How Brand Ukraine's defiance and diplomacy won over the West

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's rallying cries matched by lobbying behind closed doors

No 10 Downing Street lit up in blue and yellow in solidarity with Ukraine. EPA
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In the West, two words have become a familiar cry when discussing the war: “Slava Ukraini”, or glory to Ukraine.

In one year of conflict with Russia, Ukraine has transformed its image in the western world, stirring some powerful countries to put their money and weapons behind its cause.

Brand Ukraine is everywhere in Europe, with its blue and yellow flag fluttering over Downing Street and pinned to jackets and social media profiles.

In south-west London, travel agent Shona Lyons, 55, ordered a box of Ukrainian flags to decorate her street a year ago.

This week, she plans to raise them again to show her solidarity a year after the invasion.

She said people like her have to show support “if you’re happy to live in a free democracy”.

Ukrainian flags displayed in Twickenham, south-west London, shortly after the Russian invasion. PA

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Brand Ukraine’s most visible face, drawing on all his acting talent to inspire his European and American allies, and cajoling his fellow leaders so well that they compete to win his approval.

It helps to explain why Nato countries, which a year ago were sending helmets and small arms they insisted were defensive, were now providing battle tanks, missile launchers and considering whether to offer fighter jets.

But the lobbying does not end with Mr Zelenskyy. It often takes place at a subtler level, using social media and behind-the-scenes contacts to build support for Ukraine’s cause.

On a recent visit to London, four Ukrainian women put their case to think tank experts, former diplomats and others, who might in turn relay Ukraine’s case in the media.

“Ukraine has to win, but the UK and other very well-developed states, powerful friends of Ukraine, have to work hard on this topic,” said one of the women, Olga Aivazovska, the head of a civil society group in Ukraine.

There is no doubt the war has profoundly moved and outraged many people in Europe, and that many sympathise with Ukraine.

But some of its concrete demands, such as tanks, planes and kicking Russia out of international forums, have needed more time before policymakers are persuaded.

The women in London divided up their lobbying efforts, with some focusing on Ukraine’s military needs, while Ms Aivazovska made the case for a special tribunal to prosecute the Russian leadership.

“We know that the Security Council will not adopt any decision because of Russia’s veto and China’s position. But this political decision on the General Assembly level can be promoted by UK representatives, too,” she told The National.

Senior officials are similarly well informed about which political strings to pull. The focus of Mr Zelenskyy’s address to the UK Parliament was a theatrical appeal to provide fighter jets, a cause which MPs inspired by the speech can take up with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

Addressing the European Parliament the next day, Ukraine's President did not waste his time asking for jets from an assembly with little influence on the subject, instead depicting his nation as a warrior for European values.

His case was that Ukraine should swiftly become a member of the EU, a prospect that seemed a long way off before the Russian invasion.

President Zelenskyy sought to inspire British MPs with an address at Westminster Hall this month. Getty

Former German chancellor Angela Merkel last year said the view of Ukraine as “a corrupt country, ruled by oligarchs” had made it impossible to admit it to Nato at a fateful summit in 2008.

Corruption in Ukraine was what enmeshed Mr Zelenskyy in an American political scandal, when former president Donald Trump asked him for a personal favour linked to an ethics inquiry.

Even now, the EU says Ukraine has much to do when it comes to anti-corruption and the rule of law, but Mr Zelenskyy has won candidate status and a promise that the blue-and-yellow flag will one day be raised in Brussels.

His speeches are littered with allusions to the history and culture of the country he is addressing. In his Westminster Hall address, he invoked Winston Churchill, the UK’s royals and the British fondness for tea.

He wore a jumper branded with United24, a fund-raising programme for Ukraine, in a twist on the familiar olive-green combat wear in which he was depicted when named Time magazine’s Person of the Year.

One official from a western country said they had never seen a leader resonate as well as Mr Zelenskyy in their lifetime, or a wartime leader put their country’s case so effectively.

But they said Ukraine’s success in the information war was not merely down to Mr Zelenskyy’s comic timing — it was also because of solid communications across the board.

One western country says it is not providing Ukraine with strategic communications training because "they don't need it".

The image of Ukrainian women and children fleeing the war moved many people in Europe to help. AP

Ukrainian social media channels often make the case for solidarity on Twitter, Telegram and Facebook, countering what they describe as Russian misinformation about the war.

A quote that was a vulgar rebuke to Russian warships by Ukrainian radio operators on Snake Island was immortalised on a postage stamp.

Russia, by contrast, has struggled for a coherent narrative around its campaign, with its claim to be fighting neo-Nazis in Ukraine now heard less often after gaining little traction.

An EU communications task force this month said Russia had used pro-Kremlin outlets to blame Nato for the war, divide western opinion and obfuscate alleged Russian war crimes.

But support for Ukraine remains broadly strong in the West, where it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Kyiv is winning the information war.

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Updated: February 23, 2023, 8:23 PM