Spilnota Detector Media

Lesia Bidochko

Deputy Head of Detector Media Research Center

Oleksandr Siedin

Detector Media analyst

Українською читайте тут.

Over the five years of Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s presidency, Russian propaganda has gradually escalated its information campaign against him. The attacks target not only Zelenskyy himself but primarily the institution of the president of a country hostile to Russia, which he represents. Prior to Zelenskyy, similar information attacks were directed at Petro Poroshenko and acting president Oleksandr Turchynov. As the intensity of the war on the ground increased, so did the intensity of the information war, making Zelenskyy face the most extensive attacks of this kind. Discrediting and undermining Ukraine’s military-political leadership is one of the objectives of Russia’s information aggression. On the fifth anniversary of Zelenskyy’s presidency, the Russian segment of Telegram took the opportunity to launch another wave of messages aimed at devaluing the current Ukrainian president.

Five years ago, on May 20, 2019, Volodymyr Zelenskyy was inaugurated as the sixth President of Ukraine. On April 21, he won the second round of elections against the then-incumbent President Poroshenko, with 73.22% of the votes compared to Poroshenko’s 24.45%. Known across the country at that time as a showman, actor, comedian, and producer, Zelenskyy announced his candidacy and entry into politics just a few months before the election, on New Year’s Eve, January 1. Some analysts even called that election an “electoral Maidan,” as the ruling elites were overhauled without the street protests of previous Ukrainian Maidans. Zelenskyy ran on an anti-corruption, progressive, and conciliatory platform, with his novelty being a key aspect of his positioning.

His main opponents in the election were political veterans — incumbent President Petro Poroshenko and Yuliya Tymoshenko — who had been in public politics for 20 years by then. Zelenskyy’s image as a trendy, young, and savvy leader, an active user of social media, resembled more the election campaigns of new-generation Western leaders like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or French President Emmanuel Macron rather than the 1990s-style Ukrainian politicians. At that time, Zelenskyy did not appear to be a wartime leader despite the ongoing five-year war of varying intensity.

The phrase about unprecedented challenges faced by Ukrainian presidents had become a common cliché, but in Zelenskyy’s case, it regained its meaning. It cannot be said that Zelenskyy’s predecessors faced simple tasks. Leonid Kravchuk’s and Leonid Kuchma’s presidencies involved building the institutions of independent Ukraine and its market economy, Viktor Yushchenko dealt with Russia’s first pressures over European integration aspirations through the gas wars, and Petro Poroshenko was faced with Russian military aggression and the occupation of Ukrainian territories.

However, Zelenskyy’s five-year term turned out to be unexpectedly much more eventful. First, the world faced the most dangerous global pandemic of COVID-19 in 100 years since the Spanish flu, requiring governments to implement extreme restrictive measures. Later, Ukraine alone faced a full-scale invasion by Russia, a nuclear power with the largest land army in Europe and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. This invasion became the largest war in Europe by scale and intensity in 80 years since World War II. Amidst this, it is almost forgotten that Zelenskyy also became a key figure in the third-ever impeachment process in U.S. history, related to a phone call between then-U.S. President Donald Trump and Zelenskyy. These challenges secured Zelenskyy global recognition and even star status. He topped influence rankings by global publications, became an international meme icon, and his image adorns T-shirts sold in various countries. The historical chapter of Zelenskyy’s presidency and its highlights continue to be written, but it is already clear that this chapter will not be a short one.

In Ukraine, Zelenskyy’s trust rating has experienced several surges and declines. In the early months of his presidency, over 70% of Ukrainians trusted Zelenskyy. On the eve of Russia’s full-scale invasion, his trust rating dropped to 37%, but with the onset of the full-scale war, it soared above 90%. Currently, the trust rating stands at around 60%.

Next, we will discuss how propaganda has shifted its focus in its attacks against Zelenskyy over the past five years and the latest trends in the attempts to discredit him.

1.     “Amateur, Clown, Drug Addict, and No One Takes Him Seriously”

The portrayal of Zelenskyy in Russian propaganda has gradually evolved into demonization. At the beginning of his term, propaganda did not yet ascribe militaristic traits to him. During his election campaign and at the start of his presidency, Zelenskyy declared his readiness to reset peace talks with Moscow, which Russia might have perceived as a willingness to make concessions. As a result, the propagandists’ attitude toward Zelenskyy was initially softer compared to his predecessor, Poroshenko. The main discrediting message at that time was Zelenskyy’s lack of political experience. These points were borrowed from Zelenskyy’s domestic opposition in Ukraine, which had emphasized his amateurism during the election campaign and accused his voters of frivolously voting “for fun.” The synchronization of internal and external criticism might have seemed effective from the propagandists’ perspective.

This is how Putin’s first comments on Zelenskyy’s election during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum were framed. Initially, Putin accused Zelenskyy of contradictory statements and uncertainty regarding his stance on Russia, which was why he refused to congratulate the newly elected President of Ukraine, “He persists in certain rhetoric, calling us enemies, aggressors. He needs to decide what he wants to achieve.” Then, amidst the audience’s laughter, Putin called Zelenskyy a “good specialist in the field where he worked before, a good actor.” He added, to applause, “It’s one thing to play someone and another to be someone,” and noted that he knew nothing about Zelenskyy’s competencies necessary for state affairs.

Similar remarks were made by other Russian officials. For example, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova commented on Zelenskyy’s dispute with military volunteers in the East of Ukraine regarding the agreed disengagement of Russian and Ukrainian troops in certain areas of the contact line in October 2019, “We heard how the president of Ukraine convinced everyone, doing so on camera, that he was, I quote, ‘not a lokh.’ We clarified what this word means. It can be interpreted as ‘loser,’ ‘amateur,’ ‘victim of criminals,’ and so on. We want to believe that this is really not the case...”

Just as appeals to Zelenskyy’s “amateurism” during the election campaign did not prevent him from achieving a high vote count, they were also unconvincing coming from Russian propagandists after his election. Zelenskyy’s lack of experience in post-Soviet political culture was seen as an advantage by his voters. Those in Ukraine who criticized Zelenskyy for his inexperience did not need cues from a hostile country and, on the contrary, were ready to defend the institution of the President in foreign policy, if not Zelenskyy himself.

Russian propagandists also adopted another internal political slur from the 2019 election campaign, when there was a surge of baseless accusations of Zelenskyy’s drug addiction on social media, as observed by Detector Media. As their attitude towards Zelenskyy worsened, propagandists began to mention his alleged drug addiction in various contexts in their posts, even spreading fake news about purported mentions of his drug addiction on American television. These posts aimed to devalue Zelenskyy’s leadership and convince others of his insignificance.

2.              “Poroshenko, Only Sober and in a Pressed Suit”

On the eve of Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s inauguration and during the first months of his presidency, Russian media circulated messages of hope. They suggested that Zelenskyy had broken the back of the “liberal-nationalist minority” that “seized power” during the Euromaidan, implying a course towards reconciliation between Kyiv and Moscow, the end of the war (essentially, capitulation), and the abandonment of the pro-Western course as Ukraine’s main geopolitical vector. “The Ukrainian voter has had enough of war, nationalism, and the tomos. In this sense, the phenomenal percentage of votes for Zelenskyy is understandable,” stated a propagandist piece by the Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn [International Life] publication. 

According to Russian propaganda, Zelenskyy was the antithesis of the Maidan and Petro Poroshenko, embodying a protest against the “dominance of this liberal-nationalist minority, which... five years ago screwed the country over by staging a coup and binding Ukrainians with blood” (a quote from the aforementioned Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn article). He was expected to be a president who would either completely pacify the aggressor or at least partially appease its appetites. “The new president will have more of a mood for compromise and less hostile rhetoric,” wrote the authors of the propagandist publication Vedomosti [The Record].

“Ukraine can undergo a reboot. Not in terms of reallocating cash flows from one pocket to another. A true one, based on the realization of the need to consolidate the nation not through force, but by developing a national agenda,” wrote Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Facebook. The head of the Russian Accounts Chamber, Alexei Kudrin, also echoed the message about restarting negotiations and Ukraine’s practical concessions to Russia, “The elections in Ukraine confirm that we live in an era of unconventional decisions. We hope that under the new Ukrainian leadership, the negotiation process between Moscow and Kyiv will resume.”

It is impossible to say for sure how sincere or feigned the initial Russian optimism about Zelenskyy’s presidency was. On one hand, such rhetoric set a conciliatory and capitulatory tone for the next five years of Ukrainian-Russian relations. On the other hand, at the most opportune moment, propaganda could make Zelenskyy (which eventually happened, but more on that later) a convenient enemy of the opposition, represented from the beginning of Zelenskyy’s term until the full-scale invasion by the second-largest parliamentary faction, “Opposition Platform — For Life.” Its leaders included Putin’s compadre, Viktor Medvedchuk, who now resides in Russia, current MP Yuriy Boyko, and fugitive MP Vadym Rabinovych. They traveled to Moscow for meetings with Putin, Medvedev, Prime Minister Mishustin, and Gazprom head Miller — engaging in the “conciliatory dialogue” that Russians initially expected from the newly elected president.

However, Russian propaganda’s final farewell to Zelenskyy as the “president of peace” came after the Normandy Four summit in Paris in December 2019. Zelenskyy and Putin met in person for the first time behind closed doors to discuss the disengagement of forces in the east, prisoner exchanges, and Russian gas supplies. It was a “long conversation in various tones,” during which Zelenskyy made it clear to Putin that “the Minsk agreements will not work because the very concept of disengaging forces along the contact line does not work.”

The Kommersant propaganda outlet accused Zelenskyy of deviating from a policy of peace, adhering to the red lines of nationalist-militant policies instead of agreeing to the territorial and political concessions Russia desired regarding Ukraine, “Zelenskyy appeared most confident when calling himself the ‘president of peace’ who came to take back Donbas in a non-military manner. The ‘red lines’ drawn for him by opponents make the contours of President Zelenskyy’s future policies increasingly blurred. In 2020, Volodymyr Zelenskyy must definitively answer the question of whether he can draw his own ‘Zelenskyy lines’ [a play on words, zelenyi means green in Ukrainian] for his policy on the Donbas.”

“After a year, he turned out to be the same as Poroshenko, only sober and in a pressed suit,” summarized Yevhen Murayev, a deputy of the now-banned pro-Russian party Nashi, commenting on Zelenskyy’s first year as president to the propagandist publication RIA Novosti. In 2020, Russian propaganda spread messages of disappointment in Zelenskyy, emphasizing his inability or unwillingness to outline the so-called Zelenskyy lines. The narrative suggested that since he was not seeking rapprochement with Russia, not implementing the Minsk agreements unfavorable to Ukraine according to the Russian interpretation, and not wanting to purchase Russian gas directly, he was allegedly betraying his voters and Ukraine’s interests. For instance, propagandists from Parlamentskaya Gazeta [Parliamentarian Newspaper] accused Zelenskyy of choosing an anti-Russian course, thereby occupying the political field of his predecessor, “People voted for him as someone who could normalize relations with Russia, so we could live as neighbors and not as enemies. By choosing an anti-Russian policy, Zelenskyy continues the line of former President Poroshenko, even though he was elected on a wave of dissatisfaction with his predecessor’s actions.”

Through the voices of Russian politicians, propagandists, and their Ukrainian auxiliaries, the propaganda machine criticized Zelenskyy for maintaining the course of Ukrainization (language law, education law), continuing the healthcare and land market reforms, and allegedly indulging “far-right radicals” and “nationalist memory policies.” “The course taken by Zelenskyy remarkably resembled the transformations initiated by Poroshenko and, in several areas, was a complete continuation of them. For example, Poroshenko’s initiatives in the field of language policy remained unchanged,” stated a piece in Kommersant.

3.              “The Bane of Ukrainian Opposition and Opposition Channels”

Summarizing his first hundred days in office, Zelenskyy announced a “very loud story that will end very badly” regarding the “Opposition Platform — For Life” party, one of whose leaders was Medvedchuk. At the Vladivostok forum in September 2019, Putin “warned” the Ukrainian authorities against any unfavorable actions against his compadre, “Persecution of the opposition will lead to nothing good. ‘Opposition Platform — For Life’ is a parliamentary opposition that has the trust of a significant number of voters, confirmed during democratic elections.” In addition to the label “the same as Poroshenko,” a new one was added: “fighter against the opposition and political competitors,” which firmly took hold, particularly in the second year of Zelenskyy’s term.

In February 2021, Zelenskyy enacted NSDC sanctions against Putin’s compadre Medvedchuk, his wife Oksana Marchenko, associate Taras Kozak, and several companies with a connection to them. The licenses of television channels belonging to Medvedchuk and Kozak’s pool, including 112 Ukraine, NewsOne, and ZiK, were revoked. The sanctions were imposed for allegedly financing terrorism and for the fact that Medvedchuk’s group of channels was funded by a company operating in the temporarily occupied territories.

“The double standards have become so evident recently that there is no doubt about how these so-called opponents will treat us. Look at Ukraine: they shut down three leading TV channels with a single stroke of a pen! And everyone remains silent! Some even applaud them,” commented Putin.

In the spring of 2021, the Pechersk District Court of Kyiv ordered the house arrest of Medvedchuk, who was suspected of treason. In response, Putin claimed that there was a “purge of the political field” happening in Ukraine, attempting to turn the country into the “antithesis of Russia.” Propagandists on “Russia-1” reported that the West allegedly imposed this decision: “This is a real witch hunt... It is evident that external curators wrote the script.”

In light of the full-scale invasion and martial law in Ukraine and Medvedchuk’s escape from under house arrest in March 2022, the NSDC decided to suspend the activities of 11 political parties, including “Opposition Platform — For Life.” The law “On the Legal Regime of Martial Law” grants the authorities the right to “raise the issue of banning the activities of political parties and public associations if they aim to abolish Ukraine’s independence, change the constitutional order by violent means, violate sovereignty and territorial integrity, undermine its security, unlawfully seize state power, propagate war, violence, incite interethnic, racial, or religious enmity, and infringe on human rights and freedoms, and public health.”

4.              “A Criminal, a Nazi, a Bad Jew”

During the full-scale invasion, the hostile rhetoric of Russian propaganda against Zelenskyy became more radicalized. It is now trying to dehumanize him, with official representatives of Russia or leaders of the occupied territories appointed by Moscow labeling him a war criminal and a Nazi. The Russian state news agency might release articles with titles such as: “Greedy Bastard: Zelenskyy Criticized After Conversation with Biden,” while Dmitry Medvedev, Deputy Chairman of Russia’s Security Council, fantasizes about Zelenskyy’s death, comparing his future to that of Hitler, “Who’s going to die and how, that we do not know, for the ways of the Lord are inscrutable. But the addict in Kyiv has a chance to perish precisely at his own hands. Destroy himself by committing a cowardly suicide. Like Hitler, having swallowed dog poison.” Medvedev also threatens Zelenskyy with murder, “Zelenskyy’s future is of interest to us. He must be caught and brought to trial for crimes against Russian citizens and Ukrainians. If it is impossible to capture such a criminal, the rules applied to terrorists should be used... This is the fate that befell Zelenskyy’s guru, Stepan Bandera.”

The Kremlin’s rhetoric about “Nazified” Ukraine and “Nazi Zelenskyy” often prompts bewildered international journalists to highlight Zelenskyy’s Jewish roots, forcing Russian leaders to respond and reveal their anti-Semitic views. “I may be mistaken, but Hitler also had Jewish blood. It means absolutely nothing. The wise Jewish people say that the most ardent anti-Semites are usually Jews. ‘There’s a black sheep in every family,’ as we say,” Sergey Lavrov said in an interview with the Italian TV channel Mediaset in the spring of 2022.

In response, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid wrote on Twitter, “Foreign Minister Lavrov’s remarks are both an unforgivable and outrageous statement as well as a terrible historical error. Jews did not murder themselves in the Holocaust. The lowest level of racism against Jews is to accuse Jews themselves of antisemitism.” However, the protests of Israeli officials did not stop the Kremlin’s anti-Semitic rhetoric. In June 2023, Lavrov’s boss Putin echoed him, also talking about Zelenskyy’s “wrong” Jewishness in contrast to Putin’s “correct” Jewish friends, “I have many Jewish friends from childhood. They say: Zelenskyy is not a Jew, he is a disgrace to the Jewish people.”

Later, Kremlin officials accused Kyiv of the terrorist attack at the Crocus City Mall in March 2024, for which the Afghan branch of the Islamic State international terrorist organization claimed responsibility. When asked how Ukraine, led by a Jew, could, according to the Kremlin, support not only Nazis but also Islamists, Dmitry Peskov, the press secretary of the Russian president, replied, “There is a peculiar Jew in charge there, a Jew who in many ways shows sympathy and attraction to the nationalist sentiment that permeates the leadership of the Kyiv regime. This can be said unequivocally, based on facts and statements.” Modern Russian propaganda does not strive for consistency or non-contradiction, appealing more to the emotional component of its arguments, so it could easily afford to label Zelenskyy as a “Nazi Jew who covers for Islamists.”

5.              “Expired President”: Messages From Kremlin Propaganda in Recent Weeks

In recent months, the discrediting theme against Zelenskyy has revolved around the false claim of his alleged illegitimacy after May 20, 2024, when his five-year term would officially end. This wave of accusations intensified in the context of the March elections in Russia, where the narrative was framed as, “The autocrat Putin holds elections, but the ‘democrat’ Zelenskyy does not; so who is the real dictator?” We have covered this manipulation in detail in a previous article. In April, Russian networks even spread the fake news that Kyiv was supposedly filled with “posters” depicting the President of Ukraine with the caption “expired.” Videos calling for protests against the “illegitimate” Zelenskyy on May 21 have recently become a notable part of the Ukrainian segment on TikTok. Similar statements have also been made by Russian officials.

“Zelenskyy’s participation is unequivocally predetermined, and soon, the moment will come when many, including in Ukraine, will question his legitimacy. In any case, even from a legal point of view, this will have to be done. And he will somehow have to justify himself,” predicted Peskov on April 28 this year. “He spat on his country’s constitution, ignored the Constitutional Court, and went not even for a prolongation but for the usurpation of supreme power. He covered himself with the fig leaf of a vague declaration of the Verkhovna Rada about canceling presidential elections during wartime,” Medvedev said on May 20. The claim of “the complete end of Zelenskyy’s legitimacy on May 21” was also spread on several Russian propaganda platforms, for example, in Vladimir Solovyov’s program.

The issue of Zelenskyy’s five-year term being up is also raised in the pro-Russian part of the Ukrainian Telegram segment. According to propagandists, Zelenskyy has lost legitimacy among the people, in the eyes of international partners, and even in his own office. “The first day after the end of Zelenskyy’s five-year term,” reads a caption on one of the news posts by an anonymous channel with over 400,000 subscribers. “After May 20-21, Ze[lenskyy] becomes a ‘controversial president’ who artificially extended his term, which partially ‘contradicts’ the Constitution... Society in Ukraine begins to believe that Zelenskyy is becoming illegitimate,” echoes another anonymous pro-Russian channel with over 1 million subscribers. This channel also shares an alleged insider claim that at the planned peace summit in Switzerland, “many countries do not want Zelenskyy’s direct participation because he has lost legitimacy.”

Another public channel with over 130,000 subscribers, appealing to “sideline” sources, emphasizes that even the Office of Zelenskyy is aware of his alleged illegitimacy, and therefore, repression will intensify, “In the sidelines [of the Parliament], everyone says that on Bankova [President’s Office], they understand that Zelenskyy de jure loses power, but he will hold onto it as long as he has strength and the people have fear. That is why repression against the Ukrainian people is intensifying.” Another propagandist Telegram channel with over 1 million subscribers suggests that Zelenskyy will try to artificially prolong the war to retain power in the face of losing legitimacy after May 20.

The Detector Media Research Center covered the accusations of canceling elections in Ukraine and the impossibility of conducting election campaigns under current Ukrainian conditions here. We also wrote about how Russian propaganda tries to spin these claims, predicting a “Maidan-3” and why Zelenskyy’s legitimacy is not actually threatened here and here. May 21 has passed, and Maidan-3 turned out to be entirely virtual. However, appeals to the alleged loss of Zelenskyy’s legitimacy will likely remain one of the key talking points of Russian propaganda targeting both Ukrainian and global audiences in the near future.

Russia has been spreading disinformation about Zelenskyy even before the beginning of the full-scale invasion. However, as recent U.S. intelligence data presented by CNN shows, this disinformation is “definitely increasing” as of recently. While it is unlikely that Russian disinformation significantly impacts Ukrainian citizens’ attitudes towards Zelenskyy and affects sociological trust indicators, its influence has tended to decrease over the last decade. Yet, this influence remains noticeable, especially on Telegram and TikTok. Propagandists try to exploit tensions within Ukraine, capitalize on the wounds of a war-torn society, and adapt to new circumstances. This is reflected in the shifting focus of discrediting the Ukrainian president. Undermining trust in Ukraine’s leader is critically important for hostile propaganda. Therefore, Ukrainian society must learn to be resilient to such propaganda while maintaining a culture of democracy.

NGO “Detector Media” has been working for our readers for over 20 years. In times of elections, revolutions, pandemics and war, we continue to fight for quality journalism. Our experts develop media literacy of the audience, advocate for the rights of journalists, and refute Russian disinformation.

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