Comedian better strategist than the spy

Why should a comedian make a better war strategist than a long-time spy? Putin has ruined the reputation of his country, his war machine and of himself by drumming up war hysteria and then struggling to subdue a weaker opponent. Zelensky, who shares not only his first name with Putin but also the fact that both were born and brought up in the Soviet Union, is much younger and inexperienced in the art of conducting politics among nations except on the small screen where he\ acted as the president of Ukraine before he actually became one. He has enhanced his own reputation as well as of the Ukrainian fighters and of the civilians who have been effectively working as the second line of defence. He has brought praise to the Ukrainian men who conducted the women and children of their families to the border, cajoling them to step onto the foreign soil as refugees with few possessions and an uncertain future. The men then promptly returned to their damaged homes to continue the fight. Many Russians, on the other hand, protested against this war and thousands have been jailed by Putin. Did the careers of Putin and Zelensky contribute to the failure of the former and success of the latter?

Making people laugh is obviously more difficult than making them cry as dictators do so often. A comedian has to provoke his audience into laughter as a reaction. When you can make people react to your act, you hold them as puppets on a string. “In a gentle way, you can shake the world”, said Mahatma Gandhi. Oscar-winning comedian Steven Wright amplified this thought: “Comedians are sociologists. We’re pointing out stuff that the general public doesn’t even stop to think about, looking at life in slow-motion and questioning everything we see.” Sitting every day unshaven before the camera, in a plain tee shirt, Zelensky has led by the hand the Ukrainians, the leaders of the West and people of the world at large in getting convinced of the vileness of Putin and his war. A spy on the other hand is an observer and a reporter, not playing much role in changing the beliefs and actions of the observed. Even when he tries to take advantage of a weak link making him betray his nation, he does not convince, he pays for that betrayal. A spy’s world is amoral, cold and calculating. There is not much room for laughter in his universe except as a put-on, sometimes.

Neither Putin nor Zelensky has ever been a uniformed soldier. Those who have been, or have had the occasion of observing soldiers at close quarters, know that soldiers are a merry lot even when they are engaged in the gory business of killing and getting killed. They love comedians and all the leading US comedians performed before the soldiers in the Vietnam War. Nothing boosts the morale of the men in the heat of a war as a good joke told usually at the expense of the enemy. Those who live by espionage are clamshells, opening occasionally just this bit to grab the information floating by. The Ukrainian army quickly adopted Zelensky as one of them, as he back-slapped and cracked jokes with the men on the frontline. Meanwhile, Putin was holed up in his home, grumbling about the incompetence of his generals and ministers, putting some under house arrest and shuffling others. While comedians have to be convivial social animals pumping the audience by their talent, spies are introverts and recluses except when the job briefly requires a mask. A comedian is usually alone on the stage with no props. He is a oneperson army who wins over with his words, gestures and even with what he leaves unsaid. A spy needs a lot of technology and back-room support from many others to be successful. Putin thought his superiority in the toys of war would make short work of the enemy and also win support in the world of those with whom he has been sharing his toys.

Yet, since the start of the war, the only head of state who has visited the Kremlin was the Austrian Chancellor on a peace mission and definitely not to support Putin, if we do not count the mysterious visit of Imran Khan, whose support Putin could do without. This is despite the fact that Moscow is intact and a safe place to visit. On the other hand, dignitaries have made a beeline for Kyiv, the new spellings for the capital city changed by Zelensky from the Russian Kiev, even though Kyiv had been surrounded by Russian forces for weeks and is even now being hit by missiles. On April 13, 2022, the presidents of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia travelled by train to Kyiv to meet Zelensky and visit cities where retreating Russian soldiers are accused of having committed cold-blooded murder of civilians. The next day, US Senator Steve Daines and House Member Victoria arrived in the capital to express their support for Ukraine. On April 21, the prime ministers of Denmark and Spain were in Kyiv to meet Zelensky. Clearly, the charm offensive of the comedian is working far better than the clamshell spy. Putin has built his political career on the slogan of “one people, one nation” claiming that Russia is the protector of all Russians living under the flag of any nation. This has created serious misgivings in the neighbouring nations that have significant Russian population. The self-proclaimed protector has lost the sympathy of even these Russians living abroad with the cruelty with which he has pursued the war against Ukrainian civilians. Zelensky rose to fame through the popular TV satire “Servant of the people” before setting up a party with the same name that unseated the proxies of Moscow in Kyiv. He had already won the hearts and minds through his role and his being president of Ukraine during an unjust invasion has strengthened his appeal. In an ironic twist, Putin too has made a lot of people laugh because he has become a gift to the caricaturists, the latest being an ageing Hitler affectionately petting a young Putin.

The US, NATO and EU watched helplessly for eight years after Putin annexed Crimea in 2014. What they are doing now would have produced much better results eight years ago but a dithering Obama in the White House ensured the contrary. The US is known for its addiction to comedy. They want the comedian to win in spite of their having played the fool in this comedy of errors. Like all wars, there will be no winners in this one either. In the final analysis, at the end of a war the legitimate question is not who lost, because both sides and the rest of the world lose in every war, if deaths, maiming, destruction and increased hatred are counted as losses. The question will be who lost more and by all accounts, the comedian has trumped the spy.

The writer RN Prasher is a retired IAS officer of Haryana cadre | Personal Opinions

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