Ukraine on high alert as Russia targets Zelenskiy with disinformation campaign

Ukrainian authorities fear a Russian disinformation campaign targeting President Zelenskiy, aiming to exploit doubts about his authority and destabilise public trust, especially among frontline troops. As Zelenskiy’s popularity wanes amid a prolonged war, concerns grow over potential Russian advances if ammunition deliveries aren’t bolstered. The Kremlin plans to erode Zelenskiy’s democratic legitimacy as his term concludes, posing challenges amid martial law restrictions. Faced with intelligence from G7 nations, Zelenskiy anticipates a Kremlin narrative to undermine democratic institutions, while some US Republicans advocate for an election to uphold democracy, complicating Ukraine’s delicate political landscape.

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By Volodymyr Verbianyi, Daryna Krasnolutska and Alex Wickham

Ukrainian authorities are worried that President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is vulnerable to a Russian disinformation campaign that will seek to undermine his authority. 

Kyiv is bracing for a Kremlin-sponsored narrative that will seek to exploit doubts about the president’s standing in an effort to destabilize public trust, particularly among Ukrainian frontline troops, according to a person familiar with Zelenskiy’s thinking who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

The issue comes at a delicate moment for the Ukrainian leader, whose once-unassailable popularity is slipping as the war enters a third year and Russian troops mount an offensive. Officials in the country are concerned that the advances could gain momentum by the summer if allies don’t scale up deliveries of ammunition, with stocks running low. 

Central to the Kremlin’s effort will be a bid to erode Zelenskiy’s democratic legitimacy in the eyes of the public as his five-year term comes to a close without a vote to seek reelection. 

The Ukrainian leader has made clear that he anticipates the Kremlin to latch onto the issue, even as President Vladimir Putin this month stages an election whose outcome is tightly controlled by Russian authorities to extend his nearly quarter-century rule

Members of the National Liberation Movement hold posters of Putin and Stalin during a rally on Red Square.

“It’s not an opinion held by western partners or perhaps somebody inside Ukraine — but a narrative and program of the Russian Federation,” Zelenskiy said earlier this week. He said intelligence from Group of Seven nations had obtained documents verifying a Kremlin plan. 

With about a fifth of Ukrainian territory under Russian occupation, millions of people having fled the country and the nation’s infrastructure battered by the two-year invasion, martial law has imposed restrictions on elections. Zelenskiy, who took office on May 20, 2019, would otherwise be campaigning for a vote held at the end of March if he were to seek a second term. 

Democratic Deficit

Picking away at a democratic deficit in Ukraine would seem to be a hard sell from the Kremlin. Putin repeatedly insisted that he wouldn’t amend the constitution to extend his tenure, only to pull an about-face in 2020 as the world grappled with the pandemic, opening a path to stay in power until 2036. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has criticized the conduct of Russian elections, and wasn’t invited to observe this month’s vote. 

Protests and dissent are heavily restricted. The burial on Friday of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who died in prison last month, was accompanied by a heavy police presence aimed at deterring protests against Putin. 

Nevertheless, Ukrainian counterintelligence has described a Russian plan to unleash a campaign to undermine public trust in democratic institutions in the first half of June, including claims that Zelenskiy has overstayed his tenure from May. 

The campaign will aim to undermine authorities’ legitimacy after May 20 as well as “spread panic, despair, lead to an artificial conflict between civil and military authorities, a spat between us and our allies” and promote conspiracy theories, it said. 

Zelenskiy raised the issue with a group of lawmakers in a closed-door meeting last month, urging them to ensure that the legitimacy line isn’t spread, according to somebody who was in the meeting, who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

One factor in Zelenskiy’s sense of vulnerability is fading popularity. Although the wartime president is backed by a large majority of Ukrainian citizens, polls show his standing softening. Last month’s dismissal of his popular top general, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, and setbacks on the frontline have prompted a slow erosion of trust.  

Republicans Call for Vote

Other surveys last month showed that Ukrainians who believe the nation is moving in the wrong direction outnumbered those who hold the opposite view for the first time since the invasion began. 

And while a majority maintains that Ukraine should dispense with elections in war, the number of those who think Zelenskiy shouldn’t seek a second term climbed nine percentage points since December to 43%, according to a February survey from the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology. 

Ukrainian allies have backed Kyiv’s view that the country must focus on the war effort, a position that Zelenskiy said could be affirmed during a visit expected soon by French President Emmanuel Macron. 

But the issue has been raised in some corners. A number of US Republican Congress members, who are holding up a $60 billion aid package for Ukraine in the House, have called for an election to underscore democracy. 

Ukraine’s legislation prohibits elections during the wartime, as long as martial law has been enacted. But the legal wording opens some room for uncertainty, because it also specifies that a head of state’s term is for five years. The president is limited to two terms. 

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