Neighbors at war, two presidents a world apart

While President Joe Biden and other Western leaders have rallied allies to impose sanctions and marshal military aid for Ukraine, they’ve been cool to repeated appeals from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for a no-fly zone and more fighter jets.

But at least in one sense, Zelenskyy has already won the air war.

The air war, that is, of viral videos of the president among Ukrainians protecting Kyiv or satellite speeches to parliaments and Congress and all other outreach winning hearts and minds and cutting through the usual international inertia when it comes to confronting Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Along the way, Zelenskyy’s communication acumen and motivating message that Ukraine’s fight is democracy’s fight has made the insistent leader instantly recognizable worldwide.

But it’s not his first starring role.

That was for playing an unlikely teacher-turned-president of Ukraine in the hit TV show “Servant of the People.” In a postmodern media moment, he’s now got the real job, and life is imitating art as the unlikely president serves the people — brave Ukrainian Davids fighting the Russian Goliath in a war that’s upended Putin’s assumption of a quick victory over its outgunned, outmanned neighbor.

“Putin’s assumptions didn’t match reality,” said Kathleen Collins, a University of Minnesota associate professor of political science specializing in Russia and the region.

That’s perhaps because the Russian president isn’t being presented reality. “As many dictators of his stature over the course of decades, they cultivate this culture of fear and personalism so that the leaders of the military, the higher-ups in the FSB [successor to the KGB] and various intelligence services, are probably reporting to him what he wants to hear,” Collins said.

Minutes after Collins’ conclusions, a New York Times news alert linked to a story that detailed “a newly declassified U.S. intelligence assessment suggesting that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has been misinformed about the war’s trajectory by subordinates, who were fearful of his reaction to the Russian military’s struggles and setbacks.”

Unlike flawed analysis on Afghanistan, U.S. intelligence agencies’ assessments have been accurate about Ukraine. And even before the war, the optics made it apparent to all that the dictator was deeply detached from his Russian subordinates and global peers.

In just one example, a televised prewar Security Council meeting looked more like Kabuki than consultations as obsequious security officials, seated far apart from Putin in an ornate Kremlin room, consecutively concurred with their president, who was presiding alone while sitting at an empty white desk. The sole, slight hesitation came from the foreign intelligence service chief, who was pressed by Putin until he buckled, too.

And in a notable photograph from French President Emmanuel Macron’s Kremlin visit, Putin was seen at the opposite end of a 20-foot table, making him look like his own kind of movie archetype: a villain in a James Bond movie.

The contrast of Zelenskyy’s shoulder-to-shoulder camaraderie and Putin’s isolated comrade amplifies the Russian leader’s Soviet roots, which remain firmly planted in his febrile belief that there are enemies everywhere.

The differences don’t end there, culturally or politically: Putin embodies the metaphorical, menacing (to the West) Russian (or Soviet) bear, while Zelenskyy was the voice of Paddington Bear in the Ukrainian version of the film, reflecting his pulse on pop culture that shows up in other ways, like his now-iconic military-issued green T-shirt, which sharply contrasts with Putin’s gray suit (and gray nature). Putin’s rhetoric is aggrieved; Zelenskyy’s aggregating, and overall, the vividly different communication strategies are an asymmetric advantage for Ukraine, as evidenced by a new Pew Research Center poll.

In numbers that would seem impossible to replicate in today’s genuinely divided America, 72% of Americans expressed “some or a lot of confidence in Zelenskyy to do the right thing regarding world affairs.” Not surprisingly (except that they could find this many), only 6% said the same of Putin. Making the poll results even more striking was relatively little partisan divide: 94% of Democrats/Lean Democrat respondents expressed no confidence in Putin, almost mirroring the 92% of Republicans/Lean Republican who said the same thing. With Zelenskyy there was a gap, but not the usual gulf, with 80% of Democrats/Lean Democrat expressing confidence vs. 67% for Republicans/Lean Republican.

Zelenskyy’s success with Western lawmakers is a matter of substance — it’s hard to refute that Russian revanchism is a threat beyond the borders of Ukraine — and some style. Speaking upfront, from the front, he’s concurrently appreciative of the help Ukraine’s received and shaming of the help it hasn’t, an approach Collins called “very effective.”

We “sort of talk the talk,” she said, adding that it took “a full-fledged invasion and shelling to get the world to finally react. And I do worry that the West will kind of lose interest and the media will lose interest and life will just sort of go on and Ukraine will be left in a state of war for months, years or decades.”

If anyone can help the West keep its focus it’s Zelenskyy, who has tailored his message to the aspirations and past, however triumphant and tragic, of each nation he addresses.

Speaking to Congress, he invoked Pearl Harbor and 9/11, echoed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, and appealed to America’s hard-wired value of freedom; to Israel, Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, invoked the Holocaust (causing consternation among some Knesset members); to Canada, he dispensed formalities and referred to its prime minister as just Justin when he asked Trudeau and Parliament to imagine Canada under a similar attack.

He similarly referred to Boris in speaking to Britain’s Parliament, but focused more on Prime Minister Johnson’s iconic predecessor, Winston Churchill, whose stirring World War II words Zelenskyy paraphrased when he vowed Ukrainians would “fight to the end, at sea, in the air.”

And in Germany he urged the Bundestag to take more decisive action. “You are like behind a wall again,” Zelenskyy said. “Not the Berlin Wall but in the middle of Europe between freedom and slavery.” To Chancellor Olaf Scholz directly he said: “Tear down this wall. Give Germany the leadership you deserve, and what your descendants would be proud of.”

While the petition was to Scholz, the cry to end the partition was from former President Ronald Reagan’s famous phrase.

Two actors, acting upon deeply held beliefs that galvanized action.

Zelenskyy’s “background and communication skills are underplayed and treated somewhat dismissively by the Western media and Western public,” Collins said. Regarding a comparison to Reagan, she added: “Whatever you think of [Reagan’s] political views, he was a great communicator. In the 1980s people recognized on both sides of the aisle he was effective in getting deals done, effective at talking to people, effective at building a relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev and it was thanks to that relationship, among other factors, that the Cold War ended.”

Whether Zelenskyy’s commensurate communication skills will be the difference in Ukraine’s existential struggle remains to be seen. But it’s backed up by action, including the starkest possible one between the Ukrainian and Russian president:

Zelenskyy, to preserve his country, is willing to die.

Putin, to preserve his power, is willing to kill.

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.