Posted on: March 7, 2022 Posted by: Glacier Staff Comments: 0

Photo by UNIAN

By Nick Stulga, News Editor

When Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy got an offer from the U.S. for refuge from the terrors of Russia’s invasion of his homeland, he refused with grace and grit in his bones. “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride,” Zelenskyy responded.

Little details like these, coupled with an uncoordinated and underprepared Putin, have helped Ukraine’s image immensely during the ongoing Russian invasion. 

Zelenskyy acted the part of the Ukrainian President in “Servant of the People,” a political satire created by Zelenskyy himself. Photo from The Economic Times.

Zelenskyy’s previous careers as an actor and comedian have helped boost his image and reputation in the international eye. He has cemented his status as a national hero through the use of reputation-boosting speeches and images of himself in military gear, aiding the Ukrainian war efforts.

Ironically, Zelenskyy’s acting career featured him in a show called “Servant of the People” where he played the role of a school teacher turned Ukrainian President, so maybe it should come as no surprise that he landed the role in real life as well.

“I feel like Zelenskky’s almost kind of made for this moment,” said Merri Fefles-Dunkle, a Moraine Valley history professor. “He knows how to use the camera for effect.”

Though it makes sense that Zelenskyy’s background would help him on the international stage, he hasn’t always been taken seriously in his own country. NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly, who was in Ukraine reporting a few weeks ago, said Zelenskyy’s poll numbers at the time were “abysmal. We struggled to find anyone who liked him.”

But his image has risen meteorically since the war began. Fefles said one reason is he plays the part of the average Ukrainian citizen shockingly well, although it might not completely be an act. This only makes his persona even more relatable to the international crowd.

“He’s showing up in different places and he’s in his shirtsleeves,” said Fefles. “Obviously he’s not been able to shave and looks kind of bedraggled. He looks like he’s one of the [Ukrainian] people.”

With this in mind, Fefles believes Zelenskyy is “winning the propaganda war,” as well as the “hearts and minds of the world.” At the same time, when it comes to public opinion, Russia slowly seems to be getting dragged under the harsh waves of Ukraine’s rough undercurrents.

“I don’t know anybody who is on the side of Russia at this point,” said Fefles. She notices that even China’s on the edge, what she calls “hedging,” waiting it out patiently. She says this is a smart move for China, as “by abstaining, they’re kind of keeping themselves in a comfortable position” to possibly invade their neighbor Taiwan.

I don’t know anybody who is on the side of Russia at this point.”

Merri Fefles, MV History Professor

On top of the leverage Ukraine has in the propaganda war, Zelenskyy has really been active in giving America what they want, which is an underdog to cheer for, says Moraine Valley history professor Jim McIntyre. 

“Americans love an underdog. We love the little guy fighting against the big guy and if not winning, holding their own,” said McIntyre. “Just the way the conflict has developed, Ukraine has given us that.” 

Math professor Jason King, who has been scrutinizing the situation, says Ukraine is using social media to affect the war by spreading stories such as one involving a confrontation on Ukraine’s Snake Island and the highly popular story of the Ghost of Kyiv.

King explains that Snake Island was a naval encounter between Russian and Ukrainian ships in which the Ukrainians were asked to surrender by the Russians. The Ukrainians supposedly told them “idi nahui,” which roughly translates to “go f**k yourself,” and then killed them. Russian state media later reported that “all the sailors were taken into custody instead.”

The story of the Ghost of Kyiv is boosting Ukrainian morale.

The Ghost of Kyiv is another more well-known morale-boosting story in which a single Ukrainian pilot supposedly ended up shooting down six Russian jets by himself in just the first 30 hours of the invasion. These stories help shape the world’s view of Ukraine as a force to be reckoned with, King says.

Russia, on the other hand, according to King, has used social media to spread disinformation and dissent in past conflicts, making them appear dishonest and untrustworthy. Comparing Putin to Zelenskyy, Fefles sees Putin as quite a disaster with his use of media.

“You’ve got Zelenskyy who’s using the camera to full effect, and then you’ve got Putin who, last week before the war started, had his own little meeting, an inner Security Council meeting, and it looked like these guys were in a hostage video,” Fefles said. “Like, oh my God, they’re being held for ransom. His optics are horrible.” 

Waves of outrage and unrest, including anti-war protests, have spread throughout Russia as the people watch the conflict unfold without an obscured view. Fefles says this was one of Putin’s big mistakes: not censoring media from his people. As a result, she says it has backfired on him.

Photo by Dmitry Serebryakov of AP
Protesters in Russia march in support of Ukraine, holding up a banner that reads “Ukraine–Peace, Russia–Freedom.”

The message Russia has been trying to tell the world isn’t working well on an international level, says history teacher Josh Fulton: “[Russia’s] crafting a message to Europe and the Americans that they need to ‘de-Nazify’ Ukraine, and that Ukraine’s not really a sovereign nation.”

This message mainly fails, he says, given that Ukraine’s President is Jewish himself and even lost family members during the Holocaust.

As Russia’s messaging falls flat, Putin is desperately clinging to a similar narrative that has played out multiple times in the past.

“Putin has kind of played by this book before in Georgia, in Chechnya, of backing groups that want to reunite with Russia or claim they do,” McIntyre said. He notes that Putin’s case “sounds hollow for the third time.” 

All in all, something seems to be lacking so far, not only in terms of messaging, but also militarily for Russia in this large-scale invasion.

“Looking at it by a practical standpoint, Kyiv and Kharkiv should have fallen by now,” McIntyre said. “Something in the Russian military is clearly not as effective.”

As the war rages on, Russia continues to make large advances in Ukraine, but Ukraine has pressed forward into a dangerous environment with the power of the media and a leader with a fierce, nationalistic attitude towards his opposition. Putin may be powerful, but so far Zelenskyy, along with his people, seems to be handling the battle of the media considerably better. 

“Zelenskyy seems right now to really be mastering social media,” Laura Lauzen-Collins, a psychology professor at Moraine, said. “He’s not just garnering support from his people, he’s garnering support from the world.”

MV collecting donations to help Ukraine

Through Tuesday, Moraine Valley’s International Student Ambassadors are collecting humanitarian aid for Ukraine and will be delivering the packages to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of St. Peter and Paul in Palos Park. Items needed include first aid supplies, sleeping bags, backpacks, socks, gloves and personal care supplies. See the full list here. Donations can be dropped off in the International Student Affairs office, room S217 (Building S).