Zelenskyy, Social Media, and Russia's Unwinnable War for Ukraine
An unexpected hero. An out of touch strongman. War isn't what it used to be. And if the present conflict is any indication, it never will be again.
With Vladimir Putin’s Russian forces bearing down on the Ukrainian Capital City of Kiev, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy was given an offer by the United States government: they were willing to evacuate him to a safe location before the fighting got close.
“The fight is here;” he responded, refusing the invitation. “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
In the days that have followed, we’ve seen that this courageous reply, the sort that will no doubt wind up in history books and inspirational calendars for many years to come, wasn’t just lip service. The leader of the Ukraine is standing his ground against a statistically superior foe. And rather than hiding, the man credited with “the first entirely virtual “the first entirely virtual presidential campaign” has repeatedly taken to social media (Twitter; Instagram) to reassure his people in their collective moment of crisis. In so doing, he has helped to inspire his countrymen. In a nation of 40 million people, fewer than 400,000 have so far evacuated. Instead, at last count, some 100,000 have taken up arms in defense of their nation - a force that is now half the size of the one Russia had amassed at the Ukrainian border before the invasion began. Whatever Putin decides, a campaign of protracted urban warfare awaits his troops if they wish to proceed. If he resorts to mass casualty weapons, he will destroy what he has come to conquer, and further alienate a world that has rapidly turned on him, increasing the odds of a palace coup.
Zelensky isn’t the only one making recourse to social media. After a request from Ukraine’s vice prime minister on Twitter, Elon Musk deployed Starlink satellites over the country, ensuring internet access that can’t simply be cut off by physical means.
I’m reminded of this, one of the all-time classic Musk responses, when asked what local regulators can do about a service like Starlink. Barring actual satellite killing attacks, the same applies to invading armies:
With the data infrastructure in place, images and videos from Ukrainian citizens are emerging in real time of bombing campaigns & missile strikes in residential areas, civilians confronting invading forces, or even making fun of stranded Russian tank crews. Some others of note:
Still others are inspiring, like the photos of a couple of newlyweds taking up arms instead of honeymooning, or those from Kira Rudik a young business executive and member of the Ukranian Parliament who posted some Instagram-style selfies, Kalashnikov in hand, and talking about she’s going to fight to defend her country. These images and videos are crossing the uncanny valley between “it can’t happen here” and “it looks so much like home.” There’s a kind of familiar normalcy in it that is utterly at odds with the surreal fact that many of these people face the real possibility of death in the coming days as Russian forces advance on their positions.
The impact of how the use of social media to broadcast a distributed perspective of a war-in-progress will change the game is impossible to overstate. There are no gatekeepers. There is no single source. There are no media blackouts. The way we look at conflicts like this will never be the same.
Zelenskyy and the fighting spirit of his people have captured the imagination of many Westerners. As I quipped the other day after reading of Zelenskyy’s request for ammunition instead of an evac, “Somehow, this is the action hero movie we've all been waiting for. No equivocation or angst. Just the kind of toxic masculinity that says, ‘Get off my lawn’ to the sound of a shotgun racking.”
Despite my admiration, until this morning, I knew nothing about the man. Before last week, I wouldn’t have recognized his name. I couldn’t have picked his face out of a lineup. For that matter, like countless Westerners, I know precious little about Ukraine as a country. Despite doing some reading, I still don’t feel that I know enough to understand the real reasons for the War in Donbas, or why it has escalated at this particular moment into a possible inflection point for a third world war. Like many of you, I’m just an outsider trying to make sense of what I am observing from half a world away, wondering how it will affect me and my family as the human drama of this distant war plays out in an unprecedentedly transparent way online.
What I do see from my limited perspective is a fascinating story of two figures locked in a larger-than-life conflict; one, a megalomaniacal former KGB operative infamous for having both political rivals and critical journalists turn up dead, and who has made himself Supreme Dictator for Life with unrestrained power; the other an unlikely politician, a lawyer who became an actor and comedian and then a popular president. A man who is rapidly becoming an emerging folk hero at a time when the world has precious few of them.
Another caveat: it’s hard to know, with all the disinformation going around, how much of what we’re seeing and hearing is accurate. Old videos and photos turn up presented as new while popular stories about the conflict turn out to be false. It makes you wonder whether the historical narratives we believe we know weren’t also subject to clever misinformation. Are we in a worse situation now, or are we just more aware of how these stories are manipulated and controlled? The uncertainty of what to trust can be frustrating. As one friend on Facebook put it today:
I'm finding so much out now that appears to be propaganda. WTF is all this? I feel like I can't even watch or read anything and trust it anymore. I want to believe some of the badassery I see happening. There is so much injustice in this world and I desperately want to see people with integrity win the day.
But insofar as cultural memes have power, I think the narratives still matter even though some of this will turn out to have been theater, or even outright deception. While there is uncertainty in some of the details, for the first time in a while, the good guys and bad guys in this conflict seem relatively clear.
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Which brings me back to Zelenskyy. I honestly don’t know anything about his conventional politics, so I can’t speak to them, only the leadership and heroism I’m seeing right now. What’s fascinating is his story arc. He was a genuine television and movie star before he got into politics. He won the Ukrainian version of Dancing with the Stars in 2006. He had a show in which he played a schoolteacher who was elected President of Ukraine after a video of his surreptitiously recorded anti-corruption rant went viral. (How’s that for life imitating art?) He also appeared in the following ribald (and hilarious) bit of stage comedy in front of a televised audience. (There’s no translation available, but you don’t really need one):
And yet, this is the same man who gave the following rhetorically powerful inauguration speech in 2019, in which he proved that there was a great deal more to his appeal than pretending to play the piano with his unmentionables:
So which Zelenskyy are we seeing now? I suspect it’s both. A man who cares about his country deeply enough to risk his life for it, but whose remarkable sense of humor is, I suspect, a key ingredient in his popularity. (Zelenskyy received with 73% of the vote.) I have long held the theory that men who take themselves too seriously are the least trustworthy sort under any circumstances. Those who can’t laugh at themselves are, at the very least, likely to be resistant to even the most constructive criticism, and are therefore much more likely to be recalcitrant in their positions. Even, and perhaps especially, in their most dangerous ones.
In other words, men like Putin.
It is precisely for these reasons that I fear the sort of escalation that Putin may be willing to undertake in the coming days. At the command of one of the world’s most feared military arsenals, he nevertheless appears to have seriously miscalculated. If he believed that storming Ukraine would be a cakewalk, he couldn’t have been more wrong. On the contrary, it has turned out to be a surprising embarrassment that has exposed both Russian strategy and military confidence as significantly out of touch, quite possibly because it is out of date. Here’s N.S. Lyons, in an outstanding piece of analysis at The Upheaval:
[I]f Putin or his generals thought that Ukraine’s people would welcome his forces as liberators, its cities would surrender, and its leader flee, this was a self-induced delusion. Absolutely enraged Ukrainians have instead put up ferocious resistance, flocking to defend their homes and their nation. Ukraine’s army says it has raised some 100,000 new troops in just the last 24 hours, mostly ordinary citizens who have signed up to fight street-by-street in grinding urban warfare.
If Russian military leaders were counting on pulling off an easy blitzkrieg campaign that would succeed in only a few days, as they appear to have been, this plan evaporated on first contact with the enemy. Russian special forces sent to quickly seize crucial airfields near Kyiv were apparently annihilated. Russia’s air force has somehow still failed to secure air superiority. Column after Column after Russian military column has been totally wrecked.
Seemingly unprepared for an extended operation, Russian logistics appear to be a shambles. Its aircraft don’t seem to have enough munitions to provide proper air support. Mechanized units are ending up lost, out of fuel, and ridiculed all over the internet. As of Monday morning the front remained some 30 km north of the capital – the same place it was Saturday. Estimates of Russian causalities after four days of fighting range from hundreds to thousands – compared, just for context, to 15,000 Soviet soldiers lost in Afghanistan over 10 years.
All this could be more easily dismissed as just predictable Ukrainian and Western propaganda if it wasn’t becoming more and more obvious by the day that Russia is floundering in achieving any of its major military objectives. Russia’s forces may still recover and muddle through to victory in the end, at immense cost to themselves and Ukraine. But the paper tiger of unstoppable Russian military might – the core narrative of Putin’s political legitimacy – has been torn apart. Already two of Russia’s richest oligarchs, Mikhail Fridman and Oleg Deripaska, have released statements openly opposing the war.
Did Putin really understand nothing of the heroism of the human spirit when defending home and loved ones against even the greatest odds? Did he ever read anything about the Blitz, about how bombardment only increased the British people’s resolve? For that matter did he learn anything from the history of fierce Slavic fierce resolve in the face of foreign invasion? Did he know nothing of Warsaw? Or Stalingrad? No, apparently he didn’t really understand any of these lessons from humanity’s past. Perhaps because his world had shrank to no longer be much of a human world at all.
So as his dreams of being the next Peter the Great die in Ukraine, and the chance of polonium finding its way into his borscht grows exponentially, Putin may also soon learn the truth that politics – and war, that extension of politics by other means – is indeed not a game, but “a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin.”
With the power to split the atom, and a demonstrated willingness to purposefully kill civilians in the current conflict, the fact that this war isn’t going well for Putin only increases, in my view, the likelihood that he will do something rash. If we’re being honest, the invasion itself was a rash decision, and one many analysts didn’t think Putin would take. But he isn’t only doing poorly militarily. Consider that global public sentiment has turned heavily against him, including the loss of support from key allies and growing protests from his own people.
The cherry on top of Putin’s humiliation is the campaign of economic devastation being waged against Russia by the international community. It’s not just the unprecedented, economy-crippling sanctions, or the plan to boot Russia from the SWIFT system. They are cutting off Russia from her own cash reserves. From Timothy L. O’Brien at Bloomberg:
Putin has gone about making sure he has ample cash and other liquid assets on hand, a meaningful portion of it in gold. Russia now has the fourth-largest stash of reserves in the world after China, Japan and Switzerland. Putin plays the long game, and he correctly saw those reserves as insulation should sanctions follow a Ukraine invasion that only he and perhaps some close advisers knew was inevitable.
But here’s the rub: Most of Russia’s reserves are in institutions outside of the country. As my Bloomberg News colleagues have charted, 78% of that $630 billion is held in China, France, Japan, Germany, the U.S., the U.K. and elsewhere. And the West just told Russia that it plans to block its central bank’s access to those funds. Think about that. The West is attempting to disarm Russia by crippling its financial autonomy.
All of this considered, the stakes are exceedingly high, and growing higher by the hour. It is never a good idea to underestimate a narcissist who feels he has been wronged.
Zelenskyy has done a good job of appealing in solidarity to the average Russian person in the hopes that they could, by some means, get their leadership to respond. But I suspect the Russian people are significantly more powerless in changing the outcome of this war than the Ukrainian citizenry are. The Russians have been dealing with rigged elections that have kept Putin in power for many years. The Ukrainians have been armed by the president they actually wanted in office to defend their homeland; a president who may, if he survives, have to take back his initial promise to serve only one term. (Which, if we’re being honest, he was already considering.)
Most of us seem to love the Ukrainian underdog story. As rousing as it is, the decision on where things go from here is still firmly in Putin’s court, and we should not lose sight of that.
In one breathtakingly foolish maneuver, Putin has demonstrated the limits of Russian military capabilities and birthed into existence a new European political covenant of the sort that Western hawks have spent decades unsuccessfully advocating. The Kremlin’s actions have left Russia politically isolated, economically devastated, and militarily boxed in. As much as these conditions are of material benefit to the West, they are also extremely dangerous.
How does Putin deescalate the crisis he inaugurated? Such an outcome is hard to envision now. The tactical setbacks Moscow is experiencing in Ukraine and the collapse of Russia’s strategic fortunes in its regional environment will tempt Russian policymakers to escalate the conflict in order to deescalate it. Vladimir Putin’s decision to announce the activation of Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal is a clear signal to the West that it must pare back its support for Ukraine. It’s quite possible that Moscow could label Western nations providing material support to Kyiv co-belligerents in an active war against Russia. It could violently interdict weapons shipments into Ukraine, or conduct cyberattacks on vital elements of Western civilian infrastructure. Already, NATO-aligned naval vessels have found themselves in Russia’s crosshairs. Whether by accident or as a shot across NATO’s bow, it’s not hard to imagine a Russian strike on a Western asset that cannot be ignored.
At the moment, there is precisely no appetite in the West for allowing Russia a face-saving way out of this crisis. Moscow misjudged its adversaries. The West misjudged Russia. And Ukraine couldn’t possibly have imagined the outpouring of support for its efforts to sustain the fight. Everyone’s assumptions about how this conflict would play out proved inaccurate. Those assumptions will need to be replaced with new assumptions. There will, therefore, be a lot more fighting to come until all parties have discovered and reestablished a durable equilibrium in the region. At the moment, Putin has a lot to prove, and the stakes as he views them are quite possibly existential—both for his regime and the greater Russia he has set out to reconstitute. As unappetizing as the prospect is, Western policymakers must consider the circumstances that Russia needs in order to confidently deescalate this situation.
This is an exquisitely delicate moment. Among Ukraine’s Western supporters, the temptation toward triumphalism will be difficult to reject, but cooler heads must prevail. Ukrainian’s national ambitions cannot be sacrificed, or the West will be menaced further by revisionist actors all over the globe. But the Russian regime also needs a soft place to land if it is expected to accept a meaningful peace that doesn’t leave Ukraine a broken nation in a perpetual state of semi-frozen conflict on the borders of NATO. Today, with bullets flying, bombs bursting, and a burgeoning humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in real-time, that’s a hard pill to swallow. But a failure to make those preparations today could produce an infinitely more terrible set of circumstances tomorrow.
Or as Megan McArdle more succinctly put it in her introductory comment on the above piece, “I suspect there is no such thing as the unconditional surrender of a nuclear-armed power.”
Sobering words. And as rockets continue to fly in Kiev tonight, they represent a reality we’ll all be considering more urgently in the days to come.
UPDATE: Musk delivered: