Never-ending Smear Campaigns Against Zelensky

Written by Matt Wickham, UCMC/HWAG analyst

With President Zelensky being the No. 1 representative of Ukraine on the global stage, the Kremlin has long ensured he faces relentless and never-ending smear campaigns to discredit him and his leadership. Kremlin-funded campaigns to discredit the Ukrainian President, however, are nothing new; they were seen long before the full-scale invasion but have now reached a new level. This intensification is partly due to Zelensky’s presidential term, which was supposed to end in May 2024, being extended. Due to the ongoing war with Russia and the imposition of martial law, Zelensky continues to legally lead the Ukrainian people, much to the Kremlin’s annoyance. His continuation, however, is supported by the Ukrainian constitution, the Ukrainian people, and Ukraine’s international partners, until the time comes to elect a new leader.

Naturally, this is a moment that Russian propagandists cannot let pass unnoticed, intensifying their efforts to discredit his leadership, portraying him as the illegitimate President, and as someone whose handshake curses the receiver with damning political failure.

A Moral Exhaustion Exploited

In Ukraine, the national mood is unsurprisingly sombre, the people are tired and any signs of this war ending are absent. The longer the war continues, the bigger the challenges to keeping unity not only with Ukraine’s partners but within society. The current gap in effective communication and political accountability between the Office of the President and Ukrainian citizens does little to alleviate this fatigue and frustration. Even though Zelensky remains in power, the lack of genuine, hard-talking communication has fostered a degree of distrust toward him, the Ukrainian government, and the military leadership. This is evident in his gradually decreasing ratings of support, month by month, compared to the overwhelming, uncharacteristic solidarity witnessed at the start of the invasion.

Even though, at present, this distrust remains relatively minimal, it is sufficient for Russian propaganda to exploit. In just one month, Zelensky’s trust ratings have dropped from 64% to 59%—a significant decline from the 90% support he saw in the early days of the invasion. This drop in trust isn’t necessarily a result of his politics; it could also be attributed to the delayed support from the U.S., the much-anticipated 2023 counteroffensive, and the general fact that the war is far from over. Nevertheless, the Kremlin is using this growing sense of distrust to emotionally manipulate a population that is currently vulnerable to such tactics due to moral exhaustion – Ukraine.

Level of trust in Zelensky from his first year in power to May 2024 

The Kremlin understands little about Ukrainians; that much was clear with its belief that Ukrainians would meet Russian tanks with flowers and cheers in February 2022. However, it knows too well that in Ukraine, a democracy aspiring for European integration, political dissatisfaction often spurs calls for new leadership. This need for change has historically been seen by the Ukrainian people as a solution to all of the country’s challenges. Volodymyr Fesenko, a Ukrainian political expert, told RadioNV that, without exception, Ukrainian presidents lose nearly half of their popularity after the first year, so this drop in Zelensky’s ratings comes as no surprise but rather expected. This pattern has persisted throughout Ukraine’s nearly 33 years of independence, which has already seen six presidents.

Ukrainians, however, acknowledge that holding elections at this time is impractical—a decision backed by all parliamentary factions. And so, currently, supporting Ukraine means supporting Zelensky.

Presidential elections polarise society, a vulnerability that the Kremlin hopes to exploit, and thus, why we are currently observing so many relentless smear campaigns against the Ukrainian leader. A fractured and divided society creates openings for Russia’s hybrid warfare tactics to sow doubt and weaken the state from within.

“The Illegitimate President”

In another attempt to discredit Zelensky, Russian Telegram channels have started referring to him as “The Illegitimate President,” as evidenced in the image below.

Telegram screenshot of how Propagandists refer to President Zelensky – as the “Illegitimate President” (Telegram channel names erased to reduce the spreading of propaganda, HWAG)

This narrative has taken various angles for quite some time, with Maria Zakharova, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, labelling him as the leader of a “Kyiv Nazi regime,” an accusation to portray him not as the leader of a nation but as a “rouge” element. This claim is often coupled with the conspiracy theory that Zelensky is a puppet leader chosen by U.S. handlers rather than by the Ukrainian population.

Putin’s recent statements from late May to present day, where he continuously labels Zelensky as the “Illegitimate President” have significantly amplified these narratives. His remarks have acted as a catalyst for propagandists to exploit and further develop this campaign, as evident in the above screenshot.

Putin’s recent statement, asserting that Russia is ready for negotiations but first needs to “ascertain” with whom it can legitimately sign agreements, claims “Zelensky is no longer the President.” This move aims to sow political and societal instability in Ukraine, undermining its leader in front of a Western audience that has a limited understanding of the war and Ukrainian politics.

Additionally, Valentina Matvienko, Chairwoman of the Federation Council of the Russian Federation, echoed Putin’s stance by suggesting that true authority now rests with Stefanchuk, implying he should represent Ukraine in negotiations with Russia as Zelensky’s signature no longer holds weight.

However, in a true Ukrainian-witted political masterclass, Stefanchuk’s response showcased Ukraine’s adeptness at countering Russian propaganda with class and irony.

“It’s great that in Russia they have started reading the Constitution of Ukraine. I would recommend inquisitive readers to study the text of our Constitution comprehensively and pay attention to part 1 of Article 108: “The President of Ukraine exercises his powers until the newly elected President of Ukraine takes office.”

He further stated that anyone questioning the legitimacy of the President of Ukraine during martial law is an enemy of Ukraine. 

“Handshake of Political Death”

The “Handshake curse” has been seen in Russian propaganda telegram chatter before. It is a recycled smear campaign noted when Liz Truss, the then UK Prime Minister, shook hands with the Queen of England. Russian propagandist Maria Akhemdova called the shake a “kiss of death” saying, “Self-confessed madwoman Liz Truss shakes hands with the dying queen and leaves after forty-five days. A kiss of death of sorts.” This narrative was subsequently picked up and circulated by much of the Western media during a period when both Russia and the West were heavily focused on discrediting Truss.

Liz Truss’s visit to the Queen shortly before the Monarch’s death

Now the smear campaign has found its next victim, having taken on a fresh angle, with propagandists claiming that Zelensky carries the “curse” and that anyone who shakes his hand suffers a cursed political career or, as before with Truss, falls ill. Kremlin-supported propaganda channels pointed to the recent illness of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “proof” of this curse, saying, “Another one down! Zelensky’s curse has now affected Israel’s leader, Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu was urgently hospitalised with a severe hernia,” that the two leaders last met in September 2023. 

Following the gains of far-right parties in the European Parliament on June 9, 2024, this effort has been renewed, with propagandists declaring, The Prime Minister of Belgium has resigned. Zelensky’s handshake curse continues to take effect!” andThe curse of Zeblan [a derogatory nickname for Zelensky] is at work.”

This narrative serves multiple purposes. Firstly, it targets the internal Russian audience, who are often spiritual and susceptible to the portrayal of Zelensky as a cursed and malevolent figure that needs to be exorcised, therefore strengthening support for the Kremlin’s war. Secondly, it aims to manipulate Ukrainian sceptics and those abroad who are weary of the ongoing war, attempting to dissuade them from supporting Zelensky and, by extension, Ukraine. However, unlike Russians, western politicians rely on common sense, logic, and political adeptness rather than spiritual and folk superstitions for leading a country. Finally, and most importantly, it seeks to convey to Ukrainians that Zelensky is not only a political liability but also a bearer of bad luck, further eroding trust in his leadership. 

By disseminating these narratives, specifically focusing on President Zelensky and his leadership, which it portrays as a failure, corrupt, and cursed, Russian propaganda hopes to weaken Ukrainian morale and unity, creating cracks from within. If successful, this would make the Ukrainian population more susceptible to internal division and external manipulation. This would then reflect outwards into international media, creating more Ukrainian sceptics and a break in the Ukraine-West unity.