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Is Ukraine’s PR Machine Sputtering?

Ukraine’s fight depends on Americans’ and Europeans’ solidarity—but do they have the attention span?

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivers a statement at an international conference.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivers a statement at an international conference.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appears on a giant screen as he delivers a statement at the start of a two-day international conference on the reconstruction of Ukraine in Lugano, Switzerland, on July 4. ABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at Ukraine’s media war, Japan’s cabinet reshuffle, and record flooding in South Korea.

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Can Ukraine Keep Winning the PR War?

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at Ukraine’s media war, Japan’s cabinet reshuffle, and record flooding in South Korea.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Can Ukraine Keep Winning the PR War?

Ukraine’s ability to sustain Western attention and sympathy following Russia’s invasion has been a remarkable feat. Even if the facts didn’t always add up, the narrative, driven by charismatic Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, matched the reality: a much weaker nation standing up to a much stronger one through courage and force of will.

Six months into the war, kinks in the characteristically smooth public relations machinery are beginning to show. A panned recent Vogue photo shoot has come alongside less glossy revelations; a CBS documentary released over the weekend found that some U.S. weapons aren’t making it to the front lines, and Amnesty International asserted that Ukrainian forces were putting civilians in harm’s way.

The reports also come as Ukraine is losing territory to the east amid rumblings of discontent at the highest levels of government. In July, Zelensky ordered a shake-up in his security apparatus, firing his domestic intelligence chief as well as his chief prosecutor.

That the CBS and Amnesty reports were so quickly repudiated shows that the Ukrainian government and its supporters have not lost a step, but their very publication highlights the challenge Zelensky’s government faces in projecting a narrative that will keep its Western supporters engaged.

“Keeping Western audiences on their side is crucial to the flow of military aid that is essential to Ukraine continuing in the fight,” wrote Peter Warren Singer, a senior fellow at New America and the author of LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, in an email to Foreign Policy.

“For instance, imagine a not inconceivable scenario, where Ukraine moves off the headlines and the House goes Republican in the Fall. At that point, given the shift in MAGA votes against aid to Ukraine, the steady flow of military aid would be in question,” he added.

Considering how reviled Russian President Vladimir Putin is in the West, it would take more than a few Ukrainian PR flubs for Western perceptions to shift dramatically in his favor, but a cost of living squeeze could hasten calls for negotiations over all-out war.

The United States has already committed $9.8 billion in weapons and military equipment over the past year, and U.S. voter support for U.S. involvement in Ukraine, though not enthusiastic, has held firm.

According to a recent poll, 42 percent of U.S. voters agreed with the statement that the United States had a “responsibility to protect and defend Ukraine from Russia.” Support has generally hovered around that mark since the invasion and peaked at 50 percent at the start of May. It’s kept low by Republican sentiment: Less than one-third of GOP voters agreed that there was a U.S. responsibility to protect Ukraine when asked last week.

In Europe, support for Ukraine has also largely held steady, yet there are signs of a split in approach. A poll conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations in June placed European nations into two camps: “peace” for those that wanted a quick end to the war along with Ukrainian concessions and a “justice” camp that sought to punish Russia and keep up the war in the hopes of a Ukrainian victory. Italians and Germans showed the strongest swings toward the peace camp, whereas Poles were most firmly in the justice camp.

Maintaining a compelling narrative remains important as the information war on the ground makes it difficult to verify even basic facts. The shelling of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant was committed by Russia if you ask Ukrainian officials. Russian ones will say the opposite. So it goes with a host of incidents, from explosions waved away as ammunition accidents to horrific war crimes reduced to finger-pointing.

Battlefield deaths, a closely guarded secret on both sides, are left to Western intelligence agencies to estimate. On Monday, U.S. defense official Colin Kahl said as many as 80,000 Russian soldiers had been killed or wounded so far. He did not give an assessment of Ukraine’s losses.

As the war grinds on in the east and Ukraine plans a counteroffensive in the south, Zelensky and his advisors have continued to find ways to keep the West’s eyes on the conflict. A new call by Zelensky for Russians to be banned from traveling to Europe has already gained traction, with Estonia and Finland endorsing his proposal.

Although it is an undoubted strength of the former actor and comedian president, there may come a point when Zelensky can no longer reach Western audiences as before. Oleksiy Arestovych, a military advisor to Zelensky’s office, spoke to the Observer about that concern in June while also offering a solution: “People are getting weary and tired, but we couldn’t care less. You don’t have to talk about us at all. Just give us the weapons.”


Keep an Eye On

Kishida’s reshuffle. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is set to reshuffle his cabinet as his government sags in opinion polls. The dip stems from the assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which brought fresh scrutiny to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s ties to the Unification Church. (Abes assassin cited the former prime ministers promotion of the church as a motive for the killing.)

Kishida said any new cabinet members must “thoroughly review” their ties with the group. Kyodo News reports that Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi is expected to remain at his post, but Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi will make way for politician Yasukazu Hamada.

Korea’s downpour. At least nine people have died in South Korea as the Korean Peninsula experiences torrential rain that is expected to continue throughout the week. Seoul already recorded its highest one-hour downpour since 1942, when 5.5 inches of rain came down on Monday night, adding to an 18-inch daylong total. Casualties in North Korea are not yet known, although officials have called to strengthen flood protections.


Odds and Ends

The U.S. pizza chain Dominos has admitted defeat in is attempts to crack the Italian market as it moves to close its 34 stores in the country. Dominos was a relatively new entrant to Italy’s fast food market, with the first store opening in 2015. Its Italian franchise ePizza cited the increased pressure from delivery apps for its failure in a legal filing. The real reason may have more to do with palate and culture.

As the New York Times reports, a recent study commissioned by an association dedicated to protecting traditional pizza from Naples noted that the Neapolitan pies “evoked concepts of quality, well being and family, notions that large pizza chains with their standardized products struggled to match.”

American tastes have not turned off consumers seeking other traditionally Italian products. Starbucks, which opened its first Italian outlet in 2018, now has 18 stores in the country.

Correction, Aug. 10, 2022: A previous version of this newsletter misstated the number of Russian soldiers who have been killed in the war in Ukraine.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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