyiv region after failing to seize the capital. But they have made significant progress along the Sea of ​​Azov, creating a land corridor from Crimea to separatist-held territory in the east, where a Russian offensive is imminent.

However, on the information front, Ukraine has offered a master class in messaging. Zelenskiy’s speeches to his people, and his speeches to foreign parliaments around the world, have galvanized international support and bolstered morale at home. They have been fascinating to watch, a no-frills streaming video blog of Europe’s bloody frontline.

Zelenskiy addresses MPs in the House of Commons. Photograph: EyePress News/REX/Shutterstock

The author of them is a 38-year-old former journalist and political analyst with less than 200 followers on Twitter. In an interview via WhatsApp, Dmytro Lytvyn told the Observer the ideas behind the speeches were from Zelenskiy: “The president always knows what he wants to say and how he wants to say it.”

He added: “In speeches, emotions are the most important thing. And of course the president is the author of emotions and the logic of words”. Other world leaders “could learn to do it.” In other words, they could emulate Zelenskiy’s striking combination of directness and emotional power.

Lytvyn is part of the president’s internal team. He and his colleagues have been living and working in Bankova, the Ukrainian equivalent of the White House or Downing Street, since the early days of the invasion. A former columnist for Levy Bereg weekly news magazine, named after the left bank of the Dnipro River, Lytvyn was reluctant to say more. “I don’t normally comment on this subject,” he said.

Serhiy Leshchenko, another former journalist turned adviser to Zelenskiy during the war, described Lytvyn as a literary and artistic assistant: “He collects the president’s ideas every day. He works as a collector of minds or senses”. One day the topic might be the barbarity of Russian soldiers, the next Ukraine’s urgent need for defensive weapons.

Lytvyn has been in the thick of Ukrainian politics for some time. He was a political analyst for Servant of the People, Zelenskiy’s political party, and a bitter opponent of Petro Poroshenko, Zelenskiy’s predecessor as president. A former colleague said Lytvyn’s attacks on the country’s post-2014 leadership after the pro-European Maidan uprising had divided Ukrainian society. “I am not a fanatic. But he is smart,” added the colleague.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi introduces Zelenskiy (on screen) to the US Congress.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi introduces Zelenskiy (on screen) to the US Congress. Photo: Scott Applewhite/EPA

Writing on Facebook at the start of the war, Lytvyn made several astute comments about Putin. “His imagination of him is poor, so he always reflects something… We have to understand that objective reality does not control Putin. Western sanctions will not affect it. He seeks isolation.” Putin’s implacable goal was to change the state and “political reality” of Ukraine, he published.

Lytvyn’s method certainly works. Polls show that 95% of Ukrainians believe that their country can repel the Russian invasion, despite kyiv’s inferiority in terms of tanks, troops and aircraft. And 78% believe that Ukraine is moving in the right direction. Zelenskiy’s personal ratings, depressed in early February, have soared.

Orysia Lutsevych, Ukraine forum manager at foreign policy think tank Chatham House, said Zelenskiy’s previous career as an actor and comedian was key to his success. Viewers were used to seeing him in different roles on television and thus were able to accept him as “commander-in-chief in a T-shirt”, a feat that eludes more conventional politicians.

“They know that it can transform. It’s like Zelenskiy’s metamorphosis,” she said. “He is a modern statesman who came from entertainment. He is in the element of it. The people around him understand the power of narrative during a war. After the horrors of Bucha, it is important to have a stimulating story. The sinking of the Moskva is a powerful symbol.”

Lutsevych said Zelenskiy and his co-authors had created a sense of “historic mission,” linking Ukraine’s current struggle with previous battles against Moscow. They were also well versed in pop culture, presenting the war as “light versus dark”. In this Lord of the RingsIn drama style, the Russian soldiers were “orcs” and Putin an invisible Sauron.

Many of Zelenskiy’s top advisers come from television and worked with him at Kvartal-95, his production studio. His attempts to win world support are aided by the clear nature of the Russian invasion. Ukraine is the victim. It is fighting for survival. This makes Zelenskiy the leader of what political scientist Ivan Krastev calls a “romantic constellation.”

Zelenskiy addressing the Greek parliament earlier this month.
Zelenskiy addressing the Greek parliament earlier this month. Photograph: Costas Baltas/Reuters

Zelenskiy is comfortable on camera, whether talking on his iPhone or addressing citizens from his bunker. When he was elected in 2019, he had few concrete political ideas. He tried to distinguish himself from his predecessors by giving long press conferences. These days, his interactions are faster. Lutsevych said his daily speeches “resonate well.”

They are also perfectly tailored to particular audiences. Addressing the House of Commons on the 13th day of the invasion, Zelenskiy compared Ukraine’s fight against Russia to Britain’s fight against Hitler. “We will fight to the end, at sea, in the air. We will continue fighting for our land, whatever it takes… We will fight in the forests, in the fields, on the coasts, in the streets”.

So for the British, Zelenskiy invoked Churchill. For the Greek parliament it was Mariupol, home to many ethnic Greeks, and for the Finns, Molotov cocktails, thrown at the invading Soviets. Speaking to Australians, Zelenskiy cited MH17, the Malaysian Airlines plane shot down by Russia in 2014. Speaking to the US Congress, he compared the bombing of Ukraine to Pearl Harbor and 9/11.

Zelenskiy combines this lofty rhetoric with concrete requests. He has called for Ukraine to receive anti-aircraft systems, MiG fighter jets, tanks and armored vehicles. He wants more sanctions against Moscow, including a full oil embargo. He sometimes he can be berating. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was told last week that he would not visit kyiv because of its close ties to Russia.

Ihor Todorov, a professor of international relations at Uzhhorod University in western Ukraine, said Zelenskiy could be emotional and undiplomatic. His first presidency often resembled Servant of the People, the hit Ukrainian TV sitcom where Zelenskiy played a history teacher who becomes president by accident. The war transformed Zelenskiy, as it did Stalin in 1941, he said.

“Zelenskiy has responded well to the situation,” he said. “A lot of people who didn’t vote for him two years ago acknowledge that.” He added that the president’s wife, Olena, had a lot to do with the impassioned tone of his speeches, and that other people also weighed in, including Yuri Kostyuk, one of the screenwriters for Servant of the People.

So is Zelenskiy Ukraine’s answer to Churchill? No, said Tordorov: “Comparing Zelenskiy with the Winston cult is too much.” Lutsevych agreed. “Churchill was much more charismatic and self-centered,” he said. “But Zelenskiy is quite effective.”

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