Online anti-Ukraine propaganda, especially targeting Ukrainian President Zelensky, are now commonplace across the Balkans.
On 28 April, for example, a video circulated among Hungarian Facebook users showing cocaine on Zelensky’s desk. The footage was ultimately proven to have been altered, with the white powder added after the original video was taken.
Despite this, the altered footage and screenshots taken from it have spread rapidly online- and in multiple languages including Bulgarian, Slovak and French. The video was also shared on the Odysee alternative video portal by a Hungarian user, entitled “Zelensky and a bunch of cocaine.”
In March 2022, a video circulated online accusing Zelensky of promoting cocaine as “the best energizing substance for man.” That video was later proven to have been modified, with the president in fact discussing coffee in the original 2019 interview.
This type of anti-Ukraine propaganda is aligned with Russia’s narrative that Zelensky is a drug user. In the first few days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the Ukrainian president and his ministers of being a “a group of drug addicts and neo-Nazis.”
Misleading news about Zelensky are now commonplace in countries across the Balkans, where social media channels with links to Russia and Belarus appear intent on destabilizing digital environments.
More recently, pro-Russia online actors claimed Zelensky had committed suicide in an aggressive attempt to undermine the Ukrainian government and mislead the public.
In another case, online actors with links to Belarus made false claims that a Polish crime gang was harvesting the organs of Ukrainian refugees, and that Polish authorities were turning a blind eye to the crime ring.
These anti-Ukraine propaganda campaigns show just how committed the Kremlin is to information warfare. As Russian forces suffer heavy losses in the protracted invasion of Ukraine, Moscow is intent on shaping perceptions of the conflict in its own interest.
“The proliferation of Russia-aligned information operations, in both scale and tempo, suggests the importance that Russia places on shaping the information environment,” explains Alden Wahlstrom, a senior analyst at Mandiant, “We’ve observed known actors leverage longstanding campaign assets and infrastructure to target Ukraine during the invasion, using capabilities they’ve invested in developing over time.”
The US government is working to shape perceptions of the Ukraine war in its own war. The US State Department has even set up an account on Telegram, a messaging app popular with Russians.
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