Pro-Russia online operatives falsely claimed weeks into Moscow’s war against Ukraine that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had committed suicide, as part of an aggressive effort to dent public morale and undermine the Ukrainian government, US cybersecurity firm Mandiant said Thursday.
The false Zelensky suicide claim is just one of several information operations tracked by Mandiant from suspected Russian and Belarusian actors that were aimed at deceiving audiences in Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere in Europe – or at least muddling the truth about the brutal war.
The influence campaigns, analysts say, underscore how the Kremlin is committed as ever to information warfare and efforts to shape perceptions of the conflict even as its soldiers suffer heavy losses on the battlefield.
In another case, Belarus-linked operatives falsely asserted that a Polish crime ring was harvesting the organs of Ukrainian refugees, with the complicity of Polish officials.
“The proliferation of Russia-aligned information operations, in both scale and tempo, suggests the importance that Russia places on shaping the information environment,” Alden Wahlstrom, a senior analyst at Mandiant, told CNN. “We’ve observed known actors leverage longstanding campaign assets and infrastructure to target Ukraine during the invasion, using capabilities they’ve invested in developing over time.”
Mandiant did not directly point the finger at the Russian government for the fake Zelenksy suicide narrative but described the activity as a “suspected Russian influence campaign.” For decades and dating back to Soviet times, disinformation and other so-called “active measures” have been a key part of Russia’s foreign policy strategy, according to scholars.
Facebook and YouTube in March removed a widely disseminated “deepfake,” or digitally altered, video purporting to show Zelensky asking Ukrainian troops to lay down their arms. The real Zelensky appeared in a video shortly afterward saying the defense of Ukraine continued.
At least some of the disinformation analyzed by Mandiant appeared to gain little online traction. And Ukrainian citizens and soldiers show no signs of letting up in their resistance to the Russian invasion.
Suspected Russian operatives, for example, planted false statements “on a very limited number” of websites and blogs that Zelensky had killed himself in a military bunker in Kyiv in March, according to Mandiant.
The Russian government has falsely portrayed its invasion of Ukraine as a “de-Nazification” campaign despite the fact that Zelensky is Jewish. The fake suicide story bears some resemblance to how Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler died in 1945, by suicide in a bunker as Soviet troops advanced.
CNN has requested comment from the Russian Embassy in Washington and the Belarusian Foreign Ministry on the Mandiant research.
With the eyes of the world on Ukraine, other world powers have moved to influence public opinion about the war or sow discord among their rivals.
One pro-Iran information operation impersonated a Russian journalist and published tweets claiming that Israeli intelligence supported Ukraine against Russia on the eve of the war, according to Mandiant. It was an apparent attempt to increase intensions between Russia and Israel. The Israeli and Iranian governments are bitter enemies.
The US government has tried to shape public perceptions of the Ukraine war in its own ways, including by setting up a State Department account on Telegram, a messaging app popular with Russians.