By looking directly into his phone, hitting record and speaking the truth, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was able to counter the lies about his country told by Vladimir Putin.
As his invasion of Ukraine intensified on Friday, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, recorded a televised appeal to the Ukrainian military. Speaking with barely constrained fury, Putin urged the Ukrainian soldiers his forces are trying to kill to seize power from their civilian leaders — a democratically elected government Putin derided as “a gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis who’ve holed up in Kyiv and taken the entire Ukrainian nation hostage.”
Putin’s dark rhetoric about a government led by a Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who was elected in a landslide in 2019, is plainly delusional, but it was echoed that night on the state television channels that give him a stranglehold over Russia’s airwaves.
Pure war propaganda on Russian state TV news tonight:— Francis Scarr (@francska1) February 25, 2022
"The banderites and neonazis are using terrorist methods, deploying heavy weaponry including multiple rocket launchers in major Ukrainian cities to have a pretext to accuse Russia of causing civilian casualties" pic.twitter.com/wWPD7wZJQc
Zelensky, a former comedian who played an unlikely president in a hit television series before becoming one in real life, responded to Putin’s address, and to Russian disinformation that he had fled the country, in a defiant video selfie posted on Telegram — a messaging app that is popular in Russia, even though its Russian creator was forced to move his operations abroad after conflicts with Putin’s government. The brief message was quickly viewed more than 4 million times on Telegram and went viral on Twitter, where it racked up more than 15 million views.
Standing in an instantly recognizable location, outside the president’s office on Bankova Street in central Kyiv, flanked by his closest advisers, Zelensky spoke calmly into his phone.
“Good evening everyone. The leader of the party is here,” Zelensky said, showing Davyd Arakhamia, who leads the president’s political party, Servant of the People. “The head of the presidential office is here,” he said, of Andriy Yermak, an adviser who tried to fend off demands from Rudy Giuliani for Zelensky to open sham investigations into Joe Biden in 2019, as then-President Donald Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine.
After noting that his prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, and another adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, were also there, Zelensky brought the phone back to himself and said, “The president is here.”
“We are all here. Our soldiers are here. The citizens of our country are here,” Zelensky said. “We are all here protecting our independence, our country, and it will continue to be this way. Glory to our defenders. Glory to our heroes. Glory to Ukraine.”
Given that he had revealed earlier this week an intelligence estimate that he was the main target of the Russian forces, Zelensky’s decision to broadcast his location was remarkable.
The Telegram riposte to Putin was at least the third time this week that Zelensky has turned to social media in an attempt to speak directly to the Russian people, with the full knowledge that his calm, determined statements denouncing Putin’s war will never be shown in full on Russian state television.
On the eve of the invasion, Zelensky recorded a moving, nine-minute address to the Russian people, in Russian, to debunk the lies that he was leading a neo-Nazi regime intent on attacking Russian speakers in regions of eastern Ukraine held by Russian-backed separatists.
.@ZelenskyyUa's tv address to the Russian (!) people might be the most moving speech that I've ever seen in my entire life. The whole world needs to see, understand and share this crucial Ukrainian message.#StandWithUkraine #Ukraine #??????? #Russia #?????? pic.twitter.com/WoMOgqXTWX— Patrick Moelleken ?? (@PMoelleken) February 24, 2022
“The Ukraine on your news and Ukraine in real life are two completely different countries — and the main difference between them is: Ours is real,” Zelensky said in the video posted on the presidency’s YouTube channel and other social media accounts on Wednesday. “You are told we are Nazis. But could a people who lost more than 8 million lives in the battle against Nazism support Nazism?”
“How could I be a Nazi?” Zelensky asked, knowing that his Jewishness is no secret in a part of the world where antisemitism is still rife. “Explain it to my grandfather, who went through the entire war in the infantry of the Soviet army, and died a colonel in an independent Ukraine.”
“You’ve been told I’m going to bomb Donbass,” Zelensky said, of Russian propaganda calling him the aggressor in eastern Ukraine. “Bomb what? The stadium where me and the local guys cheered for our team at Euro 2012? The bar where we drank when they lost? Luhansk, where my best friend’s mom lives?”
On Thursday, more than a thousand Russians were arrested for attending banned street protests against the war, despite potentially serious legal consequences.
In remarks that night posted online by Ukrainian diplomats, Zelensky thanked them for their courage. “To all the citizens of the Russian Federation who come out to protest, I want to say: We see you. This means that you heard us. This means that you begin to trust us. Fight for us. Fight against war.”
“It’s remarkable how Zelensky has finally grown into the role,” Max Seddon, the Moscow bureau chief of the Financial Times, observed on Twitter. “When the US warned of Russia’s plans to invade, he was slammed by Ukrainians for not taking it seriously. But when the war became inevitable, Zelensky started playing the president on TV again — he’s a natural.”
Late Friday, the Ukrainian president delivered sobering news about the extent of the growing attacks on the country from Russian forces and predicted that a “cruel, vicious, inhumane” assault on Kyiv could be imminent. “The night will be tough, very tough. But the morning will come,” he told the nation. Video of his remarks in Ukrainian was released with Russian subtitles.
Early Saturday morning in Kyiv, after reports overnight that Zelensky had turned down a U.S. offer to evacuate him from the city, he posted a new video update from the street outside his office. Looking exhausted but determined, Zelensky urged the public not to believe what he called “a lot of fake information online that I ordered our army to lay down its arms, and that there’s an evacuation.”
“I’m here,” Zelensky continued, according to a translation from the BBC correspondent Sarah Rainsford. “We’re not laying down any arms. Our weapon is our truth. The truth is that this is our land, our country and our children and we’re going to defend it.”
Within an hour of being posted on the president’s social media accounts, the new video message had been viewed more than 8 million times.
Updated: February 26, 2022
This article was revised to report the new video message posted online by President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine on Saturday morning in Kyiv.
Correction: February 26, 2022
This article was revised to explain that the messaging app Telegram, which was created by the Russian tech entrepreneur Pavel Durov, is not based in Russia.