Kremlin’s massive disinformation campaign to discredit Zelenskyy a colossal and expensive failure

The Kremlin is conducting a large-scale PsyOps campaign against Ukraine
The Kremlin is conducting a large-scale PsyOps campaign against Ukraine

The Kremlin has targeted both Ukrainian and Western audiences in an extensive PsyOps campaign since January 2023, a Washington Post in-depth investigation revealed on Feb. 16.

Read also: Russia’s extensive disinformation campaign to discredit Zelenskyy – report

This meticulously orchestrated effort, characterized by a sprawling network of operatives, generous funding, and a set of clearly defined objectives from the Kremlin, seeks to discredit Ukraine’s military-political leadership, create divisions among Ukrainian elites, demoralize the Ukrainian Armed Forces (AFU), and disorient the Ukrainian population.

The Washington Post has documented the scale of this campaign, marking a new chapter in the long history of exposing the Kremlin's disinformation machinery. The publication detailed how, around a year ago, the Kremlin launched a series of "information-psychological operations" (IPSOs), resulting in thousands of social media posts and hundreds of fabricated materials created by "troll factories" that spread throughout Ukraine and Europe.

Over 100 Kremlin documents obtained by a European intelligence service were reviewed.

The disinformation campaign aimed to, among other things, undermine trust in Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and to exploit tensions between him and former AFU Chief Valeriy Zaluzhny.

Read also: Putin’s lies go unchecked by American propagandist Tucker Carlson

The main orchestrator of the campaign is Sergey Kiriyenko, the first deputy head of the Russian presidential administration and a close associate of Vladimir Putin. He instructed a group of Russian officials and political technologists in January 2023 to ensure a significant presence in Ukrainian social networks to spread disinformation.

The campaign was divided into two groups: one focused on destabilizing Ukraine from within, led by Kiriyenko's close deputy Alexander Kharichev, known as a "fixer" for his role in managing Kremlin-favored election outcomes in Russia. The other "European" propaganda group aimed at undermining support for Ukraine in Western countries, particularly in France and Germany, was led by Tatyana Matveyeva, another deputy of Kiriyenko and head of the Kremlin's department for the development of information and communication technologies.

The strategy outlined by Kiriyenko targets four primary objectives:

  • Discrediting Ukraine's military-political leadership (fueling discussions about the "Monaco battalion" and privileges for the elite's families, negotiations behind Zelenskyy's back, lies about the sale of Western weapons, and uneven power outages favoring high-ranking officials)

  • Dividing Ukrainian elites (promoting themes of pre-election strife, confrontation between the Kyiv government and the President’s Office, supposed secret agreements of the Ukrainian government, and supposed presidential ambitions of Zaluzhny, etc.)

  • Demoralizing the AFU (exaggerating losses, etc.)

  • Disorienting the Ukrainian population

Below in the graphic are examples of fabricated materials for each of the themes in April 2024.

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The "progress" of the campaign was monitored nearly weekly at meetings in the Kremlin. Moscow's IPSO (information and psychological operations) "strategists" conducted presentations, showcasing the most popular posts that had been placed in the Ukrainian segment of social networks in the previous days, and calculating their results. They also reported on weekly surveys regarding the level of trust in Zelenskyy and the military leadership of Ukraine, the report found.

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Despite the Kremlin's expectations for the campaign's outcomes, such as lowering the ratings of "key personnel in Zelensky's office, the Ukrainian government, and the AFU command," the real impact seemed to disappoint the campaign's architects.

Ukrainian society remained "extraordinarily united," and documents indicate that Russian officials were occasionally frustrated by their inability to undermine Zelenskyy's ratings or to incite division.

"One of them complained in one exchange that the Ukrainian president was like Brad Pitt, a global star with an image that couldn’t be sullied," the article notes.

Examples of Russian Lies and Manipulation

The Washington Post published examples of weekly reports from "Center S" — the Kremlin team responsible for disinformation operations in Ukraine.

Among the examples of the most popular posts and materials they promoted in the spring of 2023 were:

  • A fabricated Facebook post claiming that the family of a fallen soldier had received no assistance from the Ukrainian state, aimed at discrediting Ukraine's leadership (it is claimed to have garnered over 2 million views)

  • A fake Telegram video story suggesting that Kyiv's main goal was supposedly "to fight to the last Ukrainian" (as part of materials aimed at disorienting the population)

  • A provocative Facebook post suggesting that "Valeriy Zaluzhny could become the next president of Ukraine," which allegedly amassed 4.3 million views (the goal being to divide the elites)

Below in the graphic are examples of fabricated materials from April 2023.

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The campaign also involved attempts to fuel the conflict between Zaluzhny and Zelenskyy, even before the general's dismissal became a reality. Kremlin PsyOp strategists aimed to create an "augmented reality," promoting narratives that Western leaders were supposedly looking for a replacement for Zelenskyy and that Zaluzhny intended to halt a counter-offensive.

In May 2023, social networks were flooded with a wave of articles similar to those titled "Zelenskyy clings to Power. Democracy is being dismantled in Ukraine," and in June 2023, the Kremlin attempted to capitalize on the period when Zaluzhny was out of the public eye. Kremlin bots were instructed to publish comments stating, "This is why Zaluzhny has disappeared: because he could and should take Zelenskyy's place."

To further fuel a sense of fear and anxiety, there was a suggestion to exaggerate Ukraine's losses in the war, the study found.

Below in the graphic are examples of fabricated materials from May 2023.

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Campaign scale and funding

As for the scale and funding of the campaign, by early March 2023, dozens of Kremlin-hired "trolls" were creating over 1,300 messages and 37,000 comments weekly on Ukrainian social networks.

Workers at "troll factories" were paid up to 60,000 rubles ($660) per month for writing 100 comments per day. Reporting to their political leaders on the progress of the campaign, its "strategists" mostly focused on the volume of content created and the total number of views.

Read also: Ukraine warns of large-scale Russian psyops using foreign journalists to justify aggression

The first five months showed no evidence that these efforts had any significant impact on Ukrainians. Surveys conducted by the Kremlin showed that trust in Zelenskyy remained high, with his approval rating fluctuating between 68% and 73.3% from February to June, though documents claimed a slight decrease to 65.4% by August.

It is impossible to assess the accuracy of the "Kremlin's" surveys, as well as how the Russians conduct them in Ukraine, the Washington Post noted. A survey by the Ukrainian Razumkov Centre in July 2023 showed trust in Zelenskyy at 81%, while in February 2020, it was at 69%.

The investigation highlights the complexity of the Kremlin's task in Ukraine, especially given the almost complete absence of a pro-Russian segment in the Ukrainian media landscape.

The most promising strategy for spreading Kremlin disinformation was identified as a network of Telegram channels, combined with Twitter and Facebook/Instagram, as Telegram's audience in Ukraine had grown by 600% over the last year.

$39K for top media narratives: disinformation against Ukraine in Western countries

Strategists under Kiriyenko in Ukraine attempted to adapt and repurpose the disinformation tactics used by Russia in Western Europe for use within Ukraine. The European IPSO campaign by the Kremlin, dubbed Doppelgänger (Double) by the EU officials, included tactics such as:

  • Cloning media websites and government pages, like those of Le Monde newspaper or the French Foreign Affairs Ministry, to post fake content against the Ukrainian government

  • Creating fake social media accounts for top politicians on X (Twitter), including an account for Germany's Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, with Kremlin operatives then attempting to share stories or posts from these websites or accounts on Ukrainian social networks as if they were genuine

  • Promoting narratives intended to tarnish Zelenskyy's image in the West as the "hero of a small country fighting against a global evil," as one document from April 2023 suggests (Zelenskyy was to be portrayed as an actor only capable of performing a script written for him by the U.S. and NATO, and Ukraine's Western allies as being tired of him)

  • The idea of spreading forged Ukrainian state documents that would supposedly "prove" corruption schemes in military procurement, as well as the fact that Zelenskyy and his family had accounts in Western banks

Read also: Italian mayor withdraws approval for suspected Russian propaganda show meant to whitewash occupation

These plans resulted in the creation of hundreds of articles and thousands of social media posts translated into French, German, and English, aimed against Zelenskyy, the documents show.

Washington Post journalists are also familiar with the "price list" of Kremlin strategists for placing pro-Russian comments in well-known Western media and for compensating those "influential individuals" on social networks in the USA and Europe who were willing to "work with Russian clients."

The documents state that the Russians were willing to pay up to $39,000 for the "implementation" of pro-Russian comments in leading Western media. Specifically, such narratives were supposed to come from "commentators, public opinion leaders, former diplomats, officials, professors," etc., according to the note to the "price list."

It is unclear from the documents whether anyone was paid for this or to what extent the Kremlin managed to get similar materials published in Western publications. Kremlin political technologists included their own kickbacks in the "cost." "I added 20%," one of them wrote to a colleague.

The Doppelgänger operation was first exposed by Meta in September 2022, and later its signs were noticed by the French government, the Washington Post reported. When in September 2023, a fake account of Annalena Baerbock announced that "the war in Ukraine will end in 3 months," the German government started an investigation and discovered over 50,000 fake user accounts coordinating pro-Russian propaganda — including those promoting this fake tweet.

The Washington Post investigation sheds light on the extensive efforts and resources the Kremlin has invested in its disinformation campaign against Ukraine, aiming to sow discord, discredit leadership, and demoralize the population. Despite these efforts, the unity and resilience of Ukrainian society have rendered these tactics less effective than hoped.

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Read the original article on The New Voice of Ukraine