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The collective Zelensky Amid Russia’s war, Ukraine’s president is more popular than ever. Here’s how his team rallied a nation — and the West.

Source: Meduza

On the eve of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s rating was less than 25 percent. Moscow waging an all-out war turned Zelensky into a national hero — one who now enjoys more than 90 percent support among Ukrainians. For Meduza, journalist Konstantin Skorkin breaks down how Zelensky and his team are running the country, managing Ukraine’s defense, and cultivating the president’s image as a wartime leader.

Please note. This translation has been edited and abridged for length and clarity. You can read the original version in Russian here

Russia launching an all-out war against Ukraine gave President Volodymyr Zelensky’s team a whole new status. As stated in the Ukrainian Constitution, the President is the Supreme Commander-in-Chief, responsible for organizing the country’s defense. Accordingly, Zelensky’s team has been put on a war footing.

Since coming to power in 2019, Zelensky never really won over the “patriotic” demographic in Ukrainian society, who were inclined to support his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko. The Ukrainian president drew suspicion in his homeland for his “excessive” pacifism and readiness to compromise with Russia. Zelensky’s attempts to find such a compromise within the framework of the Minsk process repeatedly led to mass protests in Kyiv. Even more telling was the fallout from “Wagnergate” — a scandal that ensued after Zelensky’s office was accused of botching a sting operation to capture Russian mercenaries who fought in the Donbas. 

The situation began to change in 2021, when, in the face of falling ratings and smear campaigns by media outlets associated with Putin-linked oligarch and lawmaker Viktor Medvedchuk, Zelensky began dealing blows to the pro-Kremlin party Opposition Platform — For Life (OPZZh). The media holding linked to Medvedchuk was sanctioned by presidential decree. A few months later, Medvdechuk was indicted on treason charges. At the same time, Zelensky took an unyielding stance in the face of Putin’s military threats: on the eve of the escalated war, Zelensky gave a speech at the Munich Security Conference, in which he hinted at the possibility of Ukraine abandoning its non-nuclear status. But Zelensky’s sharp turn towards a national-patriotic bent couldn’t change his image inside Ukraine overnight — and Russian propaganda continued to depict him as both a weak leader and a dangerous “puppet of the West.”

Almost immediately after embarking upon the “special operation,” the Russian authorities began spreading rumors about “Zelensky’s flight” — State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin claimed that the Ukrainian president and his entourage had picked up and moved to Lviv, whereas Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov alleged that Zelensky had fled Ukraine altogether. Even after Zelensky recorded a video confirming that he was still in Kyiv, pro-Kremlin Russian media outlets continued running stories that argued the footage was fake.

The expectation that Zelensky would flee rather than fight back was a fundamental miscalculation on the part of both the Kremlin and the White House. As the news site Ukrayinska Pravda noted, Zelensky based his decision to lead the country’s defense from Kyiv not on information from Western partners — who urged him to evacuate — but on Ukrainian intelligence, which predicted that Russian troops wouldn’t be able to take the capital. The presidential administration also had the infrastructure needed for an emergency headquarters: a bunker system built for the Ukrainian leadership during the Soviet period in case of nuclear war. Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) Secretary Oleksiy Danilov underscored that the “[state] system did not collapse thanks to the fact that on February 24, the president decided to remain in Kyiv.” According to Danilov, all of the country’s top political leadership stayed in the capital (some members of Cabinet, the NSDC, and other departments were moved out of Kyiv for security reasons). 

SITTING DOWN WITH ZELENSKY

'It's not just a war. It's much worse.' Volodymyr Zelensky's first interview with Russian journalists since the war began

SITTING DOWN WITH ZELENSKY

'It's not just a war. It's much worse.' Volodymyr Zelensky's first interview with Russian journalists since the war began

By staying in Kyiv, Zelensky became the leader of a fighting nation that has drawn the rapt attention of the entire world. A nationwide poll conducted on February 26–27 found that support for the president had skyrocketed to 91 percent — a threefold increase from December 2021. 

The president’s team also rose to the challenge: not a single senior official resigned or stepped back from their duties. 

Zelensky’s team

Zelensky’s administration, the President’s Office, has played a key role in his system of governance. Its functionaries are also the “brains” behind the country’s defense. Key figures include Zelensky’s Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak, his deputies Kyrylo Tymoshenko (who, in peacetime, handled the president’s infrastructure renewal project “Big Construction,” as well as regional policy) and Andrii Sybiha (a career diplomat and former ambassador to Turkey, who now oversees foreign policy). Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, who has been entrusted with the mission of creating an international coalition in support of Ukraine, also works closely with Zelensky’s Office. Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky’s chief of staff (and formerly a prominent political strategist in Kyiv), remains the main speaker and regular commentator on presidential policy. Podolyak also oversees the administration's information policy and advises the president personally. 

As is natural in wartime, Ukraine’s security bloc is playing a key role. This includes Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi, Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, Security Service (SBU) Chief Ivan Bakanov, and NSDC Secretary Oleksiy Danilov. As journalist Simon Shuster wrote for Time magazine, Zelensky doesn’t “pretend to be a tactical savant” and largely refrains from interfering in the military’s work. That said, Ukrainian media has reported on political tensions between the President’s Office and Valerii Zaluzhnyi, who Zelensky’s team sees as a potential presidential competitor. 

Zelensky’s adviser Oleksiy Arestovych has become the face of Ukraine’s wartime propaganda. But his relationship with Zelensky’s team is rather complicated — this popular blogger previously worked for Petro Poroshenko, and was part of the Ukrainian delegation to the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG). However, shortly before the start of the full-scale war, in January 2022, Arestovych became disillusioned with Zelensky’s administration and resigned. After the all-out war began, he returned to the president’s team as an adviser and became a key representative for the Ukrainian authorities, giving daily press briefings on the situation at the front. 

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Deadlock in the Donbas Ukraine and Russia are facing the same two problems on the eastern front: enemy fire and the Siverskyi Donets river

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Deadlock in the Donbas Ukraine and Russia are facing the same two problems on the eastern front: enemy fire and the Siverskyi Donets river

The Cabinet of Ministers is handling Ukraine’s wartime economic policy, under the leadership of Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal. In peacetime, Shmyhal was periodically criticized for acting as a loyalist functionary carrying out the will of Zelensky’s office. But now it seems that his diligence and technocratic approach are being used to the fullest. Other key Cabinet members include Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov — who is responsible for all of the logistics of military and humanitarian supplies, as well as for the operation of critical infrastructure — and Economy Minister Yulia Sviridenko. 

Under martial law, Ukraine’s parliament is playing a background role. But the influence of Davyd Arakhamia — the faction leader of Zelensky’s Servant of the People party — has increased. Arakhamia was named as the Ukrainian delegation’s lead negotiator in the peace talks with Russia. Presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak has emerged as the delegation's other key figure. 

Overall, it’s safe to say that Zelensky’s pre-war team has completely switched to a wartime mode and begun to work, as Ukrainian political scientist Vladimir Fesenko put it, as a “collective Zelensky,” demonstrating unity and cohesion around their leader. 

Zelensky’s media strategy 

With the onset of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Zelensky has positioned himself as the leader of a fighting nation. In March, the German newspaper Der Spiegel published an in-depth analysis of the system of allusions the Ukrainian president has employed to communicate this to Western allies. In London, for example, he invoked one of Winston Churchill’s famous speeches. When addressing the U.S. Congress, he compared Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to Pearl Harbor and the September 11 terrorist attacks. Appealing to Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Zelensky urged him to destroy the “wall” dividing the EU and Ukraine — harking back to Ronald Reagan’s appeal to Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down” the Berlin Wall. 

The president’s team succeeded in creating an image of Zelensky that turned him into a pop culture hero in the West, as well as a viral meme

At the same time, the Zelensky administration’s information policy has included some ultra-patriotic excesses — such as Zelensky refusing to meet with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier due to his support for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, or NSDC Secretary Oleksiy Danilov slamming French President Emmanuel Macron for referring to Russians and Ukrainians as “brothers” — that have created friction in Ukraine’s relations with European allies. 

ON GERMANY’S RUSSIA POLICY

The new German guilt The war in Ukraine has forced Germany to ask whether decades of its foreign policy were based on a delusion

ON GERMANY’S RUSSIA POLICY

The new German guilt The war in Ukraine has forced Germany to ask whether decades of its foreign policy were based on a delusion

Overall, the Zelensky administration’s skillful use of vivid images and work with different audiences has allowed Ukraine to maintain the upper hand in the information war. Earlier, in December 2021, Zelensky enacted a new Information Security Strategy for Ukraine, which identified Russian information policy aimed at strengthening “internal conflicts in Ukraine and other democratic states” as a key threat. 

Ukraine’s wartime information policy has also aimed to influence public opinion in Russia. Indeed, the circulation of information about captured Russian conscripts and photos of the destruction laid to Ukrainian cities, could have been one of the motivating factors behind Russia’s introduction of military censorship and adoption of a draconian law prohibiting “fake news” about the Russian armed forces. Zelensky granting interviews to independent Russian journalists is also an important component of his media strategy. 

On the crackdown in Russia

The war at home Russia is de facto under martial law, human rights experts warn

On the crackdown in Russia

The war at home Russia is de facto under martial law, human rights experts warn

Another wartime innovation was the round-the-clock “information marathon” launched on central and regional television channels under the hashtag #UAразом (“UA together”). It first aired on February 25, as a joint project between key public and private television channels in Ukraine, overseen by Culture and Information Policy Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko (a former top manager at 1+1 Media Group). The channels involved in the project take turns producing five-hour segments for the telethon. A similar project was also launched in radio, under the auspices of the public broadcaster Ukrainian Radio.

On March 20, Zelensky signed a presidential decree instituting a “unified information policy” under martial law, which combined all national television channels into a single platform. As Ukrainian media expert Otar Dovzhenko noted, without a unified policy, Ukrainian television channels wouldn’t have been able to cope with the information chaos of the first days of the war. That said, opinion polls show that less than five percent of respondents named the “Unified News” as a trusted information source.

The unity of the war’s first weeks have since given way to political conflicts: on April 5, three television channels associated with Petro Poroshenko were cut off from digital broadcasting (they are still airing on cable networks and by satellite). Officially, the channels were removed for refusing to cooperate with the policies of the joint telethon. According to unofficial reports, however, the decision came after lawmakers from Poroshenko’s European Solidarity party criticized Kyiv’s stance in the peace talks with Russia. In response, the pro-Poroshenko television channels accused the authorities of “cleansing the information space.” 

Of course, political intrigues don’t look very good in wartime, but replacing solidarity with conformity also sets a bad precedent. At this point, Zelensky’s government has effectively built its own information monopoly, which they may be tempted to keep, even during peacetime. 

What happens next?

By the beginning of April, it became clear that the war was entering a protracted phase. The Kremlin seems determined to wage war until Kyiv surrenders. In turn, the Ukrainian authorities have cast doubts on the possibility of peace talks, after uncovering widespread evidence of war crimes in areas previously occupied by Russian troops. 

INVESTIGATING WAR CRIMES

‘I can do whatever I want to you’ Russian soldiers raped and murdered Ukrainian civilians in the village of Bogdanivka

INVESTIGATING WAR CRIMES

‘I can do whatever I want to you’ Russian soldiers raped and murdered Ukrainian civilians in the village of Bogdanivka

During the war’s first stage, Zelensky’s team demonstrated resilience and solidarity, fueling support for the country’s military efforts both nationwide and from the West. Kyiv’s successful information strategy played a big role here. Now, the key question is how long the Ukrainian authorities can maintain this pace. Ukrainian officials are convinced that time is on their side: the war is draining the powers of the Putin regime, while Ukraine has the backing of the collective West and its unlimited resources. Hence the overly optimistic statements from Kyiv in recent days, about Ukraine needing not peace with Russia, but Moscow’s capitulation. 

However, a prolongation of the conflict could provoke a split in the Ukrainian elite, with the emergence of its own “party of peace.” In fact, the main safeguard against such a split right now is the irreconcilable (if not insane) stance of Putinist “hawks” who dream of “carrying the special operation through” and a “final solution to the Ukrainian question.” If Moscow begins to soften its position, this could lead to growing support for compromises from the Ukrainian side.

In this case, Zelensky may find himself in a stalemate similar to the one that developed around the Minsk agreements — where despite having a mandate for peace negotiations, the president was limited in his maneuvers. Back then, the scope for progress was narrowed by the Kremlin’s intransigence on the one hand, and, on the other, by an active segment of Ukrainian society refusing to accept a surrender. Today, this active segment of society is armed, ready to fight to victory, and rejects the idea of any compromise with the enemy. Which means the sky-high support for Zelensky could begin to melt away if there’s the slightest suspicion of “betrayal” — even if an “obscene peace” would be a life-saving reprieve for Ukraine amid catastrophic losses. Zelensky is well aware of this and it’s almost impossible to imagine that the Ukrainian president is anywhere near ready to make concessions. The stakes for Zelensky and his team are very high — indeed, what’s at stake is the survival of the country itself. 

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Essay by Konstantin Skorkin

Translation by Eilish Hart