Here’s what Western leaders need to remember about Zelensky’s emotional appeals

By Roger Petersen | March 21, 2022

Volodymyr Zelenskyy paid a visit to the wounded defenders of Ukraine undergoing treatment at a military hospital. Credit: Україна. Accessed via Wikipedia. Public domain mark 1.0.Volodymyr Zelenskyy paid a visit to the wounded defenders of Ukraine undergoing treatment at a military hospital. Credit: Україна. Accessed via Wikipedia. Public domain mark 1.0.

The war in Ukraine is fought with bullets, bombs, and rockets—and also with images and words. At the center of this conflict, President Volodymyr Zelensky has strategically deployed the latter to trigger emotions among his fellow Ukrainians, Russian foes, and Western supporters.

“Russia has turned the Ukrainian sky into a source of death for thousands of people,” Zelensky, wearing an army-green t-shirt, said in a recent virtual address to the US Congress. Members of Congress were reportedly visibly emotional as they sat, rapt, listening to a speech that referenced Martin Luther King Jr. and September 11, 2001: “Is this a lot to ask for, to create a no-fly zone over Ukraine to save people? Is this too much to ask? A humanitarian non-fly zone, so that Russia would not be able to terrorize our free cities?”

Neither the United States nor NATO is likely to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine—and many would argue that there are good reasons for that. For a no-fly zone to be effective, the West would need to be prepared to shoot down Russian planes that entered the zone. That would present a significant risk of escalating the war between nuclear superpowers. Yet Zelensky has made repeated, emotional calls for a no-fly zone. Why? The answer has everything to do with two powerful emotions—indignation and guilt—known to spur others to act. But if Western policymakers leave their emotions about war unchecked, they may not make the best policy decisions.

Indignation—anger provoked by unjust treatment—requires three actors: an aggressor, a victim, and an observer. In the current crisis, these roles are played by Putin, Ukraine, and the West respectively. Putin (the aggressor) attacked Ukraine (the victim) while the West observed. Indignation cycles are fueled by guilt. Zelensky, in summoning indignation, harnessed the West’s guilt to elicit specific actions by Western policymakers.

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“All the people who die from this day forward will also die because of you,” Zelensky said earlier this month in response to NATO’s refusal to consider a no-fly zone.

Throughout, the West has responded with an emotional display of moral outrage. From the West’s point of view, this emotional display signals its virtue to other countries. And this virtue, in turn, enhances its reputation. At the same time, the West also wrote policies—policies that incurred costs—sanctioning Russia.

Every time Zelensky repeats his call for a no-fly zone, the West must repeat its refusal to help those under siege from the sky. With each refusal to help, the indignation cycle repeats. The West experiences more guilt and is spurred to atone for its refusal to support a no-fly zone. In this feedback loop, the West imposes more sanctions or, for example, sends more Javelin missiles.

Zelensky also deploys powerful images, including one that summons an image of what his wartime death might look like: a Jewish president abandoned by the West and Germany in particular. In the process, he does not suggest that Western values are inherently bad. Rather, he calls out the West for its failure to act—and suggests that it can do better.

Violent conflicts like the current war in Ukraine are deeply imbued with emotion. Still, NATO and Western leaders must not be held hostage by emotions while making policy decisions. Policy is not a means for relieving guilt or signaling virtue. Rather, NATO and Western policies should be driven by a pursuit of the West’s and Ukraine’s best interests. The best outcome of this war for both Ukrainians and the West might hail from a negotiated solution in which clear heads, rather than emotions, prevail.

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Jim C
Jim C
2 years ago

Munich is more than a city in Germany, it is an attitude. After Chamberlain surrendered to Hitler’s bluster at Munich, he returned to the House of Commons and heard Churchill declaim, “You had a choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you shall have war.”

If we fail to support Ukraine today and insist on a capitulation camouflaged as a “negotiated settlement,” we will have chosen dishonor, and we will have war when Putin and company invade the next country.

Victor Gilinsky
Victor Gilinsky
2 years ago

There is something deeply offensive about a professor with, so far as I can tell, no wartime experience, and probably no government policy experience, either, lecturing us in clinical terms that we need to ignore the Ukrainian president’s emotional pleas, that above all we mustn’t let him make us feel guilty, as if he were some sort of illegitimate manipulator. Is there any reader who doesn’t already know–the world being what it is–that there are limits to what we can do and that we have to seek a negotiated way out?

Bernard Cleyet
Bernard Cleyet
2 years ago

“All the people who die from this day forward will also die because of you,” Zelensky said earlier this month in response to NATO’s refusal to consider a no-fly zone.” No! As explaned by The Bulletin a great increase in mortality, morbidity, and property damage would likely result from a no-fly. AND unstated by nearly all the media: By militarily supporting Ukraine the war is extended resulting in more death and destruction. If the West wanted less harm they would insist on negotiation including significant compromising on the part of Ukraine, and not support Ukraine with weapons, but would continue with food,… Read more »


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