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Putin’s propaganda attack on Zelenskyy aimed to incite power struggle in Ukraine

On February 24, 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the nation and declared martial law. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)
On February 24, 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the nation and declared martial law. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)
Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin

Russian president

“[T]he parliament and the Rada Speaker remain the only legitimate power [in Ukraine].”


Russia has been amassing troops on the borders with Ukraine and stepping up its nuclear saber-rattling, including holding military drills that simulated the launch of tactical nuclear weapons near European borders.

With approximately half a million troops in Ukraine, Russia is gathering another 300,000 for its summer offensive plans, according to intelligence reports.

Along with the systematic destruction of Ukraine's critical infrastructure, Russia continues targeting Ukrainians and their foreign allies with propaganda and disinformation designed to confuse and deflect the Kremlin’s perceived adversaries from its real plans.

President Vladimir Putin is a top driver of Russia’s disinformation. Putin’s recent “peace” rhetoric coincided with the apparent boost of war efforts in Ukraine and threats to Kyiv’s allies. He promised “serious consequences” to the “small and densely populated” European countries, patronizingly reminding them how vulnerable they are in the face of his nation’s nuclear might.

Putin also targeted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy with a propaganda attack aiming to sow discontent and instigate a power struggle between the president and the parliament, Verkhovna Rada.

“[T]he parliament and the Rada Speaker remain the only legitimate power [in Ukraine]. And so, basically, if they wanted to hold presidential elections, they should have simply repealed martial law at that time and held elections."

This is false.

Neither the Verkhovna Rada, nor the Ukrainian president can “repeal” martial law and hold presidential elections while the nation is at war.

Ukrainian law does not give the Rada the authority to lift martial law, only the president can issue a decree to revoke it. But the law legally bars the president from lifting martial law while Ukraine is under attack that threatens its independence and territorial integrity.

Zelenskyy introduced and the Verkhovna Rada approved the imposition of martial law on February 24, 2022, after the Russian army invaded Ukraine.

Zelenskyy and the Rada extended martial law several times, as Russia systematically intensified targeting civilians and destroying the country’s infrastructure.

Zelenskyy became Ukraine’s president in 2019, and his four-year term ended on May 20, 2023. However, Article 108 of the Ukrainian Constitution states that a president's term concludes only when a new president is elected. And the law "On the Legal Regime of Martial Law" bans presidential elections under martial law.

Verkhovna Rada Speaker Ruslan Stefanchuk responded to Putin in a Facebook post saying, “Volodymyr Zelenskyy will remain the President of Ukraine until the end of martial law.”

Public opinion polls show that as of February 69% of surveyed Ukrainians oppose and 15% support holding wartime elections.

As of the end of May, Russia occupies about 18% of Ukraine’s territory.

Ukrainian civilians in Russian-occupied territories continue to suffer torture, rape, murder and forced Russification at the hands of the invading forces and occupation administrations.

The United Nations Human Rights office reported on May 31 that “Ukrainian authorities documented evidence of 128,498 war-related crimes, of which 12,353 related to the unlawful killing of civilians and soldiers hors de combat [not participating in combat] committed by Russian forces.”

The U.N. Human Rights Monitoring Mission verified more than 10,000 Ukrainian civilian deaths and nearly 19,000 injures by the war’s second anniversary this past February. The U.N. stated that the actual numbers are likely much higher. The war has also displaced more than 10 million people, with nearly 6.5 million seeking refuge outside Ukraine.

Russia’s systematic missile strikes devastated Ukraine’s economy, destroying entire cities and delivering catastrophic blows to its key infrastructure.

Russia also continues the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children, a war crime act under international law. Last year, the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued an international arrest warrant for Putin after convicting him of war crimes for his role in mass abduction of Ukrainian children.

Putin’s attack on Zelenskyy’s legitimacy fits a propaganda tactic called “accusation in a mirror” or projecting, infamous for being favored by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of enlightenment and propaganda.

First elected in 2020, Putin is now Russia’s longest-ruling leader. To ensure his grip on power, he changed the Russian Constitution extending presidential service from two consecutive four-year terms to two six-year terms. After his first eight years followed by a four-year shadow ruling as prime minister, Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012 supposedly for two six-year terms, which meant the end of his presidency in 2024.

But Putin changed the constitution again in 2020 to “reset” his presidential term limits. The amendment annulled Putin’s previous presidencies and enabled him to run for additional terms in 2024 and again in 2030, potentially securing his place in the Kremlin until 2036.

Over the years, domestic opposition and international observers have criticized Putin's elections as undemocratic, unfree and unfair, citing electoral manipulation such as ballot stuffing, state-controlled media dominance, suppression of opposition through harassment and imprisonment, and restrictions on protests and political activities.

Following this year presidential elections in Russia (which Putin won with nearly 88% of the votes) the European Parliament said Putin’s presidency was not legitimate and his presidential authority over the occupied Ukrainian territories was equally illegitimate. The EU stated in an April 25 resolution that the “so-called presidential election” in Russia was a “farcical performance by the Russian authorities” that “had the single goal of creating the appearance of electoral legitimacy for Vladimir Putin.”

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