Politics

The Most Uncanny Part of Watching the War in Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaking, with hand on his chest, in casual clothing.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday. Sergei Supinsky/Getty Images

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the public response from pundits and online observers alike has largely involved going bananas over Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. For a guy who used to be a comedian, his leadership has demonstrated qualities many people—particularly in the military subreddits I’ve been reading, full of young service members and vets—just haven’t witnessed except in movies and history books. Having come of age in a world where major world leaders are so insulated from personal risk that they’re whisked away by security teams at the first whiff of danger, many members of the American military are stunned that a commander in chief would actually risk his or her own skin—let alone brashly announce, when the United States offered him safety, that he needs “ammunition, not a ride.” The U.S. Marine Corps subreddit contains a post titled “Volodymyr Zelensky is about as motivating of a leader as I’ve seen in our lifetime,” with one sample reply reading: “Yep. I’d follow that guy into hell.” The idea of a political leader willing to die with his people has struck many outside the military, too, as unthinkably brave. And more than a little thrilling. Zelensky has become a hero to much of the world—even inspiring citizens of other nations to ask how to volunteer to fight for Ukraine. To the extent that this has been an information war for hearts and minds in much of the world, Ukraine has undoubtedly won.

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An information war that successful deserves to be examined, both for its own sake and in order to better understand the desires the Ukrainian spectacle seems to be so spectacularly satisfying in the international audience (beyond the natural moral sympathy the country is receiving). The Zelensky legend, while not being false, also isn’t purely organic. It’s being quite skillfully produced. This is a mediated war, calibrated to appeal to a specific brand of international solidarity—of sides in a global struggle—that hasn’t been around in a very long time.

And it’s working: There’s a drunkenness to the explosion of pro-Ukrainian sentiment. Public anger on behalf of Ukrainians has gone beyond official sanctions and into a plethora of bizarrely small-bore initiatives—like bars no longer serving Russian vodka—intended to recognize the aggressor’s villainy. Pro-Ukrainian observers are saying some wild things as they try to explain their outrage and grief at the invasion, and the expressive extremes are telling. One journalist said, for instance, that “the unthinkable has happened to them. This is not a developing Third World nation. This is Europe.” CBS News foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata said last Friday that Ukraine “isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European—I have to choose those words carefully, too—city, where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.” Civilized. He later apologized, but it’s essential that we understand exactly what he meant, because it may not be elegant or inclusive, but it is telling. These aren’t isolated episodes. Something weird is happening, and I think it’s this: Pro-Ukraine feelings in search of an organizing principle are coalescing around a category of identification that hasn’t enjoyed real, popular international relevance in a good long while. I’m speaking of “the West”—a category Vladimir Putin has long railed against, but which Westerners themselves haven’t, at least in recent years, claimed with much personal attachment or ideological loyalty.

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And these are feelings being shaped and inspired in part by the “cinematic” quality of the media coming out of Ukraine.

Take Zelensky. He’s become a star because he already was one. The man has great dramatic instincts. He is doing brave things and he’s very ably disseminating media of himself doing it. In one viral clip, he’s in only a T-shirt, unshaven, answering questions before being informed on camera that the Holocaust memorial was being bombed and saying, “That is Russia, my congratulations.” The clip has mostly circulated as a “reaction video”; people are extremely interested in watching Zelensky react. He informally addresses his people, the watching world, and even the Russian populace with exquisitely chosen messaging: Ukrainians are fighting like hell, the Russian state is losing and in the wrong, but—and this is crucial to his showmanship—the enemy’s soldiers deserve sympathy: “Even simple farmers are capturing Russian soldiers every day, and all of them say the same thing: They don’t know why they are here,” Zelensky said at a press conference. “These are not warriors of a superpower. These are confused children who have been used. Take them home.”

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Zelensky famously played a teacher whose tirade against corruption went viral and made him president. Then he actually became president. He understands the power of media better than most—and how to best use the connection people already felt to him (he named his political party after his TV show). His respect for the craft is evident in his hiring choices and strongly suggests that he sees plenty of uses for showbiz in government: His administration includes some three dozen people with ties to his former comedy studio, some of whom are serving in national security or in defense intelligence. One senior official was a movie producer and media lawyer. Zelensky made a onetime director the head of the domestic intelligence agency, and one of his chief presidential advisers is a screenwriter and producer whose major credits included a hit rom-com and a television series called The In-laws.

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It’s hard to imagine a team better equipped to narrativize a world-historical moment—even a moment they did not choose. “They think differently,” Tymofiy Mylovanov, a former economics minister, said to the New York Times in December about the showbiz vets in government. “They think in terms of dramaturgy. They think, ‘Who is the villain, who is the hero, what is the roller coaster of emotions?’ ”

No one could fault this group’s handling of the roller coaster of emotions, or the skill with which they have made the heroes and villains clear. Or—to the extent that this constitutes Ukraine’s extremely high-stakes audition for admission into “the West”—the virtuosity with which they have calibrated their actions to move specifically Western sensibilities.

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Westernness is a thorny subject, and I don’t want to get into it too deeply here precisely because it has become vague, a disarticulated and somewhat embarrassing category. The idea of the West feels essentially nostalgic; it has not, in several decades, been a concept around which Westerners themselves rally, or a lens through which many of them consciously, at least, see themselves (though residents of the European Union probably remain more likely to identify with it than, say, Americans). These days the term is mostly used by its critics and ostensible adversaries, or by Christian nationalists who see themselves as rising to its defense.

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I don’t mean it’s without power. Westernness has exerted enormous force and helped drive significant and widespread effects, imperialism and racism chief among them. That’s partly why it’s settled into disuse; many of its effects were terrible, and so its ability to generate a kind of supranationalism capable of binding countries to one another has long been in decline. The deterioration of anything like a consensus of values and goals among Western allies has been underway for so long that a new concept, “Westlessness,” has emerged to try to name the way ideological poles are shifting away from the cohesion the West once offered—such that Great Britain voted to leave the EU and Donald Trump reportedly wanted to leave NATO.

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But boy has that changed in the past week. If reactions to the spectacle of Ukrainian resistance tell us anything, it’s that the West might be rising again—if not as a cultural monolith, at least as a fuzzy but “positive” identity to rally around and enfold Ukraine into. The category is so rusty from disuse that people who have otherwise been thoughtful or skeptical about jingoism are suddenly whooping over clips of anti-tank fire, making defiant one-liners go viral, and saying all kinds of (at best subtextually) racist stuff while in the grip of a muscular internationalism we are thoroughly unused to feeling. No one gets moved to tears by the United Nations! But people are crying to videos of Ukrainian soccer players embracing on the pitch. The extraordinary consensus around pro-Ukrainian sentiment, forged in no small part by both organic and produced pro-Ukrainian media, is incredibly intense. It transcends the usual national categories and national interests.

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The media coming out of Ukraine is genuinely heartbreaking and horrifying; of course it provokes spectators to extremities of feeling. As a reader who likely also lives in “the West,” you’ve likely experienced this: gotten drawn in, maybe against your will, and moved—not just to support Ukrainians and their displays of courage and sangfroid during this desperate last stand against an invading force—but to the kind of fury at Putin that leads one to cheer on the prospect of retaliation or worse: escalation. Sure, maybe you were anti-war, or a longtime critic of American interventionism and arms-selling, but in the grip of all this, it doesn’t always matter. Convictions can get overridden or at least temporarily rerouted by the bleak and simple drama of a moment, and the clip of the Snake Island soldiers telling the Russians “go fuck yourself” before all 13 were slain (as we were initially told) became an instant legend because it hit every thrilling, horrifying, heartbreaking mark.

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The resurrection of Westernness—if that is what this is, and even should it prove to be temporary—is going to require some vigilance. If it’s an essentially nostalgic category that’s long been languishing, it will also drag a lot of only half-examined bad stuff with it. Ukrainian resisters are enjoying a level of support and sympathy that occupied Palestinians (for instance) don’t receive. Ukrainian refugees are being welcomed and accommodated with enthusiasm and warmth “non-Western” refugees have never gotten (and there are reports of nonwhite people trying to flee Ukraine and being treated differently). It is difficult for Westerners who aren’t accustomed to thinking of themselves that way to feel what this kind of media elicits—extreme admiration for someone they see as part of “our” group and wish to help—without falling into deeply unfortunate constructions that make clear that there is still an us we have in mind which exists in specific opposition to an excluded them.

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I have been puzzling over a no less nostalgic quality I notice in my response to these clips that I don’t quite know how to place. I’m thinking of the Ukrainian woman telling Russian soldiers to store sunflower seeds in their pockets, that something good may rise when they die there, say, or of Zelensky eating in humble surroundings with his troops. I’ve called these snippets “cinematic,” but what I really mean, I think, is that they evoke in me feelings I have had while watching movies about World War II: the last “noble” war, the one with a clear, unambiguous villain that had a thousand films made about it commemorating how the brave Allies fought the evil Nazis and the sacrifices they made. I have in the past firmly relegated those feelings to the domain of fiction—a realm where I expect to be manipulated and don’t guard against it overmuch. It’s not that I don’t believe that the Greatest Generation fought for the right cause, but I have certainly assumed that the heroism of the Allies and the bon mots of war heroes and survivors have been polished and edited in order to make better films. There having been no such “noble wars” in my lifetime, I don’t really believe the category exists. To put it bluntly: The things I have felt watching World War II movies are not ones I have felt, or expect to feel, about real events.

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That’s what makes the Ukrainian footage circulating on social media so effective: One does feel those things. There’s a refreshing moral simplicity to it all that’s only heightened by Zelensky’s charitable characterization of Russian soldiers as confused children being used by an evil would-be empire trying to stage its comeback. We can feel amazingly good about the side we’ve chosen.

For all that’s been written about the peculiarity of watching a war through social media transmissions, this has felt more to me like a collective throwback to a period of history I never witnessed than a “meme war” in the more contemporary sense. The Ukrainian heroics that go viral feel, for lack of a better phrase, World War II–ish. It’s strange to see what that kind of footage does—in a real-world setting—to people who have mainly been exposed to fictional versions of it. It intoxicates.

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It matters that aspects of the story we are watching and living now have turned out not to be true. The 13 Ukrainian soldiers who were killed by Russians on Snake Island, for instance, turn out to have survived. I have wondered how much this very good news matters in terms of the “Battle of Snake Island’s” status as an early legend in the developing story of this war. I doubt that the footage would have gone as viral if it hadn’t been packaged as the brave, cussing soldier’s glorious last act before death. I admit I have also wondered whether Zelensky knew they were alive when he announced last Thursday that they weren’t. It was, after all, a tremendous story.

I have not spent any time here on Russia’s propaganda efforts, but I have been stunned at how poorly they’ve met the moment. The past several years have taught us to regard the Russians as masterminds when it comes to information warfare—expert at playing on American weaknesses so as to maximize internal divisions and foment the kind of discord that might eventually lead to civil war. I thought that they absolutely had our number. So it’s ironic that Putin’s existential fears about “the West” may have accidentally revitalized that category—one that has mattered more to him than to the Westerners who had, at least for a time, slowly forgotten to think of themselves that way.

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