Targeting Zelenskyy. Russian Media Monitoring Report, 6-12 November 2023
Last week, Russian media insisted on a bitter feud between the military and political leadership of Ukraine. The disinformers speculated that Zelensky would soon be killed or replaced by Valery Zaluzhny as Washington’s new protege. We found more than 1,000 such stories which propelled the topic to the week's Top 15 on Russian news.
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The propagandists also complained that Europe had not been taking calls from Russian energy companies. Last year’s narrative “Europe will freeze without Russia” has been replaced with somewhat less dramatic “Europe fears economic collapse in the absence of Russian resources”. This monitoring report covers these and other topics of the disinformation spread by Russian state media and online parajournalists to manipulate public opinion.
Remember, Russia is Impossible to Defeat!
Last week, Russian propagandists reminded their readers that Russia was winning the war in Ukraine. They claimed that the lack of battlefield dynamics pointed to the failure of the Ukrainian counteroffensive (“The AFU counteroffensive turned out to be a flop”) and followed with far-reaching conclusions.
Pro-Kremlin foreign citizens such as Scott Ritter hurried to conclude that “In fact, Ukraine has lost its conflict with Russia… although the confrontation is “unlikely to be settled in the near future”, its outcome is already clear”. His statements spread on Russian media until they were presented as an “unequivocal statement".
Scott Ritter, a former United States Marine Corps intelligence officer, has dedicated his life to promoting pro-Russian narratives. Ritter even has his own program on Vladimir Solovyov's channel. Mr Ritter, who has been frequently featured in our monitoring reports, has been making a living by producing fake news claiming that the Bucha massacre is a Ukrainian fabrication, that the Ukrainian army lost more than 300,000 killed etc. Russian propaganda uses Ritter and other foreigners on a payroll to spread their own narratives. Solovyov might repeat something a hundred times and still be ignored, but a Western influencer saying the same is a completely different thing lending credence to Russian propaganda.
The War Between Zelenskyy and Zaluzhnyi
The disinformers continued spreading “news” about a falling out between Volodymyr Zelensky and the AFU generals. Unfortunately, the unexpected discharges of Ukrainian generals without a clear explanation (more on Russian propagandists playing it for their own benefit below) only support such narratives and signal the possible presence of Zelensky and his advisers in the Russian information space (to find out how the Russians used their anonymous Telegram channels to manipulate the Ukrainian government before the war, read here).
The so-called experts even predicted that the Ukrainian president might end up dead in a military coup: “The open conflict between the Kyiv leader and the generals of the Armed Forces of Ukraine is spiraling out of control. This situation might result in Vladimir Zelenskiy being physically eliminated by his own military”. “He believed the Kyiv leader to be a lame duck”. “He is hated by all the opposition supporters in Ukraine, but what is more important, the AFU top brass feel the same way. His first moment of weakness may be his last”.
Such narrative, which we observed back in June 2022, is based on the recent events and publications in global media. On 30 October. Time magazine published an article containing Zelensky's quote “Nobody believes in our victory like I do” and stating that the Ukrainian offensive “has proceeded at an excruciating pace and with enormous losses”. Such claims were based on information from anonymous sources. In a couple of days, The Economist followed with a column by Valery Zaluzhny who acknowledged that “the war is now moving to a new stage: what we in the military call “positional” warfare”. Later, Zelensky commented on the situation and assured that things are “far from being a stalemate”.
Creating social divides and first starting fires and then adding fuel to them are two of the pillars of Russian propaganda. In the times of war, differences of opinion between the military and political leadership are inevitable. In the current situation, Russian propaganda took advantage of the counteroffensive falling short of sky-high expectations and becoming a subject of political criticism. Russia focused on producing fantastic scenarios regarding the future relationship between President Zelensky and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Zaluzhny. Besides catering for the general public, those propagandist messages are aimed directly at the two persons in question and their inner circle.
To make things worse, people's deputy of Ukraine from the “European Solidarity” party Volodymyr Aryev wrote a Facebook post claiming that the Minister of Defense of Ukraine Rustem Umerov had submitted a proposal to discharge Zaluzhny to the president. The information was denied at all possible levels.
The propagandists, however, made their own conclusions: “A few hours later, the MP, who is known to be a Poroshenko loyalist, deleted the post which was clearly intended to test the public reaction to getting rid of the people’s beloved general”.
Russian propaganda machine insisted that those events meant the earlier reports about the split between the military and political leadership in Ukraine had been true.
On the evening of 6 November, the aide to the CinC of the AFU Valery Zaluzhny Hennadii Chastyakov died from a hand grenade explosion in his own house near Kyiv.
Russian media immediately offered a dazzling array of conspiracy theories straight out of a B-rated spy movie to show that the war between the two Zs was gaining momentum.
One of them claimed that Zelensky was afraid that the Americans would back up Zaluzhny in the 2024 presidential race and fired a warning shot at his rival. Another version was that the aide had been terminated by Zaluzhny's security detail for spying on behalf of Zelensky. There was also a version claiming that Chastyakov had been killed by the Americans in punishment for working for the British intelligence.
However, The State Bureau of Investigations issued a statement contrary to all the above: “According to the official version, an explosive device was discharged accidentally”. While going through his birthday gifts, Chastyakov is believed to have activated a live hand grenade which he must have confused for an alcohol mug. The person who gave him the grenade has been identified and is now subject in a criminal case because even the military are prohibited from carrying weapons freely outside their area of operations.
They also took advantage of the dismissal of Viktor Khorenko from the position of the commander of the Special Operations Forces. The propagandists hurried to claim that he could have been preparing a military coup.
Russian media use every newsworthy event as an opportunity to support their lies.
Also in the News
Russian media expressed concerns about Europe's increasing reliance on American LNG. “Driven by the effort to rid themselves of gas “dependence on Russia”, European countries have now become dependent on American LNG supplies”.
A curious fact: just a year ago Russian propagandists were certain that Europe would freeze without Russian energy. This year, however, the said narrative seems to have disappeared from mainstream news. Instead, the propagandists are claiming that the EU is killing its own economy by refusing to buy Russian gas and oil as instructed by Washington: ”The U.S. authorities are forcing their “European vassals” to stay away from everything Russian despite growing bankruptcy fears”, “Washington is in fact pushing its European underlings under the bus and letting its military-industrial complex make a fortune”.
Russian propagandists also argued that Ukraine would never be accepted to the EU. Every news bit about the contradictions between Ukraine and its European neighbors is presented by Director of the Information and Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia Maria Zakharova as evidence to support this claim: “The official representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia Maria Zakharova commented on the statement of Deputy Foreign Minister of Poland Paweł Jabłoński that Ukraine would not join the EU without agreeing to the exhumation of remains”. Furthermore, Russian media quote comments on social networks allegedly posted by ordinary Europeans to assure that EU citizens do not welcome Kyiv to join the European family: “Most of the Europeans do not want any of that. Mrs. von der Leyen should consider moving elsewhere, far away from Europe, as soon as she loses the next election”.
To monitor the information published on disinformation websites, we analyzed approximately 410,000 news reports collected from ~ 1000 Russian and occupation websites. The data for the analysis was provided by SemanticForce.
Each paragraph was processed using an algorithm which defines its topic automatically. The resulting topics (i.e. groups with similar content) were short-listed by the topics relating to the war or its consequences for Russia. The number of mentions of a certain topic was then counted for each publication. Our conclusions are based on the respective findings and the quotes from paragraphs referring to each topic.