The Memo: Zelensky battles to hold world’s attention as chances of long war rise

Evgeniy Maloletka/Associated Press
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in his office in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, April 9, 2022. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says he’s committed to pressing for peace despite Russian attacks on civilians that have stunned the world. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

As if he weren’t facing enough challenges, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has one more: how to keep Americans, and the rest of the world, focused on the plight of his nation if the Russian invasion stretches on for months, or even years.

Zelensky has won near-universal praise for his leadership and particularly his mastery of communications since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the war on Feb. 24.

Zelensky has released video messages to his fellow Ukrainians on a daily basis, addressed Congress and numerous other national legislatures and taken his pleas for help to every available platform.

Within the past few days alone, the Ukrainian president gave an interview to CBS’s “60 Minutes” and took British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on a stroll around the near-deserted streets of Kyiv.

He has also proven adept at tailoring his speeches to his audience, invoking Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11 when addressing U.S. lawmakers in mid-March and speaking in ostentatiously Churchillian terms to the British parliament earlier that month.

Zelensky’s communication skills — honed as a TV star and comic actor — have helped him overwhelm Putin and the Kremlin in the information wars, even as he and the Ukrainian forces face grim odds when it comes to military firepower.

But as the possibility of a longer conflict in Ukraine’s eastern region looms, his abilities are going to be tested anew.

“It gets more difficult every day, given our attention-starved, ‘I saw it and I’m done’ moment,” said Nancy Koehn, a historian of leadership at Harvard Business School. “And yet, and yet … he is still a magnet for our attention. We are in week seven or week eight and he is still compelling.”

Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University, argued that Americans might already have lost interest in the conflict, given that they have so many other issues, from inflation to immigration, pressing in upon them.

“But Zelensky has kept the flickering flame alive — in a way I don’t think it would have been kept alive without him,” Lichtman said.

Zelensky has also become a quasi-celebrity — incongruously, given the gravity of his situation. Rumors that he might address the Oscars proved misplaced, but he delivered a speech via video to the Grammy Awards soon afterward, on April 3.

Margaret MacMillan of Foreign Affairs magazine recently wrote that Zelensky “in his continual direct appeals to Western leaders, the U.S. Congress, the British Parliament, and the Bundestag, made the Ukrainian cause one that the West cannot ignore.”

Zelensky understands the stakes more clearly than anyone. For so long as Ukraine is leading newscasts in the United States and western Europe, politicians in those places will be under pressure to be responsive to the plight of his people.

An Economist/YouGov poll last week found that 48 percent of Americans believe the U.S. reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine “should be tougher,” while 22 percent thought it was “about right” and only 9 percent that it “should be less tough.”

But if the Western media spotlight jerks away to other topics — and takes public interest with it — that could spell doom for Zelensky’s hopes of outlasting the Russian military.

In the months to come, “it will be tougher because the attention spans of Americans, and others who are consuming this war through the media, are short,” said Aaron Kall, an expert in political rhetoric who is also the director of debate at the University of Michigan. 

In the United States, Kall noted, “there is only a finite amount of time until the next major thing intervenes. We may not even know what it is yet — it could be something like a natural disaster or the economy going into recession. And there is not going to be a quick end to the war in Ukraine.”

The Ukrainians scored a huge military victory when they rebuffed the original advance on Kyiv by the Russian military.

But now, Putin’s forces appear to be refocusing their efforts on eastern Ukraine. The region, home to many ethnic Russians, had already seen an estimated 14,000 lives lost over the eight years before the invasion, as Ukrainian forces battled Russian-backed separatists.

That effort raises the specter of a conflict that could potentially drag on for years. Whether the American public has an appetite for that seems rather doubtful. Public interest even in wars in which U.S. forces were directly involved, in Iraq and Afghanistan, seemed to wane considerably over time.

Still, the continuing avalanche of coverage of the war in Ukraine is surprising by some measure — and a testament to Zelensky’s leadership skills.

A recent study by the Tyndall Report, an online newsletter devoted to analysis of TV news, found that the amount of coverage given to the war in Ukraine by the three major U.S. broadcast networks during their evening newscasts in March exceeded that of any other conflict since the first Gulf War in 1991.

The report’s author, Andrew Tyndall, noted that the total minutes of coverage across the evening newscasts of ABC, CBS and NBC were “astonishingly” higher than for the peaks of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Now Zelensky will be battling, in part, to keep that spotlight burning bright.

If he fails, the consequences could be disastrous.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky
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