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UKRAINE UPDATE: 4 MARCH 2024

Kyiv braced for disinformation attacks on Zelensky; Seven killed in drone strike on Odesa

Kyiv braced for disinformation attacks on Zelensky; Seven killed in drone strike on Odesa
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. (Photo: Stefan Wermuth / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Ukrainian authorities are worried that President Volodymyr Zelensky is vulnerable to a Russian disinformation campaign to undermine his authority.

President Vladimir Putin is looking to divide Ukraine’s allies with a disinformation campaign, Germany’s defence minister said, days after Russian media published a leaked conversation about the possible deployment of German long-range missiles in Ukraine.

At least seven deaths were reported following a Russian drone strike on an apartment building in Ukraine’s Black Sea city of Odesa early on Saturday.

Ukraine braced for Russian disinformation attacks on Zelensky

Ukrainian authorities are worried that President Volodymyr Zelensky is vulnerable to a Russian disinformation campaign that will seek to undermine his authority. 

Kyiv is bracing for a Kremlin-sponsored narrative that will seek to exploit doubts about the president’s standing in an effort to destabilise public trust, particularly among Ukrainian frontline troops, according to a person familiar with Zelensky’s thinking who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

The issue comes at a delicate moment for the Ukrainian leader, whose once-unassailable popularity is slipping as the war enters a third year and Russian troops mount an offensive. Officials in the country are concerned that the advances could gain momentum by the summer if allies don’t scale up deliveries of ammunition, with stocks running low. 

Central to the Kremlin’s effort will be a bid to erode Zelensky’s democratic legitimacy in the eyes of the public as his five-year term comes to a close without a vote to seek reelection.

The Ukrainian leader has made clear that he anticipates the Kremlin to latch on to the issue, even as Putin this month stages an election whose outcome is tightly controlled by Russian authorities to extend his nearly quarter-century rule.

“It’s not an opinion held by Western partners or perhaps somebody inside Ukraine — but a narrative and programme of the Russian Federation,” Zelensky said earlier this week. He said intelligence from the Group of Seven nations had obtained documents verifying a Kremlin plan. 

With about a fifth of Ukrainian territory under Russian occupation, millions of people having fled the country and the nation’s infrastructure battered by the two-year invasion, martial law has imposed restrictions on elections. Zelensky, who took office on 20 May 2019, would otherwise be campaigning for a vote held at the end of March if he were to seek a second term.  

Picking away at a democratic deficit in Ukraine would seem to be a hard sell for the Kremlin. Putin repeatedly insisted that he wouldn’t amend the constitution to extend his tenure, only to pull an about-face in 2020 as the world grappled with the pandemic, opening a path to stay in power until 2036. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe has criticised the conduct of Russian elections and wasn’t invited to observe this month’s vote.

Protests and dissent are heavily restricted. The burial on Friday of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who died in prison last month, was accompanied by a heavy police presence aimed at deterring protests against Putin.

Nevertheless, Ukrainian counterintelligence has described a Russian plan to unleash a campaign to undermine public trust in democratic institutions in the first half of June, including claims that Zelensky has overstayed his tenure from May.

The campaign would aim to undermine authorities’ legitimacy after May 20 as well as “spread panic, despair, lead to an artificial conflict between civil and military authorities, a spat between us and our allies” and promote conspiracy theories, it said. 

Zelensky raised the issue with a group of legislators in a closed-door meeting last month, urging them to ensure that the legitimacy line isn’t spread, according to somebody who was in the meeting, who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

One factor in Zelensky’s sense of vulnerability is fading popularity. Although the wartime president is backed by a large majority of Ukrainian citizens, polls show his standing softening. Last month’s dismissal of his popular top general, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, and setbacks on the frontline have prompted a slow erosion of trust.

Other surveys last month showed that Ukrainians who believe the nation is moving in the wrong direction outnumbered those who hold the opposite view for the first time since the invasion began.

And while a majority maintains that Ukraine should dispense with elections in war, the number of those who think Zelensky shouldn’t seek a second term climbed by nine percentage points since December to 43%, according to a February survey from the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology.

Germany’s Pistorius says Russian leak is part of disinformation war

Putin is looking to divide Ukraine’s allies with a disinformation campaign, Germany’s defence minister said, days after Russian media published a leaked conversation about the possible deployment of German long-range missiles in Ukraine.

“It’s about division, it’s about undermining our unity, so we should react in a level-headed but not less determined way,” Boris Pistorius said after a hastily convened special meeting of the defence committee in Berlin on Sunday. 

“This is clearly about undermining our unity,” he said. “It is about using this recording to destabilise and unsettle us. We should not fall for Putin’s line.” 

In the 38-minute audio recording obtained by the media platform Russia Today, German air force chief Ingo Gerhartz and highly ranked officers discussed a possible delivery of German Taurus missiles to Kyiv, and their potential impact. 

“On Friday, immediately after it became known, I contacted the federal office for military counterintelligence (MAD) and instructed them to investigate the incident completely,” Pistorius said, adding that he was receiving regular updates.

Read more: Germany probes military security leak after Russian wiretap 

Der Spiegel and the German press agency DPA reported separately that the recording has been determined to be authentic, while potentially doctored, and that the conversation had been conducted on the commercial, non-encrypted video calling platform Webex — with invitations sent to mobile phones via a Bundeswehr office landline.

Pistorius said it was no coincidence that the revelation came amid funeral services for Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and new revelations about the Wirecard scandal.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz has positioned himself against the deployment of German Taurus missiles in Ukraine, causing tensions among some Nato members. 

Seven killed in Russian drone strike on apartments in Odesa

At least seven deaths were reported following a Russian drone strike on an apartment building in Ukraine’s Black Sea city of Odesa early on Saturday.

Separately, a drone was suspected of hitting a residential building in Russia’s St Petersburg, hundreds of kilometres from the border, and Ukraine’s Air Defence chief said Kyiv downed a Russian Su-34 fighter jet — the latest in a recent string of attacks on military aircraft.

Ukraine said it shot down 14 out of 17 “Shahed”-type drones launched from Russian territory and occupied Crimea. The drones were concentrated in Kharkiv and the Sumy region in the northeast as well as Odesa  

At least 18 apartments were destroyed in the strike and the death toll rose steadily over the day. Among the victims was a three-month-old infant and his mother, and a three-year-old boy. 

“We need more air defence capabilities from our partners. The Ukrainian air shield must be strengthened in order to effectively protect our people,”  Zelensky said in a post on X. 

Three Kha-59/Kha-35 guided missiles were launched by Kremlin forces from the occupied Donetsk and Kherson regions of Ukraine, Air Defence said on Telegram. 

In St Petersburg, a loud explosion was heard after a suspected drone crashed into an apartment block, local media reported. Russia’s second-largest city is about 1,000km from the Ukrainian border.  

The strike caused minor damage, St Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov said on his Telegram channel, without confirming that a drone was involved. Ukraine hasn’t commented on the incident.

St Petersburg’s Pulkovo airport was closed briefly on Saturday evening in what local media said was potential drone activity near the deepwater seaport of Bronka on the Gulf of Finland.

Armed forces commander-in-chief Oleksandr Syrskyi said earlier that the situation on the front line in Ukraine’s east remained “difficult, but under control” in a Facebook post after spending three days in the region. DM

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