why Volodymyr Zelensky wins the communication battle

3 p.m., March 11, 2022

Since the attack on Ukraine on February 22, 2022 by the Russian army following the belligerent decision taken unilaterally and without any acceptable justification by the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, the whole world has been dumbfounded – by the media – for a real war of occupation that takes place almost synchronously on two grounds: military and strategic on the one hand, communication on the other. On the occasion of this break-in, a hitherto unknown political figure outside his country appeared on the international scene and very quickly managed to impose himself as a head of state who counted fully in the concert nations.

A jester who became king

Actor and humorist who played a history teacher who became president of the republic in the television series The Servant of the People, Volodymyr Zelensky entered politics without any previous experience and was elected to the general surprise with 73.2% of the vote. Poroshenko in May 2019. The television fiction foreshadowed the rapid political rise of a candidate who managed to convince outside a partisan system.

With the invasion of his territory, Volodymyr Zelensky acquired a new status by suddenly becoming the face of the resistance of the Ukrainian people against the Russian attacker. In doing so, he mobilized his ethos as a leader and appeared as “gatherer, the one who gathers, guides and leads the flock, lights his way with quiet perseverance”. The leadership ethos reflects a politician’s ability to lead the population in its wake, point the way forward and chart a course. The main ethos, therefore, is the manifestation of a symbolic power to which the population more or less freely submits.

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Turned to the citizens, the leader’s ethos is expressed through the figures of guide, sovereign and commander. In military uniforms, with a serious face and a warlike look, President Zelensky has vigorously and solemnly multiplied exhortations to resist his people on social networks. It is thus based on an ethos of solidarity characterized by the desire of a politician, a fortiori a head of state, to show that he shares and defends the opinions of the people he governs and to which he belongs. In this case, President Zelensky is taking up the case of his people being attacked, invaded and bombed by the Russian neighbor.

What characterizes the ethos of solidarity? “is the desire to be together, not to distinguish oneself from the other members of the group and above all to be one with them when threatened”† It was also and above all as a warlord that he boasted of the victories he had won over the Russian attacker, and recounted the accounts of the losses inflicted on the enemy.

The political leader became military leader, Volodymyr Zelensky became, for the Ukrainians as well as for the international community, a warlord who gathered far beyond his borders, both shepherd and prophet, as Patrick Cheraudeau notes: “The ‘guide-prophet’ resembles the ‘guide-shepherd’ in his role of unifier, but the shepherd is more anchored in the here below, while the prophet is in the hereafter. It is thanks to this figure of the “guide-prophet” that a political leader can appear as “an “inspired” being, as a “visionary”.

An image war

Since the beginning of the Russo-Ukrainian war, Volodymyr Zelensky stands out from his direct opponent both in his attitude and in his communication strategies, which stand out compared to Vladimir Putin’s.

It is as much a war of generation as it is a war of image and communication. Where the Ukrainian president appears as a war leader in military uniform to lead and embody the battle, Vladimir Putin adopts a much more classic and stricter dress ethic (in this case a suit and tie and an impassive/systematic rudeness when evoking this situation) The contrast is most striking between two opposing images of political power, between two stages of political power, between two visions of the authority and charisma of political leaders.

Vladimir Putin is enthroned in a suit in a huge room (St Catherine’s room in the Kremlin) in which the considerable physical and symbolic distance he enters into with his advisers and ministers can only surprise and question from a proxemic perspective. This physical, social and symbolic distance is the sign of an authority that keeps even its closest associates at a distance. It feels like we have returned to the worst hours of the Cold War in the former USSR. Some would rightly see in it the isolation of a head of state who has locked himself in “his war” and in his alternative view of reality.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, for his part, multiplies to impose his individuality and take care of the staging of his speech, the poses and the staging that represent him around his men, in the attitude of a warlord respected and admired by his soldiers .

A communication war

Vladimir Putin’s strict dress ethic is that of heads of state, but also that of ” bad guys “ spy or action movies. In order to differentiate, Volodymyr Zelensky has chosen from the very beginning of this conflict to film himself among the people of Kiev wearing the khaki t-shirt that he never takes off during his various video interventions on digital social networks.

He is an accomplished actor who uses his ancient craft to create a “captatio benevolentiae” (looking for the benevolence of the public). To this end, he films himself in selfie mode, man-sized, to give his interventions via digital media the appearance of an eye-to-eye conversation with his people on the one hand and with the international community elsewhere.

The viewer feels completely involved in the communication of the president/resistant/warlord Volodymyr Zelensky, who gives the impression of addressing him and him only through these videos in full or bust portrait mode. Videos in selfie mode create a bond and emotional connection with the viewers, who are both direct recipients and privileged witnesses of the messages. The framing of these videos helps to bring viewers into a community of moral values ​​and interests (freedom, national sovereignty, higher European interest, etc.).

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At the communication level, the contradiction of styles is total between the presidents of the two neighboring countries, Russia and Ukraine, and primarily at the generational and mediological level to use the terminology of Régis Debray. While one (Vladimir Putin) is especially fond of solemn speeches on television recorded from the Kremlin press room, the other (Volodymyr Zelensky) stands out for his choice to create videos whose setting and context of production changes regularly ( sometimes from the presidential palace, sometimes on the street next to soldiers watching the checkpoints, etc.).

If the two presidents are clearly part of what Régis Debray calls the video sphere, the age of the moving image, the instruments chosen to express themselves attest to a fundamental difference in terms of the respective temporality of Vladimir Putin’s and Volodymyr Zelensky. If the first prefers large solemn television addresses recorded well in advance, the second has a certain fondness for real-time, almost synchronous communication and a daily or almost daily presence on social networks. Although we cannot predict the outcome of this conflict on a purely military level, one thing is certain: President Zelensky has already emerged victorious from the war of communication and image that pits him against the Russian president.

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