For the past five months, the Kremlin has been waging a disinformation war to discredit Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy by labeling him a drug addict—and its latest effort involves Elon Musk.
Last week, in a pro-Kremlin Telegram channel called “Special Operation in Ukraine”, the administrators published a video showing Zelenskyy speaking to the new owner of Twitter.
The video was first published back in March on Zelenskyy’s own Instagram page, but the video the pro-Kremlin channel posted last week showed a white powder on the desk next to the Ukrainian president.
“We don’t know whether it was editing or just Zelensky’s [sic] cameraman was also on drugs and missed such a moment in the frame,” the text accompanying the video said.
A side-by-side analysis of the two videos clearly shows that the white powder was added in afterwards, and several fact-checking organizations have debunked the video.
One such organization was the Ukrainian Center for Strategic Communications, which described the fake video as “very primitive,” but the researchers pointed out that because Russians have been fed a diet of almost non-stop disinformation about the war in Ukraine for two months, they have been primed to believe everything they hear.
“If Russians believe lies on Russian TV, why not believe this?” the Center wrote in a Telegram post.
And Russians have been primed for months to believe that Zelenskyy is a drug user.
The conspiracy theory, which has no basis in fact, may date back to the decision by Zelenskyy to submit to a drug test during the presidential election in April 2019 at the request of incumbent Petro Poroshenko, who has since been charged with high treason.
The claims that Zelenskyy is a drug addict first surfaced from pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets in December 2021, as Russian President Vladimir Putin was beginning to amass troops along the border with Ukraine.
On December 8, then–Ukrainian Deputy Interior Minister Oleksandr Gogilashvili was stopped by police as he was leaving eastern Donetsk and asked for his ID. The deputy minister became irate and berated the officers for not recognizing him, an incident that was caught on tape and posted to YouTube three days later.
Zelenskyy reprimanded Gogilashvili, who subsequently resigned. But because part of Gogilashvili’s role as deputy minister was crime prevention, Russian disinformation outlets used the incident to spread a conspiracy theory that he’d been supplying drugs to the president, according to a report at the time from Ukrainian fact-checking group Texty.
As “evidence” to back up their claims, the pro-Kremlin outlets claimed “Zelensky [sic] often touches his nose or ‘sniffs’... since frequent touching of the nose, constant touching, sniffing are external signs of the behavior of drug addicts.”
So when Putin announced his decision to invade Ukraine in February, he referred to the country’s leaders as a “gang of drug addicts,” and in the months since the war began, Kremlin officials and pro-Kremlin media have repeatedly referred to the conspiracy theory.
Days before the doctored video with Musk appeared, another claim circulated on pro-Kremlin Telegram channels that cocaine was supposedly visible in another video published to Zelenskyy’s official Instagram page. The original video showed a visibly tired Zelenskyy sitting in a chair in his office, but as a number of fact-checking organizations pointed out, the “cocaine” was in fact inlaid decoration on the table, and the reflection of a photo frame on the polished table surface.
Despite this, pro-Kremlin media picked up the claims, and one article referencing the baseless allegation used the headline “Cocaine madness in a swivel chair.”
As Roman Osadchuk, a research associate at the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council, pointed out in a research note on Tuesday, none of the claims have been backed up with anything resembling verifiable facts—but that hasn’t stopped Russian officials from boosting the conspiracy theory.
“To support the allegations of Zelenskyy’s supposed drug addiction, Russian media has quoted disgraced former member of the Ukrainian Parliament Ilya Kyva, cited a Russian narcology expert, and quoted random commenters, but none of their claims contained any actual evidence to support the claim,” Osadchuk said. “The head of Russia-annexed Crimea, Sergey Aksenov, also commented on a different video that Zelenskyy is a “junkie,” a mention that was later picked up by Radio Sputnik.”
But these claims are not coming just from anonymous Telegram channels or unknown Russian experts: The allegations Zelenskyy is a drug addict are coming from the very top.
When asked last week about the Ukrainian president’s claim that the Kremlin was planning to use tactical nuclear weapons in the war, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed the claims, telling Russian state-controlled TV station RT, “He says many things, [it] depends on what he drinks or what he smokes.”
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