Global Agenda

How Russian propaganda exploits the tension between Zelensky and Zaluzhny

Juraj Bystriansky

The failure of the summer offensive and the decreasing level of support from allies have led to growing tensions between Ukrainian President Zelensky and his armed forces commander-in-chief, General Valery Zaluzhny. The two men’s divergent views on the course of the war came to light when Zaluzhnyi made clear in an essay on November 1 of this year that a prolonged positional conflict was not advantageous to Ukraine, given Russia’s larger army and military assets. Zaluzhnyi reiterated his position in a recent interview, adding that the war has reached a stalemate. This is in stark contrast to Zelensky’s stated optimism and undermines the president’s popularity, as recent polls suggest. On the contrary, Zaluzhnyi is aware of his growing support among the people but also the foreign media. Zelensky has publicly urged the general to focus on military matters rather than politics, assuring the public and especially his allies that the war has not reached a stalemate and that support from allies remains the key to victory. Another move that some observers believe signals tensions between the Ukrainian head of state and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces is the criminal investigation of commanders responsible for the defence of southern Ukraine, which Russian forces captured surprisingly quickly in February and March 2022. Zaluzhny has so far only appeared as a witness in the case, but there are speculations that the possibility of him being charged himself in the case serves as a tool to deter any political threat he might pose in the future. Although reports of tensions between the president and the general are not to be taken lightly, their possible political duel is currently out of sight, as the holding of elections originally scheduled for March 2024 has been ruled out by both the citizens of Ukraine and Zelensky himself.

The exchange between Zelensky and Zaluzhny was immediately exploited by the Kremlin. According to Ukrainian intelligence sources, there is evidence of new Russian propaganda strategies built on three main pillars: rallying support at home, undermining Western confidence and raising tensions in Ukraine. The Kremlin has already portrayed the alleged rift between the Ukrainian president and the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian army by describing Zaluzhny as a direct political rival of Zelensky, although Zaluzhny has shown no political ambition. The undermining of Western confidence was also evident in the Kremlin’s rhetoric, with its spokesman mentioning the West’s growing difficulties in providing financial aid to Ukraine and, on the other hand, emphasising the Kremlin’s economic adjustment to the war. Russia’s success in the information war is well understood by Ukrainian political leaders, which is why they publicly address and dismiss claims of political tensions.

While it is important to acknowledge that the Russians often and happily exaggerate their warfare successes, the challenges Ukraine faces during this crisis are undeniable. While not inherently positive, these difficulties also indirectly serve as indicators of democracy in Ukraine. Unlike Russia, where domestic propaganda suppresses any signs of political tension, Ukraine demonstrates the openness of its political landscape even in times of crisis. The presence of discourse, even in the midst of a crisis, underlines the democratic values at stake. This is in stark contrast to Russia, where dissent is often silenced, leading to incidents such as the Wagner Group revolt. Furthermore, the future of the Russian economy does not look like playing in their favour. By 2024, defence spending is set to almost double to reach 6% of GDP, a level not seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In addition, the Kremlin has increased its social benefits due to the upcoming elections to 5% of GDP, surpassing the benefits introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic. This suggests that the Kremlin is far from achieving a sustainable adjustment to a protracted war.
On the part of Ukraine’s Western allies, support seems to be hampered by negative political developments in individual countries, but as far as major players such as the German Chancellor, the US Secretary of Defence, and even the NATO Secretary General are concerned, there seems to be a consensus that support is of existential importance. Conversely, the Kremlin can be expected to make even more intensive use of propaganda, especially in the face of a static war and the delayed Ukrainian elections, which create a fertile ground for spreading various types of disinformation.

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