US intelligence sees Russia step up disinformation campaign against Ukraine’s Zelensky

Russia has stepped up its disinformation efforts to discredit Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky and raise questions about his legitimacy in recent months, US intelligence agencies have observed.

A recently downgraded intelligence assessment shared with CNN says that Russia has seized on various recent events to fuel criticism about Zelensky’s abilities and place as Ukraine’s leader, a senior Biden administration official said in an interview.

Russia has spread disinformation about Zelensky since before the war started but recent intelligence shows “it’s definitely increasing,” the official said.

The escalation of Moscow’s efforts comes as Ukrainian forces struggle to hold the line against a spike in Russian attacks in northeastern Ukraine, but the trend had been growing for months prior and is a reflection of Zelensky’s general “formidability” as a wartime president for over two years, the official argued.

“I would actually connect this disinformation effort to President Zelensky’s effectiveness across this conflict in remaining a stable, dedicated and critically important leader of his country,” said the official, who requested anonymity to discuss the intelligence.

Russia has highlighted two main areas in this recent disinformation push, the intelligence indicates: Ukraine’s painful withdrawal from the eastern city of Avdiivka and the fact that Ukraine postponed its presidential election scheduled for this Spring due to the war.

Russia suffered huge losses of troops to take Avdiivka but their eventual victory underscored Ukraine’s shortage of Western ammunition and its difficulties in defending the 1000km-long front line. Zelensky said the Ukrainian withdrawal was ordered to avoid being surrounded and save his soldiers’ lives.

The Russian narrative now being propagated, the official said, was that it was not a strategic Ukrainian decision but “rather to assign other motives,” the official said, without spelling out the Russian messaging.

When Russia launched its invasion in late February 2022, Zelensky imposed martial law, which was approved by Ukraine’s parliament. Since then it has regularly been extended and the presidential election that was due to be held this year has been postponed.

But Russians have used the delayed election to push an argument that Ukrainians will question Zelensky’s legitimacy, something that has been voiced by President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman.

Zelensky had previously rejected the narrative as a “Russian program.”

The US is more concerned about the impact of the disinformation on countries abroad than on Ukrainians’ confidence in Zelensky, the official said.

“That’s why we’re briefing our allies and partners about this,” the official said. “We want to make sure that this type of Russian disinformation doesn’t take hold and other countries that might not realize, ‘Oh, of course, they can’t hold elections because they’re in a state of martial law as a consequence of Russia’s war.’”

Biden administration officials regularly mention the increased pace of publicly released downgraded intelligence to warn about Russian actions and plans. The administration has also imposed sanctions against individuals and entities connected with Russian disinformation.

Both Ukraine and Russia have been involved in disinformation efforts against each other for years. So their impact now is questionable, particularly this far into the war, says Gavin Wilde, a former National Security Council official who is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“I am skeptical,” Wilde said, “that all of these narratives are doing much other than merely preaching to the already converted.”

“[Russia’s] always been trying to besmirch Zelensky and two plus years into this war there’s probably not a lot of fence sitters who are kind of left to be swayed by a nudge to the left or right about Zelensky holding elections or Ukrainian forces holding on Avdiivka,” he added.

Which Russian security agency is behind these efforts is unclear, but US officials believe that its intelligence services are involved while also noting that a lot of Russian disinformation often comes bottom up from pro-Russian non-official groups.

“Russia is using its typical platforms, both traditional and state media, intelligence services and the proxies that they seek to operate, and social media to spread this messaging,” said the official.

Ukraine is facing a dire moment in which its forces are diminished and stretched thin while desperately needed Western military aid isn’t arriving as quickly as it is needed. Russian advances are expected to further pull Ukrainian troops away from lines they have been defending while Russia’s military industry far outpaces the West’s ability to arm Ukraine will critical artillery ammunition.

Still, the US official argued, Russia’s inability to achieve its military objectives has energized its disinformation efforts that the US believes will keep growing.

“We view this as a natural evolution, or a logical evolution, in Russia’s tactics,” the senior administration official said.  “Not only have we seen these disinformation efforts increasing but we also expect them to continue to increase.”

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