The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A thoroughly modern war

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky played for Congress on March 16 a graphic video depicting damage from Russian attacks as part of his plea for more aid. (Video: Ukrainian Government)
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The video began with scenes of everyday life in Ukraine, before.

Vivid shots of happy people, the names of cities overlaid on the footage. Then it broke. The footage was more recent and less saturated, grim, grainy images captured by cellphones and security cameras of streets and buildings exploding into fragments. Then images of what happens when those explosions occur near people. When they occur near children.

That was what forced me to turn away. I have two kids younger than 6. The video shown during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s address to Congress included numerous shots of kids my sons’ ages lying motionless on stretchers or on the ground; images of them crying as they left their homes or watching their fathers go to war.

For others, the point at which they turned away might have been seeing elderly people hurt or struggling to navigate rubble. Or perhaps simply seeing the way pacific shots of buildings or playgrounds were juxtaposed with those same places being blown apart. The point was specifically that nearly every observer watching in that room on Capitol Hill or watching from home, anywhere in the places those members of Congress represent, would find something that made them recoil.

It was certainly propaganda in service of Zelensky’s goal of getting the United States to announce that it would defend Ukraine’s skies against Russian missiles and planes. But it was propaganda that felt very familiar particularly in the explicit context of American politics. It was a very modern advertisement for a very urgent need, a reflection of how effectively Ukraine has used modern technology and communications to manage international expectations and the international response.

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The moment that Russia launched its broad offensive against Ukraine, there were two generally held assumptions about its effort. The first was that it was likely to quickly overwhelm the much smaller Ukrainian military, quickly seizing air superiority from which it could launch attacks across the country. The second was that it would deploy its well-honed misinformation and cyberwarfare systems to muddle Ukrainian communications and mislead the world.

In a speech to Congress on March 16, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky again asked for a no-fly zone to protect against Russia’s attacks. (Video: The Washington Post)

Neither of those things has manifested. Russia’s military was quickly mired both literally and figuratively in Ukraine, making little progress and without full control of Ukrainian airspace. Perhaps more surprising, Ukraine has not been crippled by cyberattacks and has, in fact, easily outpaced Russia’s efforts to control the narrative around the conflict.

In part this is specific to the conflict itself. It’s unfolding on Ukrainian soil, meaning that since the beginning there have been far more people sympathetic to Ukraine in position to record the invasion itself. Ukraine’s communications infrastructure remains intact, allowing video and photos from the war to quickly make their way to the international community. Russia has been hobbled both by the lack of allied observers on the ground and by its own limits on what can be shared. That’s become even harder as Western technology companies have disconnected Russian users.

Ukraine’s more effective presentation of the war is also a function of Russia having first invaded eight years ago. Since the seizure of Crimea in 2014, the downing of Malaysian Air Flight 17 that same year and an attack on Ukraine’s electrical grid in 2015, Ukraine and Ukrainians have been tested repeatedly in fending off Russian misinformation and interruptions. Russia helped inoculate Ukraine against what might otherwise have worked in 2022. It also created a cadre of observers ready to spot and debunk false claims.

The result is a conflict that’s been framed in United States, Canada and Europe through a very familiar communications lens. There is an unpleasant chauvinism at play, certainly; there were myriad grotesque images and videos that emerged as Russia helped Syria level huge swaths of that country. But that footage was not usually presented by people conversant in the style and tropes of Western media. Much or most of the lack of international attention was a function of bias against people from the Middle East, certainly. Part of the imbalance, though, is because Ukrainian observers — and those who package Ukrainian voices for Western consumption — often speak a media language with which we’re familiar.

Consider just that scene on Capitol Hill on Wednesday morning. Zelensky appearing by teleconference, a system with which we’ve all become intimately familiar. A speech tailored to the audience, with references to 9/11 and Pearl Harbor. And that video, certainly heavy-handed at times but unquestionably evocative. While there have been numerous prior presentations by foreign leaders to Congress, there has not been one in which Congress was passively observant as it was shown an advertisement for military intervention.

All of this is possible now in a way that wasn’t possible in prior conflicts. Much of the footage that’s made the rounds to show the resilience of the Ukrainian people or the fumbles of Russian invaders has been captured by professional journalists, but a lot has come from citizens or from omnipresent, online cameras. That there are so many journalists in Ukraine is itself a reflection of the status it enjoyed a month ago as a (relatively) wealthy, free and modern nation.

Perhaps Russia figured it could subsume the country quickly enough that Ukraine wouldn’t be able to drive the narrative about the invasion. Perhaps it miscalculated its advantage on that front, too. Either way, Ukraine has shown adroitness at presenting the war through a lens of its own choosing. That includes domestically; Zelensky and regional leaders have been communicating clearly and regularly with citizens to boost morale and to share information. Propaganda no doubt often inflected with false or inflated claims, but effective for the country’s purposes.

After hearing Zelensky’s speech and seeing the video he presented, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), a veteran, told reporters that “it makes me want to throw on my uniform and go help.”

Zelensky probably won’t get his no-fly zone, but he did evoke the reaction he sought. As he has so effectively in the past three weeks.