During those tense 3 weeks, he tried with a real success to rally both foreigners and Ukrainians. Lately, he changed his tone, for instance by insisting on the responsibilities of his Western “allies” for Putin’s capacity to invade his country, pointing their lack of anticipation and refusal to take the threat seriously. Doing so, he forgets that, up to the last hour, he was himself, angered by the daily publication of intelligence reports by the White House, fearing that Putin might conclude that a quiet dislocation of his forces along the Ukrainian border can be seen as a capitulation before the first shot.
Since the invasion started, Zelensky has made a full use of his personal natural actor’s talents, backed by a team of close counselors coming from the entertainment and television milieu. Nobody doubts that he won the information war. Even the strange choice of the kaki civilian clothing has been a coup de maître, because it projects the unifying image of “one of us”, the leader who stays in Kiev, with his family, but respects so much the defenders that he abstains from parading in camouflage. It also projects a radical counter image of Putin’s, making the contrast even sharper after the “surprise” apparition of the Russian president at the Luzhniky stadium in Moscow. His extra-large anorak seemed for the first time hiding a flak jacket. The staging of the show, with flags and patriotic songs, to mark the anniversary of Crimea “reintegration”, did not only look indecent. It looked also an insensitive parody of traditional popular commemorations in which Russians, including his supporters, genuinely take part with joy and a feeling of togetherness.
Even in those conditions, time is passing and the information war is showing its limits. Ukraine, and its allies, need more than a great communicator. They expect Zelensky to come with political plans and to show awareness of the complexity of the global world. All countries are free to choose their alliances, but some are freer than others, depending on geography. The core of the problem might simply be his personality, under pressure to deliver messages to so many different circles. As a result, he has come lately with incompatible requests, and sometimes contradictory messages, about what he calls negotiations and dialogue with Russia. Some can backfire, as his appeal to China to openly denounce the Russian attack, after having whished earlier that Beijing acted as a third party between Moscow and Kiev. One can also wonder why Ukraine is still spending so much energy to secure EU membership. It has always been very divisive in Brussels; conditions of adhesion will finish off the Ukrainian economy; existing programmes have not been exhausted.
The same can be said of the demand for bringing to justice the authors of the “aggression war”, including Putin himself. An Internet petition asking for a “new Nuremberg tribunal” already gathered 800.000 signatures, despite appeals to reason by historians, and lawyers, about technicalities and relevance. It might just be a means to answer to the anger of Ukrainians, and to appease Westerners’ feelings of inadequacy and impotence. But it can also confirm in the eyes of many Russians that Putin was right to hammer that the West is looking for regime change, especially if this trial is presented as a condition to lift sanctions.
Ahead of a week which is expected to involve diplomacy, Western backing will be essential for Zelensky. Any compromises, including imposed by its allies, will be denounced as concessions in the best cases, treasons or capitulation in the worst. After all, it is the war that created national unity; Zelensky’s popularity was low before the war; the economy was already is tatter. Peace process will send him back to the same difficulties that he can hardly face alone.