Olena Zelenska’s Soft Power

The First Lady of Ukraine is Winning the Battle for Hearts and Mind

25 October 2022

Christine Karelska

Future of Ukraine Fellow

While the Ukrainian Armed Forces are bravely fighting on the battlefield, the First Lady of Ukraine, Olena Zelenska, is assiduously waging a war in her own way by using her keen diplomatic skills to reach audiences across the globe and convince them to support Ukraine.

Soft power, in the form of cultural diplomacy, has become a potent weapon in Ukraine’s fight for its sovereignty. The Russian hybrid aggression and the infamous “Russian World” Moscow attempts to project have little to offer in response to the rising voice of Ukraine’s innovative diplomacy.

Olena Zelenska’s tactfulness has the potential to be a game-changer against the brutal hard power exerted by Moscow. While questions remain – with some answers below – over the reach and impact of Zelenska’s soft power during these times of war, there are likewise unknowns in relation to its hidden prospects. Will the status of the First Lady be transformed into a potent tool in the international arena?

Olena Zelenska. Photo credit: https://www.president.gov.ua/en/news/persha-ledi-v-intervyu-zhurnalu-vogue-rozpovila-pro-sprotiv-76685; https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/

Soft Power and Cultural Diplomacy

The methods of “hard” and “soft” power vary: the classical hard power is associated with coercive military and economic means whereas the soft power or the attractive power, according to its creator Joseph Nye, capitalises on political values, culture and foreign policy, with a simple principle, “If I can make you want what I want, I won’t have to make you do what you don’t want to.”

Amid Putin’s genocidal war there is a clash between Russian hybrid warfare – a mix of classical, WW2-style warfare combined with its indiscriminate terrorist attacks on civilians – Russian propaganda and Ukrainian hard and innovative soft diplomacy. As Stefan Meister acutely noted, “for Russian leaders, soft power is not about attraction; it instead refers to non-military instruments for manipulating, undermining and weakening opponents, a supplement to Moscow’s military power.”

The First Lady of Ukraine exemplifies a different tactic: an upgraded Ukrainian foreign policy tool or cultural diplomacy, which has many options and instruments for engagement and self-expression. The aim is one with numerous formats (music, cinema, architecture, fashion, cuisine, wine, gastrodiplomacy, brand awareness {i.e., UkraineNOW} etc.) to represent Ukraine via its culture and language as much as possible. In modern hybrid warfare, all fronts matter, and this is especially so for the battle over hearts and minds, which Olena Zelenska is spearheading now.

At present, all international attention is drawn to the outcome of the war and what really constitutes a victory for Ukraine and its allies. The most crucial challenge is how to construct a reliable security environment to avert wars in the future – of both conventional and non-conventional natures – and how to pre-emptively address severe implications as the old supranational institutions seem to be impotent in adapting to the new geopolitical reality.

By and large, new forms of engagement in the international arena, namely Olena Zelenska’s soft diplomacy, can play a crucial role in addressing the fallouts of the current invasion and bringing Ukraine’s Victory day ever closer.

Summits of First Ladies and Gentlemen

Before the outbreak of Russia’s unjustified invasion, Olena Zelenska successfully initiated the First Summit of the First Ladies and Gentlemen on 21 Aug 2021, just before Ukrainian Independence Day. She pointed out that we are living in a new reality where the old norms do not apply anymore, and the new ones have not been invented yet due to the ongoing pandemic.

The rationale behind this initiative was to boost international cooperation in resolving pressing humanitarian issues and achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals in the background of the pandemic.

However, on 23 July 2022, the Second Summit under the motto “Ukraine and the World: The Future We (Re)build Together” had a notably different flavour amid the Russian atrocities and the severe humanitarian disaster in the temporarily occupied territories. The First Lady successively promoted the event via social media, having attracted global attention not only to the Summit itself but to the humanitarian dimension of the conflict:

I truly believe the power of first ladies and gentlemen can improve the world. It is able, if not to find a way out of crises, but to facilitate and mitigate the processes that these crises cause. Or even more – to prevent them. We can and do this through our social, educational, humanitarian and cultural projects. We can do it gently, not with muscle power.

The Summit highlighted the most pressing issues: problems of IDPs and children, education, healthcare and the role of women in war times. Here, the story of the volunteer and paramedic Yuliya Paevska (“Taira”) stands out as she was in Russian captivity. At the panel discussion, Paevska shared her painful experience, her psychological rehabilitation and her return to normal life after suffering torture by the Russian occupiers.

So too, the efforts of Zelenska’s international tool will be focused on the post-war reconstruction of Ukraine, such as fundraising for C-type ambulances via the United-24 platform.

Apart from top politicians and international experts, world celebrities have also contributed to the event: UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador David Beckham, famous actors Richard Gere, Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis, outstanding athletes Andriy Shevchenko and Elina Svitolina and many others. The major focus is on the person and restoration of the human capital in the post-war environment apart from the infrastructure projects that need colossal investments.

President Zelenskyy in his appeal to the Summit participants highlighted that Ukraine needs soft power: “We need a sincere desire of different societies to help the state, which is fighting for its inflexibility and independence.”

Furthermore, the cooperation between the First Ladies has already yielded tangible results: the First Ladies of Poland and France, respectively Agata Duda and Brigitte Macron, helped in the evacuation of Ukrainian children who suffer from cancer; at the initiative of the First Lady of Lithuania, Diana Nausėdienė, the first Ukrainian centre in the European Union was launched in Vilnius, and the First Lady of the US, Jill Biden, continues to facilitate the work of the national program of psychological assistance to the population etc. This movement is not over and just beginning to accumulate international humanitarian aid for Ukrainians.

Vogue diplomacy

The “Sit like a girl” challenge became viral and iconic among women who supported Olena Zelenska’s moving photo shoot for the renowned magazine Vogue in response to ungrounded critique, mainly disseminated by Russian propaganda.

Photo credit: https://www.president.gov.ua/en/news/persha-ledi-v-intervyu-zhurnalu-vogue-rozpovila-pro-sprotiv-76685; https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/

The photographer Annie Leibovitz showcased to the international community the unbreakable will, love and unity amid war atrocities in the image of Zelenskyy’s family. It is worth mentioning that Olena Zelenska’s image alludes to the symbol of Ukrainian motherhood — Berehynia (Goddess of Protection in Ukrainian folklore), a woman who takes care of her home and family.  In the background are the destroyed Ukrainian plane “Mriya” (Dream) and buildings with protective sandbags, allowing a glimpse into the current Ukrainian reality.

Yet, as Zelenska implied in the photos, nothing can destroy the Ukrainian spirit and resilience in the face of war atrocities. Her image is iconic and resonates with people who are suffering from the unjustified war.

Olena Zelenska is not just a pretty woman, but the First Lady of Ukraine who uses her considerable platform to tell the world about the current war crimes on behalf of all Ukrainian mothers and wives who have lost their dearest.

This vogue diplomacy topped the relevance to follow the war in Ukraine and the necessity to support Ukraine as long as it takes, despite claims about war fatigue and the decline of Ukrainian headlines in global media.

Olena Zelenska Foundation: Innovative Soft Power

In light of the ongoing war, the humanitarian needs of Ukrainians are rising. For instance, according to the Ministry of Healthcare, more than 15 million Ukrainians will need psychological assistance.

On 22 September, during the 77th session of the UN General Assembly Olena Zelenska launched her own Foundation at the Metropolitan Opera in New York to boost international help for Ukraine. She emphasised that “our goal is to ensure that, when it becomes safe, as many Ukrainians as possible will be able to return to their homes. In order for them to return, it is necessary to restore hospitals, schools and housing.”

As of now, the Foundation covers three areas: medicine, humanitarian aid and education. Such a foundation can be viewed as an innovative soft power tool, which unites not only Ukrainian allies but also business corporations or even ordinary people in their willingness to take part in the restoration of Ukraine. It also serves as a good example of the “mental reintegration” concept aimed to win the hearts and minds of people who are under Russian occupation.

Human-centrism is at the core of the Foundation to help people overcome their physical and mental traumas, and make them believe in a bright future in their native country.

The Institute of the First Lady: Soft Power Projection

Besides pure diplomacy, Olena Zelenska regularly appeals to the international community on hard issues. She implored Western nations to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine and continues to ask for more weapons to avoid casualties among the civilian population and defend Ukraine’s right to exist.

In a historic and impactful speech delivered at the US Congress, Zelenska showed images of children who were killed by Russian missiles and pleaded for more weapons for the “right to defend Ukrainian families and the possibility to wake up in their houses alive.” She highlighted that she asked for help not as the First Lady of Ukraine, but as a daughter and a mother.

At the Warsaw Security Forum, she warned not to allow Russia to make its hybrid aggression a norm and appealed for various help as it is an investment for future peace and stability, especially in the context of the renewed indiscriminate attacks on civilians.

Limitations and Hopes

Former Commanding General of the US Army of Europe Ben Hodges pointed out that “soft power without hard power behind is no power.” But is it true during this all-out invasion where all means are necessary to defeat the aggressor? Generally, the institute of the First Lady can have both political and emotional influence, helping to create and push narratives beneficial to the nation. It is commonsensical that it has the huge potential to shape emotions and ideas, to win hearts and minds that can eventually change the dial in the current war.

Olena Zelenska’s diplomacy is not about realpolitik but about sincerity and the desire to save Ukrainian families from Putin’s genocide, return those who have fled Russian atrocities and create safe conditions to raise their children. As this invasion is not about territorial gains but about the destruction of the Ukrainian nation and Western values, her traits of diplomacy are highly praised by the international community that is tired of classic politicians. President Zelensky’s landslide victory in 2019 is a bright example of such a trend.

At present, Olena Zelenska warns international actors not to get used to war as it affects everyone in each corner of the world. Instead, she encourages all First Ladies to use soft power diplomacy to the fullest.

One thing is obvious: soft power should never be underestimated or swept under the rug completely. All fronts matter in Ukraine’s fight for its right to exist, and Olena Zelenska’s soft power can morph into a powerful bomb that alters the battle for hearts and minds and can ultimately outplay Putin.


Published as part of our own Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.

Picture: Taken from www.president.gov.ua (CC BY 4.0)

Christine Karelska

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Christine Karelska is a Visegrad Insight Fellow as of 2022. She is also an alumna of the College of Europe in Natolin and the Democracy Study Centre in Kyiv. Her main specialization is the European Neighborhood Policy. Christine was an intern-analyst of the Public Association “Community Associations” in Odesa. Her main academic spheres of interest are security studies, international relations, gender equality and local governance. Currently, she is working as an Advisor on International Relations of the Vice Mayor of Odesa and as an Assistant to the Deputy of the Odesa City Council. Previously, she worked as a Project Manager of the Ze!Women movement aimed at gender equality and promotion of the First Lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska’s projects in the Odesa region.

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