We all buy into Zelensky’s brand Ukraine

We all buy into Zelensky’s brand Ukraine. By Hugo Rifkind.

You’ll have seen the video from the little island. Everyone has, I think. The Russian warship tells the Ukrainian defenders to stand down. “Should I tell him to go f*** himself?” we hear a Ukrainian muse, and then he does.

Perhaps you also saw the thing about the Lviv brewery, which has switched production from beer to Molotov cocktails, apparently with a new label on the bottles, which reads “Putin is a dickhead”. …

You’ll have seen President Zelensky, out on the street in Kyiv, making it clear he’s going nowhere. “I need ammunition not a ride,” he said, and I doubt any of us will forget that. Those farm tractors, pulling away captured Russian hardware. “February harvest,” joked the Ukrainian army’s Twitter feed. That video, just yesterday (Monday), of the guy in jeans who calmly picked up an anti-tank mine and carried it off into the bushes, while smoking a cigarette.

There’s inspirational bravery in all of this, obviously, but take a moment to notice the tonal consistency, too. Fortitude, humour, scorn. A fortnight ago, in lazy stereotype, Ukraine was all vodka, fields and occasionally good cheekbones, nestling vaguely in the mind pretty much where it nestles on the map, which is somewhere between Russia and Poland. Whereas now? My God, what a brand. …

The Russians are the disinformation masters? Not any more:

For the last decade, Russia is known to have been developing a pioneering sort of hybrid warfare, combining traditional weaponry with awesome cyber and disinformation strategies. And on the latter front — dezinformatsiya, they call it — well, where the hell are they? Never mind not taking Kyiv. The useless bastards haven’t even taken Twitter. …

Not everybody seems to have got the new Ukraine branding memo, and this weekend Russian state media and their fellow online travellers were trying very hard to make hay with a nasty video tweeted by the Ukrainian National Guard. It showed members of Ukraine’s small but undeniably far-right Azov Battalion referring to Russia’s Chechen Muslim allies as “orcs”, and dipping their bullets in pig fat.

For Russia, a story like this would normally be gold dust, perfect for sowing doubt in the minds of the sort of western liberal whose main goal in life is not to be called a racist on the internet. As a general rule, moreover, you can probably count upon social media being well-populated by people who will weigh up invasion, slaughter and threats of nuclear annihilation on one hand, and frontline soldiers making bigoted jokes on the other, and decide that the moral scales here were too finely balanced to call.

This week, though, that’s just not going to be the story. Because, whatever is going on with the Ukrainian National Guard, and however badly they need a new social media manager (look, I’m not saying it’s a priority), nobody, right now, would believe that Brand Ukraine belongs to a small handful of soldiers with alarming tattoos. Rather, it belongs to President Volodymyr Zelensky himself.

A star is born:

Does he sound like any politician you have ever heard before? When he addressed Russians directly last week, he very clearly knew what he was doing, but not like Emmanuel Macron or even Barack Obama know what they are doing. Rather, it was more like Jon Stewart knew what he was doing when he did a monologue on The Daily Show. Shareable, intimate, full of lines you wanted to repeat, perfectly pitched for social media consumption.

What he teaches us, I suppose, is that in the age of hybrid warfare there is more than one way to be battle-hardened. Yes, Zelensky was a comedian who played the president in a sitcom, yes he voiced Paddington Bear, yes he once won the Ukrainian version of Strictly . . . and yes, there is viral video online of him pretending to play the piano with his massive penis. All of this is true.

He also, though, won the 2019 election with almost three quarters of the vote against an incumbent president, and he did it almost entirely through YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. Through a blend of irreverence and moral righteousness, which itself concealed a rigorous discipline of message, he cast his opponents as creaking, oligarch-friendly dinosaurs and sold his country a whole new vision of national identity. …

Lesson for the West:

Whatever happens with Russian firepower, though, we should remember this as the week when Russian disinformation has shown its paltry limits. Against a divided, self-loathing society, yes, it can run amok. Ukraine doesn’t seem to be one, though. Let’s not be one, either.