Ukrainians question Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s ‘rose-tinted’ speeches

For more than 650 days in a row, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has given at least one video address to the nation — praising his troops, celebrating advances along the front lines and reaffirming resolve in the face of Russian aggression.

The message is always “we’re moving forward”, with the aim of maintaining optimism at home and abroad, according to three people familiar with the communications strategy. The policy is applied at all state levels, from ministries and local administrations to military commanders and includes strict censorship of bad news such as Ukrainian casualty numbers or successful Russian strikes.

But with Ukraine enjoying few military achievements this year and western support faltering, the communications strategy is creating a rift between the presidential administration and military leadership, say officials from the armed forces, former presidential staffers and communication strategists.

“We need to add more realism . . . and we have to be as courageous about it as we were on February 24 [2022],” said a person connected to the presidential communications strategy in reference to the day Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Political rivals have begun to openly criticise Zelenskyy, with Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko recently accusing the president of authoritarianism and even comparing him to Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Meanwhile, military leaders have argued that the gap between official messaging and the situation on the ground is no longer convincing, and therefore not motivating Ukrainians or the country’s western partners.

The differences between Zelenskyy and his military leaders burst into the open last month when Valeriy Zaluzhnyi (centre), Ukraine’s top general, said that the land war was at a ‘stalemate’, a taboo word in Kyiv © Oleg Petrasyuk/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

But Zelenskyy sees an optimistic message as the only way to reassure Ukraine doubters in the west and shore up the confidence of Ukrainian businesses, a vital source of tax revenues for the war effort.

“If we are pessimistic, we can expect [people] to stop developing their businesses in Ukraine and stop paying taxes, and we will not have enough money to keep fighting,” said an official.

The differences burst into the open last month, when Ukraine’s top general Valeriy Zaluzhnyi told The Economist that the land war was at a “stalemate” — a taboo word in Kyiv, despite the fact the front lines in eastern Ukraine have barely moved since the country’s counteroffensive began in June.

Zaluzhnyi’s candour surprised many Ukrainians, and some western leaders even called Kyiv to ask what it meant and whether negotiations were now a priority, according to the official.

Iryna Zolotar, adviser and head of communications for Ukraine’s former defence minister Oleksii Reznikov, said the optimism strategy initially worked, helping Ukrainians believe in themselves and their ability to resist the invasion.

But it had now created a confusing narrative where “expectations are overstated and do not correspond to the real state of affairs”, Zolotar said. Media articles describing things as “not as good” as the official line were viewed as false, she said. Instead, the government needed to demonstrate “balanced realism”.

A Ukrainian serviceman looks on, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Bakhmut, Donetsk region
A former staffer said that an example of the current strategy was Ukraine’s frequent use of ‘counterpropaganda’ during the 10-month battle for the east Ukrainian town of Bakhmut © Yan Dobronosov/Reuters

“In order for society not to build castles in the air, and to take off its rose-tinted glasses . . . it is necessary to stop being afraid to speak the truth,” she said. “That victory will come with difficulty, that it is a marathon and is long and exhausting.”

Zolotar said the current strategy had left audiences in the west asking why they should contribute their taxpayers’ money if Ukraine was always “about to win”.

Other communications advisers say the strategy shields Ukrainians and western public opinion from the urgency of the situation and undermines trust.

“Sometimes the fight — communicating what’s happening in real life — tells more than just a beautiful photo of the fight,” said one former senior staffer.

An example was Ukraine’s frequent use of “counterpropaganda” during the 10-month battle for the east Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, the former staffer said. This mirrored Russian tactics in trying to maintain an image of success, while western partners were telling Kyiv that Bakhmut was not worth the enormous losses.

Official channels on Telegram and other social media branded the fight with slogans such as “Fortress Bakhmut” and “unbreakable” Bakhmut — which disappeared in the days before Russia declared victory in May. Zelenskyy never officially acknowledged Ukraine’s retreat from Bakhmut, and in June the defence ministry presented continued Ukrainian attacks from the edge of the town as evidence it had not lost the battle.

The communications package covered up “the incredible levels of exhaustion, the suffering of thousands of families, enormous numbers of daily deaths, the tension and doubt”, said the former staffer. By glossing over bad news, the view from abroad was of “two propagandists fighting propaganda narratives”.

News about the war seeped through to the Ukrainian public via social media and word-of-mouth despite censorship, said Oksana Romaniuk, director at Ukraine’s Institute for Mass Information, a media monitoring organisation.

“Almost everybody in Ukraine has relatives or friends fighting or who have suffered directly from the war,” said Romaniuk. “If there is no negative information, it will kill the trust towards the government.”

Romaniuk pointed to shrinking audiences for Ukraine’s national “Telethon” — government-approved news bulletins broadcast by the main channels — as well as a recent poll by the US-based International Republican Institute that showed declining support for Zelenskyy.

Maryna Brylova, a 61-year-old Ukrainian language lecturer, said she had not watched the Telethon since the first days of the invasion but understood the president’s need to galvanise the nation.

“I think I belong to [those] who would like to receive positive news, but it is impossible to live without reality,” she said.


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