Volodymyr Zelensky, a courageous leader and the face of the Ukrainian resistance, does not exist in Russia. Instead, many Russian citizens know the president of Ukraine as a former comedian and a drug addict who refused to negotiate with Moscow.
The sharp contrast in public perception is the result of a continuous campaign by the Russian state-backed media to use very particular language and rhetoric to describe the person who has never been in favor with the Kremlin.
Zelensky has been targeted with a barrage of negative coverage since his election as the Ukrainian president in 2019. The war in Ukraine created a sense of “us versus them” mentality in Russia, and demonization of the enemy leadership is a natural outcome of that. The adjectives and narratives used to describe Zelensky often reflect political goals, such as portraying Ukraine as a hostile and illegitimate state.
Zelensky has been described as a “puppet of the West,” who is seeking to undermine Russian interests in the region. Russian Kremlin-aligned media have also accused him of being a “nationalist” and a “fascist” in an attempt to link him with extremist elements in Ukraine. Some other adjectives used to describe the Ukrainian leader include inexperienced, unprepared, naïve, short-sighted, ignorant, and aggressive. In some instances, he was referred to as simply Volodymyr Zelensky, with the official title dropped in a subtle way to delegitimize him. “The regime in Kyiv” is another variation of that tactic.
Since December 2021 and through last year, the smear campaign actively pushed the narrative of Zelensky being a drug addict. In April, pro-Russia social media accounts even shared a doctored video showing a bag of cocaine on the Ukrainian president’s desk.
It is interesting that the label “drug addict” taps directly into the Russian psyche. Such vices as alcoholism, infidelity, and corruption may be frowned upon in Russia, but they are well tolerated. Drug addiction, on the other hand, has always been seen as an attribute of “decaying imperialism.”
During the Soviet times, the official propaganda claimed that there was no social environment in the USSR where drug addiction could develop. It implied that drug addiction was mainly the fate of rich foreign idlers. Instances of drug use were seen as isolated incidents and most definitely – scandalous ones.
Long before there were social media influencers, Russian grandmas, or babushkas, who typically congregate on benches in front of their apartment buildings to discuss neighborhood affairs, were the ones who could single handedly destroy someone’s reputation. Every man the babushkas don’t like, or are suspicious of, is labeled a drug addict and every woman – a hussy, to put it mildly. It is a well-known cultural phenomenon that is the butt of many jokes in Russia.
Babushkas are the backbone of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s electoral base. They are also the main consumers of TV news programs. Whenever they hear that someone is a drug addict, there is no need to provide additional details. They know exactly the type, and getting rid of this lable can be quite an ordeal.
Negative news stories tend to have a greater impact on people’s attitudes and beliefs than positive ones, as they trigger stronger emotional responses such as anger, fear, and disgust. When negative adjectives are consistently used to describe a public figure, they create an association between the person and the negative qualities being attributed to them. Over time, this “negativity bias” can become deeply ingrained in people’s minds, making it more difficult for them to see the person in a positive light.
However, with the situation on the ground in Ukraine and the Kremlin’s inability to secure a quick victory, the demonization strategy has already backfired. Now, Moscow has to find common ground with a person, who it has called untrustworthy.
The situation became particularly embarrassing last November, when Russia first quit and then returned to the United Nations and Turkey-brokered deal to safely ship Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea.
Moscow explained the withdrawal as a response to an alleged attack by Ukraine on the Russian fleet around the city of Sevastopol. Soon after, the Kremlin re-entered the deal, saying it received needed written assurances from Ukraine that the humanitarian corridor to ship grain was not going to be used for military actions against Russia.
Quite a few pro-Russia social media accounts found the acceptance of assurances “cringe.” Russian youth and social media users adopted this English word verbatim to indicate embarrassment. After labeling Ukraine an untrustworthy partner and berating it for ignoring similar written assurances under the Minsk agreements to end the war in Donbas, Moscow took Kyiv at its word.
As the situation with the grain deal was unfolding, Yevgeny Progozhyn, who has ties to President Putin and has recently emerged from the shadows with his paramilitary organization, the Wagner Group, suddenly praised President Zelensky.
“Although Zelensky is the president of a country currently hostile to Russia, he is still a firm, confident, pragmatic, good-looking guy,” he said. Later, he had to explain his choice of words and this stunning change in narrative, noting that “to become stronger, to win, you must treat the enemy with respect.”
The negative coverage of President Zelensky in Russian media has important implications for Russian-Ukrainian relations, as well as the broader geopolitical landscape. By portraying him as a hostile and illegitimate leader, Russian media is fueling anti-Ukrainian sentiment among Russian citizens and making it difficult to negotiate and find common ground. At the same time, the tone and rhetoric used by state-backed channels in discussing Zelensky may provide insight into Russia’s future foreign policy decisions.