“I think Zelenskyy is now a superhero for many of us. It’s incredible because he- he (sp) is a lawyer by profession, then he became a comedian and actor, then he became pretty surprisingly, it was also a surprise for Poland, that he became president… So his image worldwide has changed dramatically. He is the leader of the free world right now.” [i] Polish Ambassador to the U.S. Marek Magierowski
In the wake of the isolationist diplomatic tendencies of the Trump presidency between the years 2016 to 2020 and the reversal of those actions during the Biden presidency to the present, the United States has abdicated its status as “Leader of the Free World” as one would traditionally think of it from 1918 until the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Failed campaigns to place “America First” circa pre-World War Two, Franklin Delano Roosevelt isolationist era foreign policies compounded the failing Department of State (DoS) geopolitical strategies following the Obama administration. A compounding storm created friction and fed discourse globally over the course of 16 years, allowing “peer nations” to create partner of choice dilemmas strategically in favor of United States adversaries. This is the political environment within which the United States finds itself.
The global distaste for Trump’s personality created space between longtime military to military or state to state partnerships. Coupled with the U.S.’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan under the Biden administration, foreign adversaries were armed with more than enough proximal vignettes to attack the U.S.’s credibility within the information and diplomatic spaces and develop the fertile breeding ground for dynamic invasions of the DIME spaces (Diplomatic, Information, Military, Economic) across the globe. The Russian economic and military support to Syria, Libya, Nigeria, and Mali is most evident through the activity of the Russian endorsed Wagner group’s enhanced presence in these countries[ii].
With the U.S. in a perceived retreat from its global position of strength, adversaries naturally stepped into the vacuum. Putin’s Russia saw this as an invitation or opportunity to exert its regional authority and continue a personal crusade to reunify the former Soviet Union and re-establish its Cold War-era global position. Putin miscalculated both tactically and strategically. Putin’s advisors greatly underestimated the strength and will of the Ukrainian people. This is obvious based on what seemed to be envisioned as a 48-72 hour “special military operation,” which instead evolved into a prolonged Russian siege across Ukraine sapping both men, materiel, time, and political credibility.
During the early hours of the invasion of Ukraine, global eyes were fixed on China for indications or warnings that it would make a play for Taiwan. The Chinese shrewdly allowed the situation and information environment to settle before any drastic moves were made. Pausing and demonstrating diplomatic patience allowed Russia to fall on its sword, enabling China to learn from every misstep Russia made. The world immediately denounced Russia, isolating its athletes, businesses, and government further and actively creating internal strife. In what can only be called a full-scale social media onslaught coining the new term of a “Tik Tok Regiment,” Russia’s internal credibility to govern has even come under fire from its people.
China passed on the opportunity for the short-term gain of taking Taiwan. Understanding that the global long-term ramifications of sanctions, isolation, and internal political turmoil by creating a long-term insurgency within Taiwan would not be in its long-term interests. Additionally, by showcasing deliberate and level-headed diplomatic actions China passively gained diplomatic clout and political credibility globally by looking like the rational actor on the Asian continent. Stepping back and watching its continental competitor for partnership and resources burn itself down, benefits the Chinese regime in the long run.
With China not posing as active a threat to the West and happy to passively gain from Russia’s missteps, the U.S. was able to shift focus diplomatically away from the Indo-Pacific and toward European partners (NATO) to contain the regional war. Ukraine is not a NATO member (Ukraine’s request to be considered for membership, being one of Putin’s red lines justifying his invasion) and therefore not bound by Article 5 defense requirements as its continental compatriots. It became clear that Russia is actively exploiting this relationship as a “lawfare” gap against NATO to invade within the gray space of legal warfare[iii]. Russia again escalated its definition of what it defines as war, i.e. “special military operation,” similar to its invasion of Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014.
The global and regional conditioning of using certain verbiage such as “special military operation” is a common tactic seen used by Russia in both 2008 and 2014. Naming invasions, bombings, and killings anything other than “war” calls into question for the masses: what is war? Creating that question in people’s minds coupled with reoccurring kinetic activities, enabled Russia to slowly elevate globally what is perceived as the definition of war or warfare. With the table set by operations in 2008 and 2014, and capable of exploiting a perception of the reduction in U.S. global power and pressure, the decision to again escalate the boundaries of warfare was again too intoxicating to deny. The bottom line is that Russia invaded because Putin thinks he can get away with it.
As Russia reinforces its aggressive perception based on past activities and its active participation in attempting to deny NATO’s relationship with Ukraine, it created an exploitable gap for Ukraine. The perception of Putin versus Zelensky is so vastly different, that it creates a multi-media perception that Ukraine is everything opposite of the Russian aggression campaign. This is a position that the United States once found itself in during the Cold War, serving as the antithesis to everything Soviet.
President Zelensky is a young President who within the past 365 days witnessed the downfall of another nation’s government (Afghanistan). Zelensky saw the repercussions of politically of the leadership fleeing a country under fire. Learning from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani [iv] , Afghanistan provided a proximal vignette to serve Zelensky as an example of what not to do under fire. Zelensky elected to remain in the fight. This is part assisted to prevent his people from allowing themselves to be dis-integrated and controlled within 72 hours, as Russian intelligence analysts believed. Zelensky understood the power of being present and leveraged that into the old adage of leading from the front. This again draws an eerily similar perception to that of the United States standing up to the Soviets and communism globally.
“We admire him (Zelensky) because, in the face of unequal odds, Ukraine’s president stands his ground. Because he proves the truth of the adage that one man with courage makes a majority. Because he shows that honor and love of country are virtues we forsake at our peril. Because he grasps the power of personal example and physical presence. Because he knows how words can inspire deeds — give shape and purpose to them — so that the deeds may, in turn, vindicate the meaning of words.” [v] Bret Stephens
As hours turned into days, days into weeks, and now months, Zelensky has become the face of the opposition to the modern industrial warfare and lawfare that Russia developed then brought to Ukraine’s doorstep unprovoked. The third most powerful Army globally, sought an ill-informed land war against the 21st most powerful army in the world believing it to be a tidy 48-72 operation. At the onset of a border build-up, following a supposed exercise and coinciding with the end of the Olympics, the situation looked dire as Ukraine concurrently attempted to evacuate its women and children while preparing its defenses countrywide. Leveraging its ability to televise and live stream across multiple platforms enhanced Ukraine’s global perception. This perception was parlayed into a justification for the U.S. and European countries to support Ukraine with monies and materiel to finance and arm its continued opposition[vi] of the unwarranted invasion.
“We admire Zelensky because he has restored the idea of the free world to its proper place. The free world isn’t a cultural expression, as in “the West”; or a security concept, as in NATO; or an economic description, as in “the developed world.” Membership in the free world belongs to any country that subscribes to the notion that the power of the state exists first and foremost to protect the rights of the individual. And the responsibility of the free world is to aid and champion any of its members menaced by invasion and tyranny. As it goes for Ukraine, so, eventually, it will go for the rest of us[vii].”
Through the strategic use of social media, exploiting its own terrain and weather factors, the impromptu army of farmers and civilians has not only slowed but stopped the onslaught of the Russian Federation’s invasion forces. Albeit at a catastrophic cost of human life on both sides. Russia is losing tactically and strategically–even with years in preparation of seeding Russian Spetsnaz throughout the country. This was a similar tactic that the federation had been caught using in Georgia, Crimea, and an attempted coup in Montenegro.“Russian forces have been supporting separatist forces in eastern Ukraine for years, and that effort may expand as Moscow redirects its military campaign toward that region.[viii]” Putin is losing so badly that his government is grasping at erroneous claims to include widespread Ukrainian Nazism, U.S. hidden Bio labs in Ukraine, Anti-Semitism, even with the world able to witness live evidence to the contrary[ix].
Zelensky has effectively become a rock star in his own right. The man who has stood up to the bear, with nothing but his will and his people in his support. Zelensky has become such a face within the political eye that musicians such as Les Claypool took notice and contributed toward both awareness as well as informing the music and information space with a stream and song; “Claypool recently spoke to Consequence about Primus’ new 11-minute epic “Conspiranoia” off their forthcoming EP, Conspiranoid. With “Zelensky: The Man with the Iron Balls,” he and Hütz join the likes of Sonic Youth, Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider, Belle and Sebastian, and Arcade Fire, who have also shared new releases recently in support of Ukraine.[x]”
So the situation for the United States is this: Due to strained political relationships globally spanning the Obama, Trump, and now Biden administrations, the U.S. has ceded some of its political and diplomatic clout. With this perception, some adversaries have successfully exploited the situation and gained from it (China) and others have underestimated it and lost (Russia). What is evident though is that the perception of the U.S. has shifted as is evidenced by peer competitors feeling emboldened enough to invade other nations.
Generically the President of the United States is known as the Leader of the Free World. At this moment is that true? Or is there a different face of that title due to circumstance? One would believe that the Leader of the Free World at the moment, demonstrating the values most admired is, in fact, President Zelensky. This has not changed the fact that the U.S. remains the sole superpower globally. Although the U.S. is not on the front line of this conflict, it is administrating its completion reactively through its aid to Ukraine, and reinforcement of NATO[xi] allies. “Were back and the reason we’re back is because of you-“US Ambassador Blinken
Russia miscalculated. Its aggressive actions had the opposite strategic effect than the tactical results Putin sought. By aggressively seeking to control Ukraine and keep a pro-Russia buffer between Moscow and NATO countries, Russia actually created a demand by non-NATO countries to seek membership. By creating the situation, Russia provided the U.S. the ability/ reason to reinforce European allies without fear of escalation being accused of provocation.
The U.S. is not able to indirectly counter one of its biggest foes globally while rebuilding relationships that had been strained over the past 16 years within Europe. Although the U.S. may not be the muddy boats “Leader of the Free” world at the moment, this is not necessarily a bad thing. With older republics and democracies guiding and ushering and supporting one another, the administration of such conflicts is much more suited to the U.S.’s current global position.
[i] Jacob Rosen, Polish Ambassador to U.S. says Zelenskyy is “leader of the free world” – “The Takeout” – CBS News, accessed 22 April 2022.
[ii] Elliot Smith, 13 Septemer 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/09/13/russia-is-building-military-influence-in-africa-challenging-us-france.html?msclkid=64c2cd1ec7f311ec9050a6e76d1a777f , accessed 29 April 2022.
[iii] Jill Goldenziel, 3 August 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jillgoldenziel/2021/08/03/the-us-is-losing-the-legal-war-against-china/, accessed 29 April 2022.
[iv] Afghanistan President Ghani flees the country amid Kabul collapse to Taliban | Watch (msn.com), accessed 22 April 2022.
[v] Bret Stephens, Opinion | Why We Admire Zelensky – The New York Times (nytimes.com), accessed 22 April 2022.
[vii] Ibid., para two.
[viii] Russia’s Spetsnaz Special-Operations Forces Are Under Fire in Ukraine (businessinsider.com) , accessed 24 April 2022.
[ix] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/25/opinion/putin-russia-conspiracy-theories.html?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=news_tab&fb_news_token=mi6K41nSP9iHWSSkwL%2F00w%3D%3D.ApdP0cQDfIxCNR3FL%2FMF%2FkAoSAxMXOysa0UZW2nd9wUvfs8iiyp%2BlFkBU689UfpB23VTYFNo9f7EiyMRPLouU2wV4FkH9%2BNgbuoD2mPZx8KcL1Hnc3%2F6hyrLC7wl63rHUE7k3tBuM%2FUhbRltKpAO0fgZ9tyTt3Yk4stWrVR6fEPcvn6%2BsAG1612RpRlP%2BbrpuTxTppNDRVveHJRKrVggLEc2n%2B1ZUE9Wy%2F8J5oXOX%2BFHsvhmDuQFZQm%2FlPNyWUKBYDXU%2BgT%2FMenh32OsGgqGByVCwUkhBLHf%2FHOd9Fth444%3D , accessed 25 April 2022.
[x] https://consequence.net/2022/04/les-claypool-eugene-hutz-zelensky-man-with-the-iron-balls-stream/, accessed 24 April 2022.
Joshua A. Lyons is a graduate of Indiana University Class of 06’ where he was commissioned as a United States Army Air Defense Officer. He holds a Master’s in Military Operational Arts and Science from the United States Air Force Air Command Staff College. He serves as the Active Defense Chief at the Army Air Missile Defense Command level within the Combined Air Operations Center. He additionally served a three-year tour as an Operational Advisor with the U.S. Army Asymmetric Warfare Group as a Troop Commander and the Group S-3. His other works include Defining Cross Domain Maneuver for the 21st Century, the U.S. Army Travel Awareness Handbook, and multiple articles within the Small Arms Review and the Asymmetric Warfare Journal.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.