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In a commentary published by "The Sun" on November 20, 2023, the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, touched upon the issue of the possible transformation of some military personnel into politicians: "If a military officer decides to engage in politics, then it is their right, then they should go into politics, and then they will not like war... If you manage the war conduct, keeping in your head that tomorrow you will be engaged in politics or elections, then in your words and on the frontline, you behave like a politician and not like a soldier, and I think this is a huge mistake. He added: "With all due respect to General Zaluzhnyy and all the commanders on the battlefield, there is an absolute understanding of the hierarchy — and there can't be two, three, four, five [commanders]... This issue is out of the question according to the law and in the conditions of war. It does not lead to the unity of the nation." Zelenskyy was obviously reacting to the journalist's question and only pointed out the obvious risks for a state at war, which would arise if the military leadership began to criticize the political one with the zeal of the peacetime opposition. The Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Valeriy Zaluzhnyy, was mentioned here as a symbolic example that the head of the country's military, like everyone else, must obey the hierarchy prescribed by law. But Russian propaganda presented this comment as a confirmation of its thesis, which had already been promoted over the past months, about a severe conflict between Ukraine's political and military leadership, which was illustrated by the confrontation between Zelenskyy and Zaluzhnyy. On the same day, November 20, the head of the Pentagon, Lloyd Austin, came to Kyiv with an unannounced visit, during which he met with Zelenskyy and assured Ukrainians in a video message from Sofia Square of the United States of determination to continue supporting Ukraine. In addition, on this day, President Zelenskyy also met with the CEO and journalist of the Republican-leaning Fox News channel, Lachlan Murdoch and Benjamin Hall. Russian propaganda combined all these events into a strange mix of speculations published in Russia-controlled Telegram channels.

Is there a "leader" or are there "leaders" in Ukraine?

During the monitored period, a speculative example was the agitational propaganda’s comment on Lloyd Austin's mundane first tweet after arriving in Kyiv. His tweet said: “I just arrived in Kyiv to meet with Ukrainian leaders. I am here today to convey an important message — the United States will continue to support Ukraine in its fight for freedom against Russian aggression, now and in the future." But in the word "leaders" (and not "leader"), pro-Russian Telegram channels saw traces of a conspiracy and the readiness of the United States to support Zaluzhnyy in his alleged confrontation with Zelenskyy.

"In other words, there is not one leader in Ukraine, but at least two. I think their names are clear to everyone. Bankova is going crazy. A new powerful signal." - speculated one of the popular anonymous Telegram channels.

"This tweet should be considered as a signal to the Ukrainian elites that the US sees Zaluzhnyy as a future leader, and therefore is ready to negotiate with him like with Zelenskyy," another pro-Russian channel reinforced the thesis. Possibly, Russian propagandists in such interpretations saw internal Russian realities, where there can probably be only one leader, and the multiple use of the word becomes a signal for special services about a conspiracy.

/ Lloyd Austin's first tweet after arriving in Kyiv /

Yet, such interpretations of the tweet appeared on the Internet two days before the events. Over the weekend, one of the Telegram channels, commenting on Zelenskyy’s statement that Russia is preparing an attempt to overthrow the government in Ukraine, discussed that it is the United States (and not Russia) that will seek a "new Maidan" to bring Zaluzhnyy to power: “... Their task immediately after the seizure of power is to transfer the leadership to Zaluzhnyy, who will "freeze the war" in exchange for guarantees. This will calm both the "peaceful citizens" and the "patriots", because Zaluzhnyy is an authority, and if he decides to go for peace, then there is no other way."

The purpose of such a message is to sow despair among Ukrainians in their further resistance [against Russia]. Russians tried to communicate that even Ukraine's most powerful ally, the Ukrainian military, and Russia, were already preparing for negotiations and a peace agreement, albeit with territorial concessions, and only the inadequate political leadership of Ukraine prevented this peace from coming. Therefore, the current struggle and sacrifices in such a logic are Zelenskyy’s superfluous whim. Meanwhile, Russia can use the weakening of resistance to fuel up its aggression for the further military subjugation of Ukraine — a goal that Moscow has not abandoned and which the highest officials of Russia do not hide. For example, the deputy head of the Russian Security Council, Dmitriy Medvedev, denied Ukraine the right to exist in one of his last Telegram posts on November 12, 2023, writing that if there is an idea to accept Ukraine into NATO without Crimea and parts of the East occupied by Russia, then maybe it should be recognized that, in general, all of Ukraine is "artificially collected territories".

"Dismantling Zaluzhnyy"

The confrontation between Zaluzhnyy and Zelenskyy in the pro-Russian Telegram channels is presented as a fait accompli. Bankova, in various contexts, was credited with dismantling, desacralizing, and neutralizing Zaluzhnyy. Multiple repetitions should eventually make the audience accept the thesis as truthful. Under the public headline "dismantling Zaluzhnyy", Russians commented on individual personnel changes in the Armed Forces: "Yesterday, Zelenskyy changed the commander of the medical forces of the Armed Forces." Instead of Tetyana Ostashchenko, he appointed Anatoliy Kazmirchuk as the new commander. Bankova continues to dismantle Zaluzhnyy's people, gradually filling him with disloyal [to him] personnel.

Russians’ posts also included references to anonymous insiders: "Our source in the Office of the President said that Yermak continues consultations regarding the possible resignation of the Military Chief Commander with the military, SBU, HUR, and political groups of influence. Bankova is considering all scenarios regarding Zaluzhnyy’s neutralization, who has become Zelenskyy's main competitor."

Finally, the propagandists resorted to more specific speculations about Bankova's allegedly insidious plans regarding Zaluzhnyy: "As far as we know, two possible tracks of Zaluzhnyy's desacralization are currently being considered: the actions of military recruitment offices and the case of surrendering the South of Ukraine. He will most likely be overthrown due to the issues with the territorial centers of procurement and social support. Still, the case of "surrender of the south" is also actively involved."

At the same time, Zaluzhnyy never announced his political ambitions and generally only commented on military issues in the media. Ihor Zhovkva, a non-first-level official deputy head of the President's Office, expressed the opinion that Zaluzhnyy should not have publicly commented on military issues for The Economist. However, it would be surprising if the military-political leadership of the state did not actively discuss the tactics and strategy of confronting the aggressor, particularly the strategy of communication with allies. At the same time, there are still no clear indicators of a dramatic conflict between Zaluzhnyy and Zelenskyy or Zaluzhnyy’s signals of readiness to challenge the democratically elected president. According to the Constitution, Zelenskyy can single-handedly fire Zaluzhnyy, whom he also single-handedly appointed as the Armed Forces commander-in-chief in the summer of 2021, half a year before the full-scale invasion of Russia. On November 22, Zaluzhnyy, for the first time, participated in the meeting of the contact group on the defense of Ukraine within the framework of the Rammstein international format, which signals confidence on the part of the country’s political leadership. Previously, Ukraine was represented at the meetings only by the Minister of Defense.

"Zelenskyy bribes stubborn Republicans"

Russian propaganda paints an image of a weak President Zelenskyy, from whom the international partners and the military turn away. To confirm this thesis, this week, the propagandists promoted the thesis of Zelenskyy's desperate efforts to win the support of the American Republican Party. Zelenskyy's comment to The Sun about his readiness to discuss his proposals for ending the war with Trump was presented as a complete rupture between Ukraine's leadership and the Biden administration. One of the Telegram channels tentatively addressed Zelenskyy: "Don't you think it's too early to write off Biden and Sullivan so openly?" The propagandists also used the fact of Zelenskyy's meeting with Fox News to promote their version of his switch to the Republicans: "Ten days ago, we wrote that Bankova considers the main option to "fling" the Democrats and gradually establish a dialogue with the Republicans. During this time, Zelenskyy invited Trump to Ukraine; Pompeo received a job position at "Kyivstar"; Zelenskyy met with Fox Corporation CEO Lachlan Murdoch. Bankova needs to destroy the bipartisan media campaign against Zelenskyy in the United States."

At last, anonymous Telegram channels began to pick up one after another the claims about Zelenskyy's efforts to bribe US Republicans directly. "The President's Office paid US lobbyists $70 million to push through a new financial and military aid package, and they are demanding double the amount. At the same time, officials from Bankova are trying to create an illusion for Zelenskyy that these negotiations are difficult. Still, they are advancing and attracting former top Republicans and even brought the heads of Fox News", — shared a popular Telegram channel.

Another channel offered its "insider" updates on this bargaining. These updates discussed the inexhaustible resources of the President's Office's dark cash: "Our source in the OP said that Zelenskyy agreed to double the amount to American lobbyists to help pass military and financial aid to Ukraine through Congress. An additional 100 million dollars will be allocated through the dark cash register of the President's Office for lobbying in Congress and positive publications in the US mass media. How the negotiations are going on and whether the parties have reached an agreement in the imaginary reality of Russian propagandists will become known in the next "Kremlingram" series.

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