‘How serious is the war in Ukraine?’ One commentator asked this in response to Ukrainian president Zelenskyy appearing with his wife Olena Zelenska in the fashion magazine Vogue, which was followed last night by an interview with Piers Morgan.
How a war gets reported is itself a battlefront of sorts, and media coverage has been part of war for as long as we’ve had media. The current war in Ukraine, though, is the first fully online war, and as such is subject to all the now-familiar effects that the internet has on discourse. Nowhere is this more so than in the amplification and decentralisation of propaganda.
In this light, cynics have suggested that Zelenskyy’s recent media appearances reveal that the war itself is mostly fake — and indeed, there is something jarring about Vogue’s glossy mood of comfort and luxury converging with a live war. It feels as artificial as Zelensky’s adherence, even in formal settings such as addressing foreign governments (and being photographed in Vogue), to the green ‘military’ t-shirt that’s become his media signature.
But however queasy it may seem, war and fashion have long coexisted: Vogue published through WW2, and conducted photoshoots amid bomb rubble. We can take as read that every report on the actual, material fighting in Ukraine is skewed one way or another, and as such we can have very little idea of what’s going on. But on the media battlefront, the entire Anglophone world is a target. So while we can surely read Zelenskyy’s media appearances as a clear sign that some kind of PR push is under way, it doesn’t follow from this that the war in Ukraine is not real.
To my eye the most plausible read is not that the war is fake, but simply that Zelenskyy is worried about waning international support. And it’s true that the world’s fickle attention has moved on: six months ago, my small Bedfordshire town was holding concerts to raise money for refugees and hanging Ukrainian flags in windows. Now Ukraine is background noise, and people are mostly worried about household bills.
Zelenskyy is probably right to worry that no longer being the current thing may have downstream effects on continued international support against Putin, especially given that economic measures against Russian President are contributing directly to an already-looming cost of living crisis across the West. And Zelenskyy was an actor playing a President before he was a President. Perhaps, then, he’s simply reverting to type, and doing what a media creature does best: raising awareness, through the media.
And at the risk of over-reading, we can also perhaps make some inferences from the choice of media outlets for this PR push. On its own, the Vogue photoshoot would imply a Marie Antoinette-ish focus only on rich women, as though war is merely emotional porn for the kind of elite progressive who might spend £28 on psychic vampire repellent on Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP website. But the fact that Piers Morgan got an interview too, splashed across the whole Murdoch media empire, implies that the PR campaign is targeting a broader demographic base.
What any of this says about reality on the ground in Ukraine is anyone’s guess. But as fuel prices continue to rise, and with them the cost of food, heating, and most other everyday necessities, we may well see much more of the Ukrainian celebrity who went from playing a President to being one. For it seems that in pursuit of his presidential goals, Zelenskyy feels he must now play a celebrity again.