Only three years ago Volodymyr Zelensky starred as the president of Ukraine in a fictional sitcom. Now his only performance is one of heroism in the fight against Russian aggression.
Despite nightly bombings — or perhaps because of them — President Zelensky has amplified the plight of the Ukrainian people to an audience of millions. Through regular video recordings — boomeranged around the globe via social media — Zelensky has crafted persuasive and meaningful messaging that has rallied the Ukrainian people, and motivated governments and corporations around the globe.
From a communications perspective, Zelensky has done everything to motivate the Ukrainian people at home. Wars (especially defensive wars) are often a unifying moment when support for political leaders increases. But Zelensky has exceeded all expectations, nearly tripling his approval rating from 31 percent in late December to 90 percent in late February. His willingness to stay put in Kyiv and his defiance of Russian aggression — his now-famous quip, “I need ammunition, not a ride” — has endeared him to the Ukrainian people.
Similarly, Zelensky has made a compelling case to the West, which continues to support Ukraine through military, diplomatic, and humanitarian channels. Five days before the invasion, in front of the Munich Security Council, Zelensky warned the West of the dangers of appeasement, comparing Germany’s 1939 annexation of Danzig (Gdansk) to Russia’s 2014 fait accompli in Crimea. Zelensky has repeatedly evoked historical imagery that has in part led to widespread comparisons between Russia and Nazi Germany, even earning Zelensky a nickname, the “Jewish Winston Churchill.”
What’s more, it’s hard to ignore Zelensky’s ability to influence multinational corporations, which have left Russia in droves despite economic losses. McDonald’s, Coca Cola and Starbucks to name a few have already announced plans to terminate operations in Russia. With 847 restaurants in Russia, McDonald’s generates almost 10 percent of global revenue from Russia and Ukraine. Zelensky’s ability to drive McDonald’s out of Russia is in itself a moral victory.
McDonald’s stands as a sign of globalization, prosperity, and Western influence. Author and New York Times columnist Thomas Freidman famously came up with the “Golden Arch Theory of Conflict Prevention”: No two countries with a McDonald’s have ever waged war with each other. That theory will appear to hold as McDonald’s exits Russia for the first time since the end of communist rule; in no small part because of Zelensky’s ability to craft and deliver an effective message.