‘Illegitimate Zelensky’: new Russian disinformation campaign

According to US intelligence, Russia is stepping up its disinformation campaign against the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, CNN reported. According to analysts, the pro-Kremlin media and the Russian state propaganda media are spreading fakes that focus on two topics.

One narrative, which is being pushed by Russian state propaganda outlets and pro-Russian news websites in Europe, is Zelensky’s alleged illegitimacy. These narratives can influence the West.

CNN, citing U.S. intelligence, reported that Russia has stepped up its disinformation efforts to discredit Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and raise questions about his legitimacy in recent months.

Why Russian media networks claim that Zelensky is illegitimate?

A senior official in the Biden administration told the publication that Russia has stepped up its disinformation campaign against Zelenskyy. It used the fact that Ukraine had postponed the presidential election scheduled for this spring to do so. This was intended to fuel criticism of Zelenskyy.

The Russian media and pro-Russian news sites in Europe have begun to spread the narrative that President Zelensky will not be legitimate after May 21, when the presidential election is supposed to take place. However, the vote will not take place due to martial law.

The purpose of such claims is to undermine the credibility of the Ukrainian government and divert attention from Putin’s claims of illegitimacy. In a resolution, the European Parliament recognized the Russian presidential election in March as undemocratic and illegitimate.

In our own research, we have also noticed the spread of such narratives on pro-Russian websites in France and Germany. Here are a few examples from news sites that present information in a biased and favorable way for the Kremlin.

“Zelensky is not synonymous with Ukraine. Backers of the conflict doubt Zelensky and are looking for his replacement.” (https://rrn.media/fr/zelensky-nest-pas-synonyme-de-lukraine/)

Video: “He’s no longer president. Zelensky lashes out at the media and the opposition as power slips from his grasp. No longer considered a legitimate president, Zelensky strives to fulfill the missions entrusted to him by the United States.” (https://rrn.media/fr/video-il-nest-plus-president/)

No confidence in Zelensky. Volodymyr Zelensky’s presidential term ends on May 21, and official elections are postponed indefinitely. It’s difficult to talk about new arms deliveries or hopes in the conflict becomes difficult, as no succession is planned for the former comedian-turned-president.” (https://rrn.media/fr/video-pas-de-confiance-en-zelensky/)

Disinformation around Ukraine’s withdrawal from Avdiivka

The second topic that the Russians used for their campaign was Ukraine’s withdrawal from Avdiivka and the capture of this nearly destroyed town by the Russian troops. Based on this topic, Russian and pro-Russian media outlets have been spreading claims that Ukraine’s defeat is imminent and inevitable. 

A number of pro-Russian media outlets in Europe, particularly in France and Germany, are also spreading this narrative. Here are a few examples from news sites that present information in a biased way that is favorable to the Kremlin.

According to all of the propaganda bases, the Kremlin media are convinced that Russian troops have suffered almost no losses, while the Ukrainian army is suffering high casualties. The Kremlin media presents any Russian advance, even the capture of a village at the cost of several hundred soldiers, as a great achievement. Instead, the Russians downplay their own losses. The goal is to instill fear and force concessions to Putin’s demands.

“With each day of the Ukraine war, the chance of an independent future of the country becomes smaller.”(https://apolut.net/deutschland-und-die-ukraine/)

“Ukraine is also only helped in the short term. Because the money and the weapons are not enough in the back and front.”(https://lostineu.eu/ukraine-israel-taiwan-die-usa-giessen-oel-ins-feuer/)

“The bet on the effectiveness of NATO weapons, as time has shown, did not work, the praised leopards and Bradleys and other Western equipment burn, and very well.”(https://www.extremnews.com/nachrichten/weltgeschehen/e24c1930524c298)

 “Ukraine has already lost militarily.” (https://www.freiewelt.net/nachricht/ex-general-kujat-frage-der-zeit-bis-die-ukraine-militaerisch-vollends-unterliegt-10096537/)

“Either the escalation of the Ukraine war to a great European war with world war potential or a great loss of face and power of the West, especially the superpower USA based on the dollar dominance.”(https://www.pi-news.net/2024/05/grosser-krieg-oder-grosser-machtverlust/)

“The benefit of the Leopard tanks, which were handed over to Kiev from the West, is currently “zero” while Russian equipment for electronic warfare successfully fights Western drones, according to experts.” (https://www.anti-spiegel.ru/2024/nutzlose-leoparden-und-keine-zusaetzlichen-patriots-die-ereignisse-des-22-april/)

“Terrible losses:Bodies of Ukrainian soldiers are disposed of on the battlefield, morgues are not allowed to provide information.” (https://uncutnews.ch/schreckliche-verluste-leichen-ukrainischer-soldaten-werden-auf-dem-schlachtfeld-entsorgt-leichenhallen-duerfen-keine-auskunft-geben/)

“In Ukraine, the sale of the two-legged human material is currently underway. There, the decision-makers may have put many billions in their pockets and until the last Ukrainian is burned, this profitable business model is also to be maintained.” (https://qpress.de/2024/04/29/ukraine-demokratie-frieden-menschenrechte-weg/)

“In addition, there is the possibility that a Ukrainian army, which is exhausted and bled out by years of failed offensives, will eventually fall victim to a Russian counterattack, which would lead to far greater territorial losses than Ukraine has suffered so far. The French ex-president offers a diplomatic way out. The commentators react with “pro-Putin” insults. What’s behind the witch hunt.”(https://www.telepolis.de/features/Sarkozy-verunglimpft-weil-er-unbequeme-Wahrheit-ueber-die-Ukraine-ausspricht-9293539.html)

Disinformation may have a greater impact on the West than on Ukraine

The United States is more concerned about the impact of this Russian disinformation campaign on other countries than it is about the fakes undermining Ukrainians’ trust in President Zelensky, the CNN report says. Therefore, the Americans are informing allies and partners about the threat.

“We want to make sure that this type of Russian disinformation doesn’t take root in other countries that may not realize that Ukraine can’t hold elections because it’s under martial law,” the officials explained.

We recently published a study that identifies the main narratives of pro-Russian news websites in Europe and who is spreading them. The leading themes for commentators favorable to Moscow are the decline of the West, blaming the US, EU, and NATO for the war in Ukraine, Ukraine’s imminent and inevitable defeat, and the claim that NATO troops are fighting the Russians in Ukraine.

Many such websites accompany these topics with positive coverage of right-wing radical parties in Europe in light of the upcoming European elections.

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