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Zelenski and Putin: a year of leadership wars


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The Conversation

Luis Ángel Díaz Robredo

professor at the School of Education and Psychology

A year ago, few knew President Zelenski beyond Ukraine's borders. The country's timid presence in the international context barely made headlines in the West. Only events such as the Euromaidan of 2013 or the 2014 invasion of Crimea occasionally reminded us of the latent conflict that existed at that end of Europe.

Zelenski, at the time, was still far from politics, devoted almost exclusively to his role as an actor and comedy producer, and it was not until February 2022, just four years after he made his political debut, that he suddenly entered the lives and hearts of Western citizens.

Putin, on the other hand, was already a well-known regular in the international sphere with extensive experience in politics and with a reputation for and against his political decisions that generated and continues to generate much polarization. It should not be forgotten that the now reviled Putin, a few years before the invasion of Ukraine, was a leader internationally admired and respected by different political and social celebrities.

The political newcomer Zelenski, clearly inferior to his armed forces, new to the role of ruler and without external or internal support (in March 2021, the Ukrainian president enjoyed a support below 40% of his population) faced the heavyweight Putin in February 2022 and assumed the moral leadership of his country in front of the powerful Russian invader.

The tactic of moral leadership versus authoritarian leadership

Supported by a rhetoric of continuous appeal to universal values and freedom, his main action since the invasion began has been to appear on countless occasions before national parliaments and in his own and foreign media. In them he has transmitted time and again his message of moral and physical resistance to the invader to gather support from all over subject, leaving the technical decisions in the hands of others. Specifically, the military strategy falls on its commander in chief, General Zaluzhny, who has led the operations of the Ukrainian army to date with B success, showing unprecedented flexibility, ingenuity and resilience.

B The results of this style of leadership show that this strategy is efficient since, on the one hand, the polls show anincrease in the support of the Ukrainianpopulation for its president, currently up to 91%, and on the other hand, the shipments of armaments by different countries are known with hardly any civil service examination in the European sphere.

Only one internal political measure taken by Zelenski is known, related to the dismissal of a dozen high-ranking officials of his government for corruption, which greatly tarnished the image of democracy and which is so undesirable for the country's accession to the European Union.

Putin, on his side, continues in his authoritarian leadership style that has given him such good results throughout his political degree program and that he showed since the beginning of what he called the "special military operation". His way of personally directing military operations has been very characteristic, giving concrete orders on operations and military techniques, showing his unquestionable leadership before other power figures within the country (such as the Chechen Kadyrov or the head of the paramilitary group Wagner, Prigozyn) or even appointing and dismissing generals in the form staff, such as the top manager of operations in Ukraine until a month ago, General Surovikin.

In this case, the popularity of the Russian dignitary has also experienced an increase in popular support among his citizens as a result of the war, as in January 2022 it was 69% and in January 2023 it rose to 83%.

Leaders' mistakes

There are problems with both styles of leadership. In Zelenski's case, the continuous request for more and more modern military equipment could lead to the feared arms escalation by Russia or to the exhaustion of donor countries in case a victory is not achieved in the short term deadline. In Putin's case, his authoritarian leadership has generated tactical errors that continuously produce a significant issue of own casualties due to the rigidity of the command and decision making system and the excess of internal cohesion in the Russian government high command that prevents realistic criticism and internship of tactical and strategic procedures in order to improve them.

The current status of the front tells us of a stagnation of the military positions of both sides. On the one hand, there are few or no expectations in the short deadline term of important seizures of territories that could give an advantage to one of the sides. On the other hand, the attitudes of both dignitaries do not suggest any change in their leadership styles. The recent declarations of both leaders maintain the same positions as a year ago.

Thus, it is difficult to foresee a change in the status of the conflict. Both leaders know how to take advantage of their leadership characteristics: one based on the creation of charisma staff and the capacity to involve others in the conflict by appealing to empathy, the spirit of solidarity and universal justice; the other transmitting a vision of strength, experience as a leader and determination that will assure him the control and support of his country until victory. We will see how the passage of time will affect each of these opposing leaderships.