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Zelensky - a masterclass in winning hearts and minds (and weapons)

By Simon Neville
09 February 2023
Public Affairs

By Simon Neville

Before he became Ukraine’s war leader, President Volodymyr Zelensky was a comedian best known for his late-night sketch shows.

Part of being a successful comedian is having vast levels of emotional intellegence and the ability to tap into an audience’s empathy.

Zelensky has become a true master of the art and is winning plaudits but, most importantly, also weapons in Ukraine's war with Russia.

It is not often journalists swoon over the visit of a foreign leader. But swoon they did. Head over to Twitter and you will see cynical political journalists posting pictures from Westminster Hall for Zelensky's address to MPs.

Watch the proceeding press conference and see the BBC's Ukrainian journalist ask for - and get - a hug from the leader. Even hardened photographers were pleased with their assignments. PA Media's Jonathan Brady, who has taken his fair share of famous shots, wrote: "The unpredictability of the press photographer’s life - I had absolutely no idea that I was going to see this happen when I woke up this morning."

But it was not just the UK's media Zelensky needed to win the hearts and minds of. He was on a whistle stop tour of the UK to get aircrafts and win over politicians.

The leader has shown how adept he is at persuading western nations to hand over weapons and, more recently, tanks to turn the tide on Russia's invasion.

Look back a year ago when the conflict started and many western leaders were warning this was not our fight to get involved in.

Zelensky, who was finding his feet as a wartime leader, called for a no-fly zone back then but no one took him seriously, instead warning a third world war could follow any escalation.

Since then he has honed his image, using his charisma and skills at tapping into empathy to maximum effect.

In Westminster Hall, he asked for aircraft and, by all accounts, he will probably get them.

He did this with aplomb, taking in a dash of nostalgia - talking of having a pre-war "cup of tea" in Westminster. A heavy pinch of patriotism - bringing up Winston Churchill and the Cabinet War Rooms. And rammed his message home by presenting a fighter pilot helmet with "We have freedom. Give us wings to protect it" written across it.

All done in his trademark combat jumper, which he would later wear when meeting the King.

He hit so many emotional triggers, Aphrodite would be impressed.

Zelensky took his roadshow to Europe to press the leaders of France and Germany for air support but he must know his work was done from the drafty cavern of Westminster Hall. 

He knows of all the European nations, the UK has led the way - even if it was, as some have suggested, another Boris Johnson vanity project that finally paid dividends.

He knows the emotional triggers between the UK and the EU and the underlying tensions still simmering from Brexit.

He knows that targeting leaders at their hearts, not their heads, will reap rewards and, ultimately, he knows western leaders are likely to step up if not to save the Ukrainians from an aggressor like Russia, then at least to save face from having come this far.