Zelensky is Ukraine's greatest weapon
Words as weapons for strategic gain
In some wars, a single figure can be a strategic factor. A Lincoln, a Clemenceau, a Roosevelt. Churchill. Ukrainian Pres. Volodymyr Zelensky’s performance in the war’s first week has vaulted him onto that list. But as well as the comedian-turned-actor-turned-president has done, he’s also now being hunted by Russian forces. And what happens to him will change the course of the conflict.
Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin’s declared war aim is to “demilitarize” Ukraine, but he’s also likely looking to overthrow the Ukrainian government. Reportedly, Zelensky and his family are at the top of the Russian target list, and the Kremlin’s sent hit squads to Kyiv to that end. “They want to destroy Ukraine politically,” said Zelensky, “by destroying the head of the state.”
It’s more than knocking out a president. It’s personal. Zelensky’s words have become the most powerful weapons in Ukraine’s arsenal. Not since Winston Churchill has a leader at war moved so many with so few words.
On Thursday, Feb. 24, Russian forces attacked in what Putin called a “special military operation.” That night, Zelensky pressed European Union leaders on the personal stakes. “This may be the last time you see me alive,” he told them, according to two officials familiar with the comments. The EU has since moved to implement harsh sanctions against Russia, and for the first time in history, it sent weapons and lethal aid to a country—Ukraine.
On Feb. 25, Zelensky posted a one-minute video, speaking in Ukrainian, in which he affirmed, “We are here. We are in Kyiv. We are protecting Ukraine,” with top aides in the background. The next day, in response to a US offer of evacuation from Kyiv, Zelensky responded, “I need ammunition, not a ride.” At his first in-person press conference this week, he acknowledged his own fears, but then asserted, as a president-at-war, “I simply do not have the right” to be afraid.
On Mar. 1, Pres. Zelensky spoke to a special session of the European Union legislature. For seven minutes he spoke off-the-cuff, which he drove home by reminding them, “We are giving our lives for the right to be equal,” and made an urgent request that the rest of Europe “prove that you are with us and will not let us go.” A standing ovation followed. The speech’s translator wept.
At war, intangibles become tangible. Zelensky’s words have raised morale, recruited volunteers, and rallied the world. When Ukrainians see their president stay, unshaven, tired, in an olive drab t-shirt—they stay too. They fight.
That means more defenders. The battlefield math now begins to favor Ukraine—Russian losses will not be replaced quickly—while everyday more Ukrainians with weapons show up, armed with local knowledge and an ample supply of ammunition now flowing across the border. Russian troops will soon find themselves locked in a hostile country where everyone hates them and most want them dead. In the coming weeks and months, this war will turn on Zelensky’s disposition. He is the center of gravity.
Vladimir Putin, in contrast, has shrunk from the moment. He’s isolated, having kept his top advisors at ridiculous distances out of an extreme fear of COVID-19. He’s petty, having publicly belittled his spy chief for the world to see. He’s irrational, having claimed the Ukrainians are a Nazi regime (led by a Jewish president?). He’s cold, with reports that the Russian government may not repatriate their fallen soldiers’ bodies for fear of stoking antiwar sentiment. It’s not hard to see why some observers have questioned his state of mind.
The split-screen—Zelensky versus Putin—is a striking contrast that was completely unexpected. A dozen days ago, nobody would have predicted the ex-comedian and barely-two-year president would outfox the ex-KGB operative and dictator-of-two-decades. Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” has been bested by a sitcom star.
That’s why the manhunt for Zelensky and his family is the world’s most consequential game of hide-and-seek.
Russia’s best battlefield opportunity at this point is to kill or capture Zelensky, and swiftly lean-in to the chaos that would follow, to terminate the conflict on Russian terms, holding onto advantageous terrain, or extracting extreme political concessions. Research indicates decapitation strategies like this can work, but, according to at least one academic who’s surveyed existing studies, they “are unlikely to be war-winning silver bullets.”
Zelensky’s shown he’s smart enough to dodge that bullet anyway. He’s likely already recorded an address to the Ukrainian people, and the world, in the event of his death or detention. Should that come to pass, Zelensky might be an even more potent symbol of resistance, a Ukrainian martyr that feeds morale for days, years, and generations to come.
But that isn’t how this will likely go. Ukrainians know every inch of soil, every street light, every block and building, and they’ll protect Russia's Target Number One from every Kremlin thug and assassin. Remember the Iraq War’s “Ace of Spades”—Saddam Hussein? It took US forces 268 days to find Saddam. That was in a desert environment, not the dense urban jungle of Kyiv.
Words can be weapons. Wit fused to will, forged for strategic purpose. Zelensky’s shown he’s fully-loaded and knows how to use them. And he’s just getting started.
Reader’s note: These are the author’s views, and not those any U.S. government agency.