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What the rhetoric used by Zelenskyy and Putin can tell us about the war in Ukraine


The stakes in Ukraine continue to ratchet up. So too does the rhetoric from the leaders at the center of the conflict - Presidents Zelenskyy and Putin. To see how the information battle is playing out, let's turn to Nina Jankowicz. She's with the Centre for Information Resilience and has long studied the intersection of democracy and technology in Eastern and Central Europe. Good morning, Nina.

NINA JANKOWICZ: Good morning, Ayesha. Great to be with you.

RASCOE: So let's start with President Zelenskyy. You know, he forged into this space really from the outset of the war and became this international figure, basically giving nightly addresses. How is he using these addresses, especially when you're thinking about a domestic audience?

JANKOWICZ: Yeah. So Zelenskyy has been a really interesting figure in Ukraine since he was elected in 2019. You know, there was a lot of skepticism about him at the outset. He has this background in entertainment, but he's really brought those entertainment chops to bear in communicating with his people since the start of the full scale invasion on February 24. As you said, he's doing these very regular, almost nightly addresses that really evoke Churchill or perhaps FDR, his fireside chats. He talks about gains that the Ukrainian army has made in the past 24 hours. He gives critical information about bomb shelters and different intelligence. And I think most importantly, he rallies the public around Ukraine.

RASCOE: And with Zelenskyy, he's also trying to keep Ukraine front and center internationally, right? Here is his speech that was played before the U.N. General Assembly last month.


PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: A crime has been committed against Ukraine, and we demand just punishment. The crime was committed against our state borders. The crime was committed against the lives of our people.

RASCOE: And that's what he was trying to do in this speech, right?

JANKOWICZ: Yeah, absolutely. Over and over again, not only at the U.N. General Assembly, but in front of Congress, in front of various parliaments around the world, even at things like, you know, film festivals and award ceremonies, Zelenskyy has really communicated this authentic, emotional human image that's frankly based in fact.

RASCOE: You mean when he's saying that there are crimes that have been committed to us - obviously the invasion, but also atrocities and other things are being committed against Ukraine, that there are facts to back that up?

JANKOWICZ: Yeah, absolutely. So we know that Russia dropped missiles, for instance, on Kyiv that hit a playground and a civilian footbridge recently. We know that Russia is targeting civilian infrastructure. And frankly, we know that Russia has been instituting a fairly draconian regime in these occupied territories where it held sham referenda recently. We know all of this through open-source research. It's not anything that Russia can kind of explain away. We have the receipts, so to speak.

RASCOE: So by contrast, we have the example of President Putin at a recent rally he held in Red Square after the illegal annexation of four regions in Ukraine. Let's listen to a bit and have you talk to us out of the clip.



JANKOWICZ: Gosh, there's so much to unpack in that one sentence there. So Putin is saying that people came to the referendum to be with their historical nation of Russia. People didn't come by choice to that referendum. The folks who voted in that referendum are doing so out of duress. Not to mention that this whole kind of narrative about Ukraine being one nation historically with Russia is part of Russian propaganda. And this idea of two brotherly nations or of one nation that is part of Russia is frankly used to try to justify this unjust war that Putin has been waging that has killed not only thousands of Ukrainians, but thousands of Russians that have been sent to the front as well.

RASCOE: You talked about the way Zelenskyy presents himself. How does Putin present himself to his public?

JANKOWICZ: Yeah, the two images could not be farther apart, in my opinion, Ayesha. At the beginning of this conflict, we saw Putin sitting next to a desk looking quite slovenly, actually, leaning back in a chair with his tie askew, giving these meandering addresses that went very deep into kind of the minutia of this propagandistic narrative. And then we see this very calculated image also of these big rallies in Red Square, meetings that look very staged between him and his main generals or his advisers. It couldn't be any more different than that authentic image, that kind of very human image that Zelenskyy is projecting.

RASCOE: Is there a clear winner and loser in all of this when it comes to the messaging or the way the messaging is received? Or is that not the way to characterize it?

JANKOWICZ: Well, I think especially when you look back at when Russia first illegally annexed Crimea and invaded the Donbas region of Ukraine in 2014, Ukraine's messaging has absolutely come a very, very long way. We used to have these extremely kind of post-Soviet bureaucratic messages that didn't really resonate with not only Ukrainians, but didn't really resonate with the international community. And I think what we've seen over the past eight months is a totally different messaging style from the Zelenskyy administration and from Ukraine. And that's shown in the continued support that we see for the Ukrainian population. You know, I've seen Ukrainian flags as far away as Boise, Idaho. We see those flags everywhere. We see kind of the support for Ukraine and the plight of its people. And I think that speaks to the resonance that Zelenskyy's message has had throughout the world.

RASCOE: That's Nina Jankowicz. Her book is "How To Lose The Information War." Thank you so much for joining us.

JANKOWICZ: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MF DOOM'S "SARSAPARILLA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.