Russkia-Ukraine war: President Zelensky running rings around Putin in the battle for global hearts and minds

Headshot of John Flint
John FlintThe West Australian
Social media has been a vital tool for Ukrainians who’ve proven adept at using smart phone and dash cash footage to maximum strategic effect, helping the embattled nation win the fight for hearts and minds.
Camera IconSocial media has been a vital tool for Ukrainians who’ve proven adept at using smart phone and dash cash footage to maximum strategic effect, helping the embattled nation win the fight for hearts and minds. Credit: The West Australian

With each passing day, the physical war in Ukraine gets more brutal and desperate for its 43 million citizens, who haven’t yet fled to its western neighbours.

The courage and guile of its vastly-outnumbered forces, bolstered by volunteer fighters who’ve suddenly put down their pens, shovels, paint-brushes to pick up rifles, has been remarkable.

The other war – the battle for hearts and minds – was won in the first few hours of the invasion. Ukrainians have been running rings around the Russians in the information war ever since.

With immediacy, authenticity, creativity and humour, its social media battalions have stirred a global audience and governments into action, repairing fractured alliances in the process.

No other Russian military incursion in recent times, like Crimea and Syria, generated anything close to this level of outrage and international solidarity against Russia and more specifically it’s despotic and unhinged leader Vladimir Putin.

Ordinary Ukrainians have also succeeded in making Putin look like an isolated buffoon, only “missing a big red clown nose and huge clown shoes,” as one Twitter user commented.

The only thing stopping NATO from intervening is his big red nuke button.

Yet, despite the threat of nuclear annihilation, there are still growing calls in the west for military action. Such has been the success and resourcefulness of Ukraine’s clever use of social media and the power of video.

With Russia’s superior might starting to count in the ground war it becomes even more vital for Ukrainians to keep producing real-time footage and personal stories that keep us emotionally invested; to ensure the eyes of the world stay on them, maintain the outrage and for countries to tighten their squeeze on Russia and its crumbling economy.

Smart phones, dash cams and encrypted apps have served other valuable purposes. Apart from boosting morale on the home front, they’re being used by an army of citizen scouts to report enemy activity and movements to their own military, who can then adjust tactics accordingly.

Phone footage is also vital evidence being gathered by the International Criminal Court which has already begun investigating war crimes.

Digital resistance has given many Ukrainians a sense of purpose. That and making Molotov cocktails. Every photo and video shared is one in the eye for Putin.

Zlata, 3, fleeing the conflict from neighboring Ukraine with her face painted in the colors of the Ukrainian flag stands at the Romanian-Ukrainian border, in Siret, Romania, Thursday, March 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Andreea Alexandru)
Camera IconZlata, 3, fleeing the conflict from neighboring Ukraine with her face painted in the colours of the Ukrainian flag stands at the Romanian-Ukrainian border, in Siret, Romania. Credit: Andreea Alexandru/AP
War in Ukraine – 77-year-old grandmother arrested by eight Russian police Yolina Osibova
Camera IconA 77-year-old grandmother arrested by eight Russian police. Credit: Twitter/supplied
Firefighters extinguish a building of Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) after a rocket attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 2, 2022. Russia's assault on Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city, continued Wednesday, with a Russian strike hitting the regional police and intelligence headquarters, according to the Ukrainian state emergency service. (AP Photo/Andrew Marienko)
Camera IconFirefighters extinguish a building of Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) after a rocket attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, Ukraine, Wednesday. Credit: Andrew Marienko/AP

Ukrainians have revealed themselves to the world to be highly-resourceful, patriotic, resilient, warm, humorous people, willing to give their lives for democratic and free Ukraine.

All these traits were highly-evident in 2013-14 Revolution of Dignity, when small protests in Kyiv against the country’s then-president Viktor Yanukovych, a Putin-puppet, morphed into a fierce and heroic resistance.

The nation-defining struggle is brilliantly captured in the Oscar-nominated Netflix documentary Winter on Fire; a backgrounder to what is unfolding now. Putin and his generals clearly underestimated the fighting spirit of Ukrainians, who see their future as part of Europe.

There have been too many examples of social media posts that have gone viral to cite them all here.

From stealing Russian tanks to defiantly blocking their path, to babies born in bomb shelters. A Ukrainian women feeding and giving hot tea to a surrendered Russian soldier and giving him her phone to call his mother was one of many poignant moments.

Less warm and fuzzy is the Ukrainian fighter attaching a silencer to his rifle delivering a smiling message to the invaders, “Dudes, you are f*****.”

Ukrainians’ trolling of the Russian military’s mishaps – getting lost and running out of fuel - has been gleefully encouraged by its government.

“Have you captured a Russian tank or armoured personnel carrier and are worried about how to declare it? Keep calm and continue to defend the Motherland! There is no need to declare [them as income],” Ukraine’s tax office announced.

This is the moment a Russian soldier broke down in tears as he spoke to his mother on the phone after surrendering to Ukrainians. Footage shows a young fighter from Putin's forces being comforted by a group of women after throwing down his weapon. One of the women tells him 'everything his OK' while patting him on the back. He is then seen drinking tea and eating a pasty as another woman offers him a phone. The young prisoner of war blows kisses as his mother answers, and bursts into tears as soon as he sees her. One of the other women is heard speaking to her down the phone, saying: 'Natasha, God be with you. We will call you later. He is alive and healthy.'
Camera IconThis is the moment a Russian soldier broke down in tears as he spoke to his mother on the phone after surrendering to Ukrainians. Credit: Twitter/Twitter
Serhii, father of teenager Iliya, cries on his son's lifeless body lying on a stretcher at a maternity hospital converted into a medical ward in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
Camera IconSerhii, father of teenager Iliya, cries on his son's lifeless body lying on a stretcher at a maternity hospital converted into a medical ward in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka) Credit: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP
FILE - Ukrainian soldiers take part in an exercise for the use of NLAW anti-tank missiles at the Yavoriv military training ground, close to Lviv, western Ukraine, Friday, Jan. 28, 2022. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is the largest conflict that Europe has seen since World War II, with Russia conducting a multi-pronged offensive across the country. The Russian military has pummeled wide areas in Ukraine with air strikes and has conducted massive rocket and artillery bombardment resulting in massive casualties. (AP Photo/Pavlo Palamarchuk, File)
Camera IconUkrainian soldiers take part in an exercise for the use of NLAW anti-tank missiles at the Yavoriv military training ground, close to Lviv, western Ukraine. Credit: Pavlo Palamarchuk/AP

The undoubted star of Ukraine’s resistance is its charismatic president Volodymyr Zelensky, a former actor and comedian. His address to Russian people, urging them to oppose the invasion, was masterful. “It’s been a long time since anyone spoke to the Russian people with that kind of love,” one Russian commentator said.

He’s been a calm and re-assuring leader to his own people, and his one-liners have won him legions of admirers, including his now famous rejection of US evacuation, saying with maximum Hollywood-effect: “I need ammunition, not a ride.”

And he uses his own social media channels including Instagram (14.4 million followers) and Telegram, which is popular in both Ukraine and Russia, to swiftly respond to rumours or the enemy’s own propaganda.

After Russian media suggested that he’d fled the country, Zelensky posted a video of himself and his top officials together in Kyiv.

“We’re all here … And it will stay that way,” he said. His Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, standing behind Zelenskyy, displayed the time stamp on his phone to show it wasn’t pre-recorded.

Whether or not he’s employing some of his acting skills – and it doesn’t really matter - Zelensky is compelling and convincing in his delivery.

His imploring to the EU had the translator choking in tears.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen declared him “an inspiration”. The EU, which has never before given arms to a war zone, promised €500 million (A$745 million) in aid and arms. Australia has itself pledged $105 million in aid to Ukraine.

Compared with Zelensky, Putin is a cardboard cut-out. It’s no wonder he wants Zelensky dead. The 45-year-old is making all the dictator’s nightmares come true: a stronger NATO, a more united Europe and protests in his own cities.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a press conference in Kyiv on March 3, 2022. - Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky called on the West on March 3, 2022, to increase military aid to Ukraine, saying Russia would advance on the rest of Europe otherwise. "If you do not have the power to close the skies, then give me planes!" Zelensky said at a press conference. "If we are no more then, God forbid, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia will be next," he said, adding: "Believe me." (Photo by Sergei SUPINSKY / AFP)
Camera IconUkrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Credit: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks during a joint news conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz following their talks in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022. Putin said Moscow is ready for security talks with the U.S. and NATO, as the Russian military announced a partial troop withdrawal from drills near Ukraine â?? new signs that may suggest a Russian invasion of its neighbor isn't imminent despite snowballing Western fears. (Sergey Guneev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Camera IconRussian President Vladimir Putin. Credit: Sergey Guneev/AP

Of course, there has been lots of outside help. The underground hacker group Anonymous and other hacktivist groups have been busy causing as much cyber-damage as possible, disabling the website of the state-controlled Russian news agency RT, among others.

Even technology billionaires have pitched in. Elon Musk, responded to a request for his satellite internet service, Starlink, to replace terrestrial networks brought down by the war. A truckload of Starlink dishes arrived, but have so far not been needed.

Ukraine is also getting help from the BBC in the form of old-tech. The British broadcaster launched two launched two new shortwave radio frequencies to keep Ukrainians informed about the war. Parts of Russia will also be able to receive the four hours of World Service news.

Those Russians who are aware of what is going on have had to rely on social media platforms like Telegram.

On Saturday, access to Facebook was blocked in Russia and western media organisations were forced to suspend operations due to a new law which criminalises and threatens to jail journalists for up to 15 years if they deviated from the Kremlin script regarding its “special military operation”, which can’t be described as a war or invasion.

Independent Russian media outlets have also been muzzled. One of them, TV Rain announced on Thursday that it would suspend operations indefinitely.

On the same day independent radio station Echo of Moscow was liquidated by its board.

The newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which survived the murders of six of its journalists, could be on the verge of shutting down as well.

Dmitri A. Muratov, the Novaya Gazeta journalist who shared the Nobel Peace Prize last year, told The New York Times it could be the end of the road for the publication.

A demonstrator holds a sign reading 'No war!' in St. Petersburg, Russia, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. Hundreds of people gathered in the center of Moscow on Thursday, protesting against Russia's attack on Ukraine. Many of the demonstrators were detained. Similar protests took place in other Russian cities, and activists were also arrested. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)
Camera IconA demonstrator holds a sign reading 'No war!' Credit: Dmitri Lovetsky/AP
An armed man stands by the remains of a Russian military vehicle in Bucha, close to the capital Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, March 1, 2022. Russia on Tuesday stepped up shelling of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, pounding civilian targets there. Casualties mounted and reports emerged that more than 70 Ukrainian soldiers were killed after Russian artillery recently hit a military base in Okhtyrka, a city between Kharkiv and Kyiv, the capital. (AP Photo/Serhii Nuzhnenko)
Camera IconAn armed man stands by the remains of a Russian military vehicle in Bucha, close to the capital Kyiv, Ukraine. Credit: Serhii Nuzhnenko/AP

The Kremlin has been pumping out its own propaganda via the dystopian-sounding Russia’s Ministry of Enlightenment.

“We are witnessing an unprecedented wave of lies, fake news, distorted and fabricated facts aimed at discrediting our actions,” it has claimed. “Goebbels-style Western propaganda was predictable. It cannot be trusted.

“The Russian Army is fighting neither Ukraine nor the Ukrainians. The tasks to clear Ukraine of Nazism and to demilitarise it will be accomplished.”

Despite the Kremlin’s best efforts and its track-record for cyber-warfare such as using bots to sow chaos and division and influence foreign elections, it is struggling to control the narrative within its own borders.

“In the past, nation-states have had the upper hand in controlling the narrative of conflicts,” Dr Kent Bausman, Professor of Sociology at Maryville University told Forbes magazine

“Social media changed all that.”

More than one week into the war, President Zelensky told reporters on Thursday he was getting about three hours of sleep a night. Amid tight security, he used the press conference to implore the West to do more to save his country. On Saturday he was back on social media berating NATO for not lending air support.

Despite all the goodwill, generosity and outpourings of solidarity, it looks like Ukrainians will fight this war alone.

Asked if he was afraid of dying, he responded: “If a person is not afraid of losing his life, or the lives of his children, there is something unwell about that person.”

But as president, “I simply do not have the right (to be afraid)”, he added.

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