On the last week before the Gregorian Christmas, the optics of Russia’s war in Ukraine have taken on a different dynamic and demonstrate that the battle is not only being fought on the frigid frontlines in Ukraine, but is also becoming something of a PR tit-for-tat.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has harnessed the media to become an ever-present figure on screens across the world, beaming himself into parliaments, conferences and even music festivals.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, a past master of propaganda, is driving his own agenda through his absolute control of Russian state media. Comparisons between the two show a chasm that may reflect the larger narrative of the war.
Last Friday, according to the Kremlin, Putin “spent all day working at the joint staff of military branches involved in the special military operation.”
But the only images that emerged were of Putin at the head of a table of generals, dressed in a navy suit and tie, listening to military chiefs who kowtow to his every whim. There was no mention of a location for this meeting, no readout, nor did the President make any public comments.
Zelensky, by contrast, broadcast his location to the world.
He spent Tuesday morning on the frozen frontlines, visiting troops in the beleaguered town of Bakhmut. The location was significant: Zelensky and his generals have repeatedly said this part of the 1,300km-long frontline in Ukraine sees the most persistent and deadly fighting. Dressed in khaki fatigues, he called his soldiers “superhuman.”
Zelensky is no stranger to the frontlines in the east of his country. Last week he posted a selfie-video from the town of Slovyansk. Perhaps that visit prompted the Kremlin into action.
On Sunday the Russian Defense Ministry released a video purporting to show Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu inspecting the troops involved in the so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine.
But the video was not labeled as being from any particular region. Nor did it reveal any identifying locations. In fact, the only thing it revealed at all was Shoigu in a helicopter, and that Russia still has some functioning helicopters.
The starkest of contrasts came this week.
On Tuesday in Moscow, Vladimir Putin handed out medals in the gilded halls of the Kremlin – again, clad in a dark suit and maroon tie. The honors, including a red sash, were bestowed on the Russian-installed leaders of the occupied regions of Ukraine: Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson.
The hand-wringing and bouquet-brandishing could not have been more at odds with how President Zelensky wrapped up his visit to Bakhmut. Standing in a secret underground location, he handed out medals to soldiers, weapons slung across their shoulders, risking their lives in defense.
From Bakhmut, Zelensky delivered rousing words: “The East is holding out because Bakhmut is fighting. This is the fortress of our morale. In fierce battles and at the cost of many lives, freedom is being defended here for all of us. Bakhmut defenders deserve our maximum support and our highest gratitude.”
But the coup de grâce was delivered by Zelensky’s office in a press statement on Tuesday evening. “The President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy started an official visit to the United States of America,” it read.
There is little coincidence that Zelensky has decided to make the US his first official visit outside of Ukraine since the 300 day-old war.
On Monday, President Putin made a rare trip to Minsk, Belarus, to visit his ally, President Alexander Lukashenko, often ascribed the moniker of Europe’s last dictator. The two men, viewed as pariahs by large swaths of the Western world, were seen hugging on a red carpet on a frozen morning at an airport in Minsk.
In contrast, Zelensky will shake hands with – and maybe even hug – the leader of the world’s most powerful nation, the free world, speak to reporters on the South Lawn, sign a momentous defense package which includes the vital Patriot air-defense systems, which the Kremlin has described as being a “red line”, and give an address to Congress.
It is the ultimate flex from Zelensky to Putin and not an insignificant achievement for his first trip outside the country since the war began.