Darkness and light

| March 12, 2023

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine and President Vladimir Putin of Russia are two very different leaders. The way in which each defines a national identity shapes their leadership and sectors of support.

As we pass one year since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, attention is fixed on how the war in Ukraine will unfold this year. What happens in 2023 will have implications not only for Ukraine and Russia but for the international order more broadly. One factor that has influenced the trajectory of war so far, and is likely to continue to do so in 2023, is the distinct leadership styles of President Zelenskyy and President Putin.

Zelenskyy v Putin

Zelenskyy and Putin could not be more different as leaders. Putin leads a personalist autocracy, having risen through the ranks of the Russian security services to claim the presidency in 2000. Zelenskyy, a newcomer to both politics and government, was freely elected in competitive elections in 2019.

Putin leads in the style of nationalist-populist leaders. He has slowly but consistently tightened his grip on power since his first electoral success in 2000, shaping Russia into an electoral autocracy. Putin is very much a man of his generation. At 70 years old, he grew up and established himself during the time of the Soviet Union and now surrounds himself with advisors of a similar or more advanced age. He is very far from media savvy, reportedly not even owning a smart phone.

Zelenskyy, on the other hand, is a master of media communications, having operated as an actor and comedian before becoming president. Also a man of his generation at 45 years old, Zelenskyy forged a media career in the post-Soviet world of the emerging democracy of Ukraine. A self-made comedian and media personality, he is a part of Ukraine’s dynamic and entrepreneurial civil society.

National identity

A key factor that distinguishes Zelenskyy and Putin as leaders is the way in which they draw on national identity in their leadership. For Putin, Russia’s national identity is static and homogenous. There is one acceptable version of Russian identity; variations are considered deviant and a threat. For Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s national identity is dynamic and inclusive.

The unifying elements of Putin’s vision of national identity are specific communal factors: shared language, history, religion, culture, or ethnicity. For Putin, such elements create a common bond and a common purpose among those who possess them. In 2021 Putin stated: “Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are all descendants of Ancient Rus… bound together by one language…, economic ties, the rule of the princes of the Rurik dynasty, and – after the baptism of Rus – the Orthodox faith… we are one people.”

For Putin, this idea of an exceptional nation simultaneously evokes Russian entitlement based on past glory, as well as Russia’s victimhood and humiliation at the hands of foreign enemies. Putin’s popularity “is tied to the idea of reanimating Russia’s past to reinstate the country’s greatness.” In 2022, Putin praised the conquests of the historical Russian ruler Peter the Great as returning to Russia what was “rightfully” hers. At the same time, for Putin, Russia’s greatness is under threat from the West.

By contrast, Zelenskyy himself brings together the fractured components of Ukrainian identity in his own person. He is a Russian-speaking Ukrainian born in the east of the country who embodies a strong Ukrainian identity that is distinct from a Russian one. In Zelenskyy’s words: “[Ukrainians] are all different. They fight wearing the cross, the crescent, the star of David. Lads from Western Ukraine and from the south-east. Russian speakers from Kharkiv and Kryvyi Rih and Ukrainaian speakers from Ternopil and Ivano-Frankivsk… All different. All Ukrainians.”

The unifying element of Zelenskyy’s national identity is a focus on the human striving for freedom and dignity. This factor also constitutes a universal element – uniting Ukrainians with others who share these values. In contrast to Putin, for Zelenskyy, history is not used to illustrate a glorious and longed-for past, but rather to show that the human drive for freedom can triumph over oppression to create a brighter future.

As Zelenskyy stated to the UK parliament in February 2023: “[Both of] our people went through crises and growth, inflation, and periods of social losses and social gains. It was tough but we always found strength and stamina to move ahead and achieve results… We know freedom will win… We proved together that the world truly helps those who are brave in defending freedom. And thus, paves the way for a new history.”

Ultimately, military outcomes will be decisive in determining whether and how the war might conclude this year. However, Putin and Zelenskyy’s distinct imaginings of national identity contribute to galvanising support with audiences domestically and across the world.

Domestically, Putin’s static and homogenous national identity appeals to those for whom it provides certainty and belonging to a specific idea of what it means to be Russian. For this segment of the Russian population, the ongoing war only serves to reinforce Russia’s entitlement to territorial control beyond its borders, as well as the looming spectre of humiliation at the hands of the West. This constituency will not lose faith in Putin’s war in 2023. However, if Russia fails militarily, these supporters may grow dissatisfied with the outcome, if not the war itself.

Globally, Putin’s emphasis on the West as Russia’s central opponent will further isolate Russia from Western countries. However, Putin’s assertion of a homogenous identity does appeal to groups who conceptualise their own identity in a similar way within their own context.

Additionally, Putin’s narrative of Russian victimhood by the West resonates in countries that are uncomfortable with a US-led global order or have an enduring historical memory of Western colonialism. Nevertheless, given Putin’s emphasis on Russian particularism, this is more likely to create tacit acceptance of Russia’s actions than stir costly action in support of Russia’s war.

Domestically, Zelenskyy’s dynamic and inclusive Ukrainian identity, with an emphasis on the striving for freedom, appeals to broad swaths of the Ukrainian population – and aligns with the sense of purpose felt by those fighting on the frontlines. This is unlikely to change in 2023. As Russia doubles down on asserting its self-proclaimed right to control Ukraine, the idea of freedom and agency become ever more galvanising.

Beyond Ukraine, Zelenskyy’s emphasis on a common human striving for freedom as a basis for identity invites others who align with this notion to rally alongside Ukraine. This will continue to boost support for Ukraine in established democracies – but also beyond, in places where populations or leaders resonate with a smaller state fighting against a stronger one to determine its own political and social reality.

In the coming months we are likely to see military escalation between Ukraine and Russia. A less-visible factor that will contribute to the trajectory of this conflict is whether Putin and Zelenskyy’s distinct articulations of national identity will maintain traction with their respective constituencies.

Will Putin’s homogenous and static national identity, that harks back to a time of historical glory, continue to appeal – or will it fracture if Russian glory on the battlefield falls short? Will Zelenskyy continue to be able to unify the diverse aspects of Ukrainian society into a coherent whole – and will this unity hold past his leadership?

The answer to these questions will shape the societal impacts of this war – in both Ukraine and Russia – long after the fighting has ceased.

This article was published by the Australian Institute for International Affairs.