Cross Country Checkup

Zelensky's speeches use shame effectively in plea for support against Russia, expert says

When Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke to politicians in Canada and the U.S. this week, he drew on a powerful emotion: shame. A political persuasion expert said the leader has set himself up as a moral arbiter by asking politicians and citizens alike what side of the war they want to be on.

Ukrainian president recently spoke to Parliament, U.S. Congress to ask for more military aid

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stands as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed Parliament on Tuesday. In an emotional speech, he urged politicians to consider how they would feel if Canada came under siege by a foreign power. (Patrick Doyle/Reuters)

When Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke to politicians in Canada and the U.S. this week, he drew on a powerful emotion: shame.

In presenting his impassioned messages to the world, a political persuasion expert said the leader has set himself up as a moral arbiter by asking politicians and citizens alike what side of the war they want to be on.

"The notion that this guy is coming into Parliament and saying, 'shame on you' … that's not something that we see very often," said Nomi Claire Lazar, who is the also author of Out of Joint: Power, Crisis & the Rhetoric of Time.

"It's quite unusual in this context, and I think it's actually quite effective."

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Lazar said Zelensky's repeated calls for a NATO no-fly zone — even if he knows governments are unlikely to oblige — open the door for other requests.

"[Zelensky] is constantly saying, 'I'm so grateful, but you must do more,'" she explained. "There's this sense of well, we can't give you the no-fly zone, we feel guilty that we can't do that, so we'll give you more and more and more military support." 

WATCH | Zelensky makes powerful, personal appeal to Canada to do more: 

Zelensky makes powerful, personal appeal to Canada to do more

3 months ago
Duration 3:14
Speaking to a packed House of Commons, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky painted a vivid picture of the war and asked Canada to do more to support him by closing the skies above Ukraine.

Zelensky has won public adoration for his ability to motivate not only Ukrainians, but people around the world, in his country's fight against Russia. His latest push has spoken directly to leaders in a bid for measures against Russia that go beyond sanctions.

In his speech to Parliament via video link on Tuesday, Zelensky painted an image of Vancouver and Toronto's CN Tower coming under siege. He spoke about families that have been killed through the night by Russian attacks. He asked — again — for stronger international military support.

"We want to live and we want to be victorious. We want to prevail for the sake of life," Zelensky told politicians — and an audience of Canadians.

'He wants us to feel with him,' communications professor says

That approach draws from a millennia-old playbook for speeches. Throughout his appeal to Parliament and the U.S. Congress, Zelensky pushed lawmakers and everyday citizens alike to imagine themselves in the shoes of Ukrainians.

"He wants us to feel with him, basically. He wants us to feel a sense of kinship with the Ukrainian people," said Rob Danisch, a University of Waterloo communications professor who studies political rhetoric.

WATCH | Zelensky makes emotional plea to U.S. President Joe Biden:

Zelensky urges Biden to be a 'world leader of peace'

3 months ago
Duration 2:44
In an address to the U.S. Congress, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said his people's fight is part of a universal battle for freedom, and he asked President Joe Biden to lead the way in a global struggle for peace.

Timothy Naftali, a historian and clinical associate professor of public service at New York University, said Zelensky has emerged as one of the "strongest and most articulate" voices on the consequences of moving too slowly.

"We are seeing him, and it is a reminder that there is a life and death struggle going on — and it's forcing politicians to in real time to consider what are the acceptable risks," Naftali said.

But how his words will move the needle in favour of military intervention by NATO countries remains to be seen.

"He has not been able to persuade Britain or Canada or the U.S. to implement the no-fly zone. He hasn't been able to persuade them to commit troops," said Danisch

Naftali argued that given NATO members are holding an "extraordinary" meeting in Brussels on Tuesday, Zelensky's pleas are moving politicians to action.

Leveraging social media

It's not only in speeches that Zelensky aims to influence the world to act.

That approach has helped the president tap into the world's visceral reaction to the war in Ukraine — particularly on social media, where he has made himself a central figure in the country's defence against Russia. 

"President Zelensky is maybe the best of what we've seen of a 21st-century political leader because he has incredible social media savvy," said Charlie Angus, NDP MP for Timmins—James Bay.

"That's what shocked people at first, surprised them and then moved them to action is his willingness to be seen as a leader on the front lines, helping people."

Self-recorded videos by Zelensky, sometimes alongside his fellow politicians and typically in casual yet serious attire, have spread across social media platforms. He has also used Twitter and Instagram to provide updates about the war, informing citizens and the international community of conflict hotspots and military and civilian casualties.

Zelensky, typically dressed in casual yet serious attire, has shared self-recorded videos of himself on social media to bring attention to the war in Ukraine. (Volodymyr Zelensky/Instagram/Reuters)

Experts attribute his success on social media to his history as an entertainer. Before he became president, Zelensky was a comedian and actor.

"He has a sense of how those images can circulate in and across social media landscapes, and I think other political leaders don't have that — or haven't had that — kind of sense," said Danisch. 

Shift in tone needed?

Danisch, however, believes that may not be enough.

Building support for military intervention by NATO allies will likely require a shift in Zelensky's tone, he said. Considering Zelensky's more blunt speech to German politicians on Thursday, that could already be occurring.

Speaking to the Bundestag, Zelensky made reference to the fall of the Berlin Wall, speaking of a so-called barrier erected by Russia between "free and unfree" Europe. "Tear down this wall," Zelensky told German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

"I think he's most worried about Germany because of their ties to Russia and so he felt the need to be most kind of critical," Danisch said, noting Zelensky still seems to be unwilling to bluntly criticize countries.

WATCH | Canadians share their reactions to Zelensky's appeal:

Canadians react to Zelensky’s Parliamentary address

3 months ago
Duration 2:03
Canadians reacted with a mix of emotions to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s virtual speech in the House of Commons, with some calling him a hero, while others were moved to tears.

In the same way former British prime minister Winston Churchill set the stakes of the Second World War to Canada's Parliament in 1941, Danisch said explaining to politicians why stronger force in Ukraine is necessary could help build that support for Zelensky.

During the Second World War, Churchill warned about the risks of Germany succeeding and presented his plan to end the war. Danisch said Churchill's narrative about "defending freedom and western liberal democracy, against totalitarianism and against fascism" was a valuable motivator.

"[Zelensky is] not telling a grand big story about what's at stake in this war, so I'm not sure Canadians know, for example, why it matters if Ukraine wins or loses this particular war," he explained.

"He has to take some responsibility for telling that story, for making sure that story drives political and public discourse around war."


Written by Jason Vermes, with files from Ashley Fraser and Steve Howard.

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