It has been over a year since Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine commenced on February 24, 2022. Throughout this period, Ukraine has been tirelessly defending not only its territory but also its values and future. However, the war is not confined to a physical battlefield alone. There exists a second front, where an information and communication war rages on. While the open conflict in Ukraine has received significant attention from various media outlets since its onset in February 2022—ranging from war journalism to daily reports and quick social media updates—only a few have paid attention to the semantic aspect of this conflict. This means that the media generally report on the reality as it unfolds, neglecting to recognise that it is also influenced, to some extent, by the discourse and semantic elements employed by senior political figures when discussing the ongoing war in Ukraine. In other words, limited analysis has been dedicated to understanding what is (or isn’t) being said by the political leaders involved. These leaders, through their official speeches, social media presence, or regular interactions with citizens, shape the narrative surrounding the issue, thus influencing the decisions and actions of all parties involved.
Historical analogies as a powerful tool
Historical analogies serve as a powerful tool for representatives to shape the perception of specific events through semantic means. These analogies form a crucial element of discourse and are commonly employed as rhetorical devices in political speeches. They enable politicians to establish connections between current events and past historical occurrences, drawing upon perceived similarities between them.
For instance, during the Gulf crisis, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, US President George Bush directly referenced Nazi Germany’s attack on Poland in 1939. This analogy aimed to evoke a parallel between the aggressions and emphasise the gravity of the situation. Similarly, in the aftermath of publicised images depicting refugees fleeing the conflict in Kosovo in 1999, President Clinton invoked the Holocaust, tapping into strong emotions and reflecting on the deportation of Jews during World War II.
Historical analogies, through their evocative nature, have the potential to shape public perception and elicit powerful responses by drawing upon historical events that carry significant emotional weight and historical resonance.
There are several reasons why high representatives use historical analogies. Firstly, politicians use them to add legitimacy and authority to their decision by connecting their cause with the great causes of the past. For instance, politicians can enhance the clarity and significance of their decisions by establishing parallels between their policies and historical policies or figures. Secondly, historical analogies bring emotions such as nostalgia, fear or pride that could be used to shape public opinion. Thirdly, they effectively persuade audiences by illustrating complex ideas or policies with concrete examples from history. And finally, historical analogies can be used to shape public opinion by framing contemporary issues in a particular way. Policymakers can influence how the public perceives these issues by selecting historical events to which current events will be compared.
The case of Ukraine
The analysis conducted by the author of historical analogies in President Zelenskyy’s official speeches revealed a significant usage of such analogies during the first months of the war in Ukraine. The analysis spanned from November 21, 2021, to June 30, 2022, encompassing eight months that included the period before and after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The research results indicated that President Zelenskyy referred to several historical events, drawing parallels to the current war. These events included the Second World War, the war against ISIS, the Prague Spring, the September 11 attacks, and even the Spanish Civil War. The purpose behind utilising these analogies was to present the Ukrainian War from the perspective of the Ukrainian people to the international audience. Among all the historical analogies, more than 70% directly referenced events that occurred during the Second World War. This choice was driven by several reasons, including a clear identification of the villain and the victim, the aim of highlighting the significance of the war to the international community, and emphasising the potential consequences of this conflict, such as a world war.
Russia as Nazi Germany
In many of his speeches, Zelenskyy portrays today’s Russia as comparable to Nazi Germany, emphasising that just as Nazi Germany illegally invaded other countries in the past, today’s Russia has illegally invaded Ukraine. He further draws an analogy between Nazi concentration camps and the so-called “filtration camps” where Russians deport Ukrainians during the invasion. Moreover, by linking Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor to the current invasion of Ukraine, Zelenskyy presents the ongoing invasion as an act of illegal aggression that the international community cannot ignore. Another analogy he employs is comparing the Russian army to members of the ISIS terrorist group, aiming to emphasise the severity of the situation and the brutality of Russian soldiers in Ukraine, necessitating international attention and support in the face of Russian aggression. Both ISIS fighters and Russian soldiers have been accused of employing intimidation, torture, and extrajudicial killings against civilians and combatants.
Soviet invasions of the past
The Ukrainian president also made references to historical events such as the Prague Spring in 1968, the East German uprising in 1953, and the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. He stated, “They believed that the invasion of Ukraine would be an easy walk. They believed that they would quickly stifle our desire for freedom. Well, they have a lot of experience in this. They have Berlin ’53, Budapest ’56, Prague ’68…” Through these comparisons, Zelenskyy aimed to depict Russia’s actions in Ukraine as part of a larger pattern of aggression and expansionism reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s conduct during the Cold War. In the context of the war in Ukraine, this was an attempt to gain international support for Ukraine by framing the conflict as a broader struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, with Russia as the aggressor. Furthermore, by referencing historical incursions by the Soviet Union, Zelenskyy sought to highlight the dangers of unchecked actions and underscore the imperative for the international community to take decisive measures to prevent further aggression by Russia. These references also suggest that the events in Ukraine may not be confined to its borders and that tyranny could extend to other nations if left unchecked.
Spanish Civil war
Another event to which Zelenskyy referred was the Spanish Civil War. During his speech to the Spanish parliament, he stated, “Imagine that people now – in Europe – live for weeks in basements to save lives. 2022, April – and the reality in Ukraine is as if it’s April 1937. When the whole world learned the name of one of your cities – Guernica.” By comparing the current war in Ukraine to the Spanish Civil War, President Zelenskyy likely aims to achieve several objectives. Firstly, it draws attention to the gravity of the situation and the human toll of the conflict. By drawing parallels between the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the brutal and devastating Spanish Civil War, Zelenskyy seeks to underscore the seriousness of the situation. Secondly, the historical analogy evokes empathy and solicits support from the international community. By establishing connections between the present conflict and past conflicts, Zelenskyy aims to elicit empathy and encourage support for Ukraine in its struggle. Additionally, he appeals to historical memory, reminding people of the atrocities committed during the Spanish Civil War and emphasising the need to prevent the recurrence of similar atrocities. Lastly, Zelenskyy may employ the historical analogy to suggest a moral equivalence between the two conflicts. By comparing the invasion of Ukraine to the Spanish Civil War, he implies that the two conflicts are morally comparable and that the international community has a responsibility to intervene in order to prevent further atrocities.
There are too many examples of such analogies to present them all here. In fact, out of the 236 speeches analysed, historical analogies were identified in 96 of them, accounting for 40.67%. In absolute terms, this means that President Zelenskyy referred to a historical event in the context of the war in Ukraine in almost every other speech between November 21, 2021, and June 30, 2022. Other historical events that were alluded to in his speeches included the First World War, The Great Terror, the Holodomor, the Orange Revolution, the Revolution of Dignity, wars in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Syria, Chernobyl, and even the Cold War.
What was intriguing about the results was observing how Zelenskyy strategically selected the historical events to which he would refer based on the audience. By intentionally choosing a particular historical event, Zelenskyy aimed to maximise the impact of the analogies. In his address to the US Congress, he employed a specific historical analogy, citing the attack on Pearl Harbor and the attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center. When speaking to the Belgian Parliament, he mentioned the First World War, specifically highlighting the Battle of Ypres. For the Spanish Parliament, he drew parallels to the Spanish Civil War. In the Portuguese Parliament, he referenced the Carnation Revolution. The Prague Spring was evoked when addressing the Czech Parliament. Zelenskyy confronted members of the Polish parliament about the tragic event of the Smolensk air disaster, in which the Polish President perished. When addressing Russian citizens, he made mention of the siege of Leningrad during World War II. All these examples suggest that Zelenskyy and his team deliberately chose events with careful consideration, aiming to ensure the maximum impact of historical analogies that could influence decision-making in support of Ukraine during and after the war with Russia.
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