On February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine. 96 hours later, Volodymyr Zelensky had become a world star. The Ukrainian president surprised everyone when he decided to stay in his country while Russian troops marched, seemingly invincible, towards the City of Kyiv.
In the weeks that followed, the extraordinary resistance of the Ukrainian defenders became a global sensation, and Zelensky established himself as a leader and symbol of that resistance. Images portraying his bravery in the face of assassination attempts and Russian brutality inspired the entire world and mobilized Western governments, which originally seemed resigned to letting Ukraine fall into Vladimir Putin’s hands.
The weight of public relations
In the weeks prior to the invasion, the West only spoke of symbolic sanctions against the Russian oligarchy and of absurd and irrelevant support, such as the German offer to send 5,000 helmets (literally, just helmets) to the Ukrainian defenders. The fall of Ukraine seemed doomed to become yet another of the tragedies that Europe and the United States follow with more pity than indignation.
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The charisma and brilliant public relations management of Zelensky and his team were key to transforming the scenario. In a matter of days, Western societies rose up in solidarity, and those first symbolic sanctions gave way to the economic and diplomatic isolation of Russia, while Putin’s accomplices (previously perceived in Europe and the United States as quaint and tolerable eccentrics) became pariahs, almost on the same level as the African genocidaires of the 1990s. Russia became very much a bad word in much of the world.
All that work by the Ukrainian government was also reflected on the battlefield. With motivation and financial/technological backing from the West (which would have been unthinkable a few weeks earlier), Ukraine managed to contain the Russian invasion. The attack that seemed destined to completely subdue Ukraine in a matter of days, stalled. The “conquest” of Kyiv ended in a humiliating retreat for Putin, whose troops went from savoring the sweetness of victory to resigning themselves to a slow, dirty and crude battle in the Donbas region. The triumph, immediate and inevitable, turned into a war of attrition.
Inevitable lack of seriousness?
Now, the prolongation of the military conflict brings with it a very serious risk for Ukraine: that the invasion will become routine. The fact, plain and simple, is that Russia has far more economic and military resources than Ukraine. Putin failed miserably in his attempt to subdue Kyiv in the short term, but he is more than prepared to gamble on a war of attrition.
Ukraine’s only hope of defeating Russia in this long-term game lies in keeping alive the interest of Western public opinion, which will pressure the governments of Europe and the United States to keep open the financial and military channels that will enable them to replenish ammunition and machinery, contain the Russian advance, and eventually regain the 20% of Ukraine currently in the hands of the invaders.
This is not an easy task, because Western attention is as intense as it is hesitant. In February and March, Ukraine was “the topic” of conversation, but as months pass by the novelty evaporates, and interest fades along with it.
It is true that the red circle is still aware of what is happening in that country, but it is equally true that Zelensky and Ukraine are not getting enough attention from the intellectuals. What pressured Biden and the European Union to support them “for real” was not The New York Times‘s opinion articles or the prayers of experts, but the interest of ordinary citizens, who covered the social networks with the Ukrainian flag… and Zelensky’s face.
Well, that same interest outside political circles seems to be what he tried to revive through the photo shoot starring him and his wife for Vogue magazine.
The result? More negative than positive
The photographs are technically impeccable, the result of the brilliant lens of Annie Leibovitz, whose artistry is undeniable. However, the feeling they leave is one of repudiation rather than inspiration. There is something surreal absurd and even comical about the fact that the president of a nation at war and his wife take the time to calmly pose for a fashion magazine, showing off the destruction of their homeland as if showing a new fall-winter collection, as if the suffering and lives of thousands of Ukrainians were a mere background for the heroic portrait of a “hero.”
The lack of seriousness of the images is uncomfortable, if not chilling. Posing for Vogue, in this way, and in this context, seems as crass a mistake as it is obvious. However, in light of what we have discussed here, it is also possible to conclude that such frivolity is perhaps necessary. If, as we have explained, Ukraine’s future and freedom depend on its president keeping Western society entertained and engaged, perhaps a tawdry photo shoot is an understandable, even inevitable, mistake.
In the midst of the scandal, many have pointed out the almost parodic similarity between Zelensky’s photos in Vogue and those war propaganda videos shot by Katniss Everdeen’s character in The Hunger Games saga, and there is much truth in that, but it is not something new; war and spectacle have a relationship that has been projected since antiquity, because that is human nature. Behind the conflict lies power, and this is a perception that only remains as long as it perseveres in the social consensus.
All things considered, Volodymyr Zelensky reminds me a lot of Chiang Kai-shek, that general who tried to consolidate control of China after the agony of the empire and was eventually defeated by communism. Chiang, like Zelensky, devoted great efforts to consolidating his image in the United States: he starred a dozen times on the cover of Time magazine and built a narrative of love for Christianity and for America. With it, he succeeded in winning the support of American public opinion for decades. Even in the end, when Mao defeated him in the civil war, the goodwill Kai-shek had sown was key to his survival. He managed to find refuge and strength on an island that is still an independent nation today: Taiwan.
Therefore, even recognizing that, beyond his intentions, Zelensky’s Vogue photo shoot was most likely a mistake, let’s not be too quick to condemn the Ukrainian president out of hand. Yes, it is true that he fell into frivolity, but it is also true that, in war and in politics, being frivolous is sometimes necessary.
Gerardo Garibay Camarena, is a doctor of law, writer and political analyst with experience in the public and private sectors. His new book is "How to Play Chess Without Craps: A Guide to Reading Politics and Understanding Politicians" // Gerardo Garibay Camarena es doctor en derecho, escritor y analista político con experiencia en el sector público y privado. Su nuevo libro es “Cómo jugar al ajedrez Sin dados: Una guía para leer la política y entender a los políticos”