“Zelensky the Junky”: Incessant Tactics of Russian Propaganda to Undermine Trust

Russian propagandists have consistently employed insults and falsehoods to undermine President Zelensky’s endeavor to secure solidarity and support across the globe throughout the full-scale invasion. One of their primary lines of propaganda, recently intensified, is labeling Zelensky as a drug addict. This tactic aims to deceive the Russian audience by portraying the Ukrainian government as being led by an illegitimate, corrupt, and drug-addicted politician, whilst simultaneously attempting to mislead the democratic institutions Ukraine believes in the most.

A campaign to undermine Ukraine’s credibility

Russian propaganda’s continuation to discredit Zelensky through his alleged use of drugs stems from his recent call to legalize medical marijuana for Ukrainian soldiers suffering from the war’s effects. Russia has seized upon this opportunity to portray Zelensky as an opaque, substance-dependent leader, attempting to hinder further international aid to Ukraine and Ukraine’s accession into western alliances. This deliberate misrepresentation serves the purpose of discrediting Zelensky and undermining Ukraine’s credibility on the global stage.

Misconstruing the legalization of marijuana

In recent developments, the pro-Kremlin channel, promoted by Chief State Propagandist Vladimir Soloviev, published disinformation about the Ukrainian government’s draft law, supported by Zelensky, which aims to legalize medical marijuana. “Well that’s what hard drugs do. Zel’s gone off the deep end,” Soloviev adds, attempting to portray Zelensky as having gone past the point of help and therefore his leadership questionable.

This content can be identified as propaganda for several reasons. One tactic employed by the channel is downplaying the seriousness of the war by using quotation marks when referring to the use of marijuana by Ukrainian soldiers to “overcome stress.” 

This tactic of emotional exploitation attempts to diminish the true extent of the horrors experienced by soldiers and the profound impact of war on their mental well-being. By portraying it as a mere operation rather than a war and using quotation marks to mock Ukrainian soldiers’ perceived “weakness,” state propaganda seeks to undermine the truth by downplaying the actual suffering endured by Ukrainians, waged by Russians.

Furthermore, the channel goes on to denigrate Zelensky, labeling him a “mini-dictator” who allegedly enjoys unrestricted access to marijuana and other hard drugs for personal use while referencing his “quasi-presidential immunity.” This characterization attempts to undermine Zelensky’s credibility and authority, painting him as a morally compromised leader driven by personal greed.

The propagandists suggest that legalizing marijuana is a move to serve his own interests in the hope it will have detrimental effects on the Western audience’s perception of Zelensky, Ukraine’s direction, and its future within democratic institutions such as NATO and the EU.

Therefore, the pro-Kremlin channel engages in propaganda by distorting the proposed legislation on medical marijuana, downplaying the severity of the war in Ukraine, and attempting to discredit Zelensky through unfounded accusations. These tactics further exemplify the consistent use of insults and falsehoods by Russian propagandists to undermine Zelensky’s influence on the global stage.

Zelensky’s Strong Cereal: Russian Propaganda Video

Recently, a video clip featuring ‘Zelensky’ eating cereal to circus clown music was released by state propagandist Margarita Simonyan. In the video, ‘Zelensky’ is shown using a spoon with a large helping of “sugar” (depicted as cocaine). As he walks to the phone, he wipes his nose, insinuating drug use. He then picks up the phone and is rejected by NATO, with only instructions for Ukraine to remain in the fight alone. 

This video is significant for several reasons. Firstly, its high production quality and substantial budget suggest that it is either a piece of Russian state propaganda or the work of an individual with significant media influence. The timing of its release, on the morning of the first day of the NATO summit in Vilnius, is also noteworthy, as Ukraine was anticipating a strong signal from NATO regarding its membership aspirations.

However, Russia bargained that the alliance wouldn’t offer much significance to Ukraine (evidently, Ukraine cannot be accepted into NATO during a war) and so attempted to capitalize on Ukrainians’ frustration with indecision and Zelensky’s ‘humiliation.’ The humiliation narrative is additionally pushed by Maria Zakharova, Head of Russia’s Press Department for Foreign Affairs, telling how the summit was a display of “Public humiliation of Ukraine, absence of any coherent concept”.

The final segment of the video depicts broken and ‘drug sniffing’ Zelensky reluctantly calling Russia to initiate negotiations, but the call is not answered, portraying Zelensky as the helpless leader with no one to turn to for assistance, deepening his depression to continue the rhetoric of Zelensky the junky. 

Pre-War vs. Post-War Zelensky

In an episode of ‘Soloviev live,’ Roman Golovanov, state propagandist presents a manipulated video of Zelensky, attempting to portray him as broken, unkempt and directionless. They go as far as comparing him to a drug addict and making absurd claims about his intentions to legalize marijuana, saying, “This is the guy [Zelensky] who is leading the country into total and utter annihilation,” misleads Golovanov

Golovanov’s rhetoric utilized dubious analogies, such as the difficulty of evicting a drug addict from an apartment building, reminding the audience how hard it used to be to kick them out during the 1990s. 

This narrative is used to imply that if Russia fails to win the war, Ukraine will be overrun by drug addicts, resulting in an alarming, larger, and more convoluted war. This rhetoric tries to persuade the audience that Russia must continue its “Special Military Operation” to the ‘end’, because if it is left untreated, Russia will be fighting its “drug addict neighbors.” 

Golovanov takes his insinuations against Zelenskyy to an extreme by suggesting that the president harbors a personal hatred, questioning whether this hatred is innate or, something ‘man-made’, hinting at the result of substance abuse. He concludes his remarks by slyly addressing Ukrainians, implying that if they were (under zelensy’s leadership) to have children in Ukraine, those children would inevitably become drug addicts, “resorting to injecting themselves and ultimately meeting a tragic end in a ditch.” Golovanov’s words paint a dark and manipulative picture of Ukraine’s future in the narrative of state propaganda. 

In August 2022, Kremlin-controlled state media, TASS, reported that Russian Lieutenant-General Igor Kirillov told of drugs and ephedrine substances being found at abandoned Ukrainian military positions – an attempt to bring the Ukrainian military into disrepute. However, Ukrainian soldiers have long told it is in fact the Russian military on drugs. They describe their shock at Russian troops’ inhumane ability to work in horrific conditions (both mentally and physically), oblivious to their comrades dropping dead right in front of their eyes. 

In June 2023, Radio Liberty reported how an anonymous Russian volunteer stated that the conditions in Donetsk (Russian occupied areas) are ripe for drug use. He describes how soldiers returning from the front lines take full advantage of this and Russian commanders “Turn a blind eye.” 

As a result, Russian state propagandists are once again employing the tactic known as reflect and project; aimed at highlighting their problems as in fact Ukraine’s, using it to defame Ukraine’s command and military. This is so, when evidence of this happening the Russian audience will call into question its validity. State propaganda will display it as a tit-for-tat state of play. Therefore, the internal audience are less likely to believe information that is negative about the Russian military, even when true.

The intent of the aforementioned propagandists performance is to shape public perception by distorting the reality, maintain support for Russia’s military operations and command,  and instill fear and division among Ukraine’s society and allies, questioning its current trajectory and leadership.