What Democracy’s Advocates Can Learn From Ukrainians

The nation has captured the world’s attention with messaging that is messy and honest, hopeful and profane, deadly serious yet wholly unpretentious.

A moving photo illustration of a computer finger cursor dangling Vladimir Putin from his collar, over a blurred background of the Ukrainian national flag
Getty ; The Atlantic

About the author: David Litt is a former speechwriter for President Barack Obama. He is a best-selling author and the publisher of the newsletter How Democracy Lives.

In the oddly managerial language of military analysts, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is currently “behind schedule.” But it’s not just his military that’s struggled so far. Putin’s global propaganda machine—TV channels, social-media bot networks, government-sponsored hackers, and official mouthpieces—has floundered.

This was not expected to happen. Nor was Ukraine—a country that most Americans could not find on a map just a few weeks ago—expected to so completely dominate the global battle for hearts and minds. But it has. Its people have. Threatened by a ruthless autocrat, with their country and lives at stake, Ukrainians have captured the world’s attention with messaging that is messy and honest, hopeful and profane, deadly serious yet wholly unpretentious. In other words, perfect for a democratic society.

Words alone cannot win wars. Ukraine’s civilians face unthinkable atrocities and its military faces a ruthless and powerful foe. But Ukrainians’ messaging wins have helped boost morale, win over new allies, and contribute to a war effort that has surprised experts and enemies alike with its tenacity.

Those victories have lessons to teach the rest of us. The threat facing Ukrainians, and the amount of courage required of them, dwarfs anything most Americans have experienced. But authoritarianism is a threat around the world, not just in Ukraine. Democracy’s peacetime defenders should closely examine the tactics Ukraine has employed on its messaging battlefield—and add them to their arsenal.

First, where Russian propaganda has focused on abstract concepts—accusations of NATO puppetry, Orwellian calls to “denazify” Ukraine—Ukrainian messaging has focused on people. The videos capturing the world’s attention are the ones telling personal stories of victims, villains, and heroes. It’s hard to imagine many people being moved, one way or the other, by Putin’s long and largely inaccurate recitation of Eastern European history in his preinvasion address to the Russian people. But it’s equally hard to imagine many people remaining unmoved by an old woman heaping verbal abuse on armed invaders; a defiantly jubilant platoon of dad-bods “tankjacking” a Russian armed vehicle; or a mom spitting out an acidic “Thank you” to Putin for burning her house to the ground as her daughter wipes away tears.

This emphasis on the personal over the political might seem obvious, but as with most good communication, it seems obvious only because it’s being done well. Ukraine’s leaders, and even its citizens, easily could have spent the bulk of their time refuting Putin’s rhetoric, rebutting his misguided interpretations of history, and making lofty theoretical appeals to shared values. Instead, they’ve embraced a kind of anti-rhetoric, a guerrilla information war in which individuals rather than militaries or nations are playing the starring role.

Second, Ukraine’s messaging has prioritized actions over words. To some extent, that’s the unavoidable consequence of tragedy: With everyone from athletes to entertainers to legislators taking up arms in defense of the country, no one needs to remind Ukrainians to “show, don’t tell.” But Ukrainian leaders and soldiers clearly understand the power of demonstration and example, and they are using it consciously and effectively: President Volodymyr Zelensky’s courageous videos from the streets of Kyiv; celebrities not just endorsing their country’s cause but donning fatigues and fighting for it; soldiers who stoically radioed “Russian warship, go fuck yourself” as their Snake Island base came under attack. Thanks to the speed with which videos now travel on social media, the power of example is more powerful than ever—and Ukraine has taken full advantage of it.

Third, Ukrainians aren’t just condemning their enemies; they’re putting pressure on allies who they think aren’t doing enough. Rather than simply demanding that Putin call off his troops, which would never be effective, Ukrainian officials publicly shamed allies such as Germany for not going far enough with sanctions. Even as Zelensky has praised countries that have stood by Ukraine, the single sentence that will likely define his courageous leadership—“I need ammunition, not a ride”—was in part an admonition of the United States for moving more cautiously than he would like. When Coca-Cola refused to shut down its Russian operations, the official Twitter account of Ukraine scolded the world’s third-largest beverage company and invited Pepsi to “counterattack.” In other words, despite the ad hoc, cameraphone nature of Ukrainian messaging, the overall strategy is sophisticated: Ukrainians are demonstrating gratitude to their friends when it’s needed and applying public pressure when it’s most likely to have an impact.

Finally, Ukrainians are treating ordinary Russians as their natural allies, not their enemies. Before the invasion began, Zelensky’s speech to the Russian people appealed to their common culture and heritage. The Ukrainian military has invited Russian mothers to collect their sons who were taken prisoner. So far, Ukrainians seem to understand that it’s far more effective to try to drive a wedge between everyday people and their corrupt and morally bankrupt leadership than to group ordinary Russians and their leaders together.

Of course, not every message being shared by Ukrainian leaders has proved accurate. As an outgunned country wages a desperate struggle for survival, its military has at times exaggerated victories and downplayed defeats. And one of the dangers of bottom-up messaging is that unverified content spreads online far more quickly than fact-checks do. But it’s still possible to learn from the Ukrainians’ successes and emulate their most effective strategies.

Which brings us to the fight against autocracy at home. There is, of course, no comparison between the threat faced by those defending democracy in Ukraine and the one faced by those defending it in the United States. But democracy’s peacetime defenders can and should borrow the tactics Ukraine has deployed in wartime.

What would that look like in practice? Voting rights provide an example. Those who want to protect democracy should spend less time talking in the abstract about voter-suppression bills and more time telling the personal stories of individuals who have had their voting rights denied or curtailed. Better yet, they should encourage those individuals to tell their stories themselves. Rather than simply endorsing positions, celebrities and political figures should act—for example, by registering voters, signing up as poll workers, and engaging in civil disobedience when necessary. It may be impossible to remove those who stormed the Capitol from SWIFT, but public pressure should be brought to bear on institutions and businesses until they reject politicians who tried to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

Perhaps most important, prodemocracy activists should recognize that assuming conservative voters are inseparable from their authoritarian leadership becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. A significant number of conservatives—even those who supported Donald Trump—might be open to appeals rooted in shared democratic values, if they’re approached as potential allies rather than certain enemies.

Each one of these messaging tactics is deceptively difficult. Deploying them will require discipline, persistence, a greater willingness to set an example through personal sacrifice, and a shift in focus from the top down to the bottom up. But they’re working in a far more dangerous setting than the United States. Trying them here at home certainly wouldn’t hurt.