BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Last week on the show, we examined the information war Russia is waging against its own people and much of the rest of the world. This week, it's all about Ukrainians fighting back on all fronts.
NEWS CLIP The Ukrainian counteroffensive is now underway. Four villages already taken back from Russian control in the south.
NEWS CLIP There's heavy fighting right now in the area around Kherson, a crucial port city...
NEWS CLIP This strike hit a key bridge in Kherson City, which is under Russian control. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Meanwhile, more than 100 miles northeast of Kherson, the Russian occupied Zaporizhzia power plant is generating global anxiety.
NEWS CLIP A team of U.N. inspectors arrived at Europe's largest nuclear power plant after new shelling shut down one of its two functioning reactors.
[SOUND OF SHELLING] [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE As Ukraine grapples with the threat of nuclear disaster amid the launch of an ambitious counter-offensive, it subsists on a steady diet of Western donations.
NEWS CLIP British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, visiting Kiev, today announced a $63 million military aid package, which comes as the U.S. pledged another nearly $3 billion. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But even as money and materiel flow in, many within and without the theater of war worry that victory may.be impeded by a decline in something less tangible.
NEWS CLIP This fatigue about this war and how we're going to continue to support Ukraine is a real worry.
NEWS CLIP Ukraine trying to make progress in the south. Anticipating probably some war fatigue among some of their supporters, particularly in Europe.
NEWS CLIP The question is, how long can this last? When does the war fatigue set in? [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Studies do show a decline in headline news about the war, global attention is an inevitable casualty of any protracted conflict. Distant hearts and minds are inclined to drift to the next tragedy or intrigue or atrocity. Olga TOKARIUK is a journalist, longtime correspondent and nonresident fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, based in Ukraine, where she lives. Welcome to the show.
OLGA TOKARIUK Hello and thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE President Zelensky said last week that the end of this war and its circumstances depend on the world's attention. Agree?
OLGA TOKARIUK Yeah. I think people in different countries focusing on what's happening in Ukraine and the atrocities that Russia commits, they put pressure on the governments to continue supporting Ukraine, to continue sending weapons to Ukraine. Only then Ukraine has a chance to win this war.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But it seems as if the governments of Europe and of the United States are continuing the money flow and the weapons flow. So how much do you need international hearts and minds?
OLGA TOKARIUK Those flows are continuing, but they are still not enough. Ukraine's forces are still outnumbered and outgunned by Russian forces.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The government's branding campaign, called Be Brave Like Ukraine, launched in April with a flurry of t-shirts and social media posts, online videos, billboards, one of which featured a Ukrainian woman saving dogs from a war torn area. Has the messaging of Ukraine's government changed over the past six months?
OLGA TOKARIUK I think the messaging has been pretty consistent, and that message is we will not let the aggressor take our land without a fight. And also, the messaging for the international audience has been pretty consistent as well. There the message was this is not just Ukraine's fight. Ukraine is fighting for the values of freedom and democracy. It's just that I think the manner in which it was delivered may be was transformed with time. More and more people were engaged in there. So it was not just President Zelensky.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So in that context, let's talk about First Lady Olena Zelenska. Over the past couple months, she started traveling internationally, giving interviews with the foreign press, and she famously posed for a Vogue cover shoot in July, sitting on war torn steps in a polished outfit. First of all, what did you think about that Vogue interview? I think it meant something different to Ukrainian women than it meant to its critics.
OLGA TOKARIUK The critics of this photoshoot and interview were saying that it was somehow glamorizing the war, but in Ukraine, it wasn't seen this way because war is not just a terrible horror, but it also the life that is still continuing, which might seem weird to people who never experienced living in a war torn country. But suddenly Ukrainians realized that, well, yes, the war is terrible, but at the same time, people still go out. People still try to celebrate birthdays. It's the only way to keep sanity and to resist, to keep living your life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You also observed that the Vogue cover in Ukraine was seen as an image of power that Ukrainian women have in the face of war.
OLGA TOKARIUK Actually, a lot of Ukrainian women who are posting similar photos in a similar pose with a hashtag sit like a girl. And what they wanted to say with this campaign was that no one can dictate how women should sit or behave or look. And Elena Zelenska somehow symbolized all Ukrainian women who, despite the war, continue to take care of their loved ones, take care of themselves, and do some very important work for the country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE She speaks of the issue of mental health in Ukraine and of the plight of children in bomb shelters and sitting smartly on the steps in Vogue. Is she part of a multi-pronged effort, along with the T-shirts and other branding, to keep hold of the world's attention?
OLGA TOKARIUK This is definitely part of that effort, but I think this is a very genuine effort. So this is not something like a marketing campaign. Like she was not very prominent and present in the public space in the first weeks and months of war. But she's been present in a sense that since she became a first lady, she was trying to advance the issues of equality, not just in terms of gender equality, but also rights for people with disabilities and LGBTQ rights. The Russian full scale invasion began, she added to that the issue of the mental health. Something that is very important that Ukraine will have to face in the next years, even after the war is over. Of course, she's involved in this effort to keep Ukraine on the front pages and in the media of the world. But she's also doing a lot internally for the Ukrainian society.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I was thinking about those selfie videos that President Zelensky posted early in the invasion. Those videos were engaged to great effect, not only with his own people, but with the world. How about now? Do they still work?
OLGA TOKARIUK Yeah. You know, I remember in the very first days after the Russian full scale invasion began, me and other people whom we were sheltering in our house, internally displaced people from different parts of Ukraine, were sitting in the basement during an air raid alert and watching this videos of President Zelensky. And they were giving us a really strong morale boost to see that the president of the country is here. He's in Kiev recording videos from the outside of his office when Russian propaganda is claiming that he fled the country and he's already hiding somewhere in Poland. That motivated a lot of Ukrainians to resist. And me personally, I'm not watching them as often as I used to, but somehow it feels comforting, you know, to receive notifications that a new video from President Zelensky has dropped.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But you have noted that now that the initial thrust of the war has passed, many Ukrainians criticize the way that Zelensky handled his war communications just before the February invasion. Ukrainian officials seem to be in some denial, and I remember that a couple of weeks before the invasion, he told Ukrainians to prepare for regular barbecues in May.
OLGA TOKARIUK He argues that he wanted to avoid the panic and also the economic collapse. And in fact, Ukrainian media were reporting all the statements of Western officials and Western media about an imminent invasion, the fact that Ukrainian officials did not explicitly urge people to prepare for a possible evacuation. A lot of people are bitter about it now. And we are seeing this initial super high figure of support to Zelensky, which were more than 90% in the first weeks after the invasion. They are slowly going down, but he remains the most popular politician in Ukraine with a huge distance between him and the next most popular politician, former President Poroshenko.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There's another way to keep the war viral, and that's memes Ukraine's Ministry of Defense. Twitter has more than a million followers and a very biting, dark humor. Is this run by one of the entertainment people that filled Zelensky's staff in the early days?
OLGA TOKARIUK We have no idea who is the genius behind the Ukraine's Ministry of Defense Twitter account, but that person certainly is probably the most wanted and envied social media manager in all of Ukraine.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Maybe the world.
OLGA TOKARIUK Maybe. Yeah. It's really funny because it was Russia that first started to use its official accounts, its embassies on Twitter, you know, for this trolling and use of means. But they were doing it very often in a very clumsy way and becoming a target of jokes themselves.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And then there's their NAFO, the North Atlantic Fella Association.
OLGA TOKARIUK And and NAFO sounds then similar to NATO. And their motto is naval expansion is non-negotiable. Is this army of animated dogs started from the tweet of the Russian ambassador to Vienna who engaged in a debate with one of this cartoon dogs. And suddenly, like he was receiving a lot of replies and he tried to argue with them. But of course, like he was swept away by all this trolling and memes that they were creating. And it became a phenomena because this NAFO movement is also a charity movement raising money for servicemen who are fighting in Ukraine for Georgian Legion and some other fighters in Ukraine. And to become a fella, you have to make a donation first and then you will be given this personalized avatar. And it's remarkable that actually they've been making such a difference in a battle against disinformation on Twitter by reacting to posts of Russian government officials. It was even noted by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense. They tweeted in support of NAFO. I'm also researching disinformation. And I led several research projects on disinformation, on Twitter. And I'm amazed to see how it actually can be countered, not just with debunking, not just with facts, but with very witty trolling and of course, in huge numbers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But do you think this can also stave off war fatigue?
OLGA TOKARIUK Humor is a very powerful tool. Of course, in this situation, it's almost always black humor. But humor helps Ukrainians to keep up their spirits and to resist. And I think for people around the world who support Ukraine, it also helps them somehow to alleviate this pressure from heavy, difficult news and also their own lives that might have been affected by this war in terms of rising costs and shortages of food or other things like laughing it out in times of crisis, I think helps to somehow survive and deal with it better.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Olga, thank you very much.
OLGA TOKARIUK Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Olga TOKARIUK is a journalist based in Ukraine.