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Painting Ukraine as a Junta: Decoding Russia's Disinformation Tactics

Lesia Bidochko

Since the onset of the full-scale invasion in February 2022, Russia has strategically sought to escalate tensions between Ukraine's political and military leadership, aiming to destabilize the situation and foster disillusionment among ordinary Ukrainians. Putin’s approach hinges on creating a narrative that would lead to a “military Maidan,” urging the Ukrainian military to defy President Zelensky’s orders and seize power independently. This theme has roots dating back to 2014 when Russian agitprop labeled the post-Maidan government the “Kyiv regime,” portraying it as an illegitimate, putschist cluster of elites led by then acting president Oleksandr Turchynov. Why does Russian propaganda persistently promote this narrative?

Juntas in the Toolbox

A junta typically denotes a government dominated by military or military leaders who seize control through a coup d’état or other violent means, overthrowing the existing government. Russian agitprop consistently refers to the administration in Kyiv as a junta, employing in addition negative descriptors such as “fascist” and “bloody.” The term “junta” carries negative connotations associated with military coups, power monopolization, restricted access, and violent upheaval in state leadership. Propagandists then use grotesque imagery to amplify the negative portrayal. 

While denouncing the “Kyiv regime,” the Kremlin paradoxically collaborates with actual juntas.

Russia actively supports dictatorial military regimes in various countries, including MyanmarMali, and Niger. When a military coup unfolded in Niger in August 2023 and the junta there faced potential military intervention from West African countries, the rebels sought assistance from the Russian mercenary group Wagner. In the summer of 2023, elements within the Russian security forces, led by its leader, Prigozhin, attempted to alter the power dynamics in the state, albeit unsuccessfully.

Portraying Ukraine as a Military Regime

In 2014, Russia capitalized on the narrative that Ukraine had undergone a transformative junta takeover post-Euromaidan, alleging that “legitimate” President Yanukovych had been overthrown through a coup. This portrayal, emphasizing Ukraine as a “404” country—“not found, doesn’t exist”—aimed to erode its perceived inviolability, sovereignty, and internationally recognized borders. Agitprop presently echoes this narrative, pushing a scenario whereby the Kremlin hopes the Ukrainian government will lose legitimacy and trust, both domestically and on the global stage. The term “junta” is predominantly linked to military coups, yet in Ukraine, a different scenario unfolded: the army played no role in the political process.

The Kremlin’s strategy is rooted in the belief that discrediting the Ukrainian leadership will undermine its cohesion and lead the world to think it as mired in internal conflicts rather than working toward victory. By fostering a perception of illegitimacy, Moscow aims to compel Ukraine toward complete capitulation or territorial concessions, exploiting the perceived weaknesses of a fractured leadership.

The intended consequence of this discrediting campaign is a decline in trust in the Ukrainian authorities within the country and reduced international support. Moscow strategically relies on this erosion of confidence to isolate Ukraine and hinder its diplomatic standing. By projecting an image of Kyiv as suffering from internal strife and leadership discord, the Kremlin seeks to diminish Ukraine’s credibility as a reliable partner in the eyes of the West.

Agitprop’s Coup Scenarios

Russian agitprop disseminates sensationalized coup scenarios, depicting a purported “general confrontation” between President Zelensky and the commanders of ground forces and air forces. These scenarios suggest either a coordinated overthrow of the president or situational alliances formed for this purpose. The narrative posits that a leadership emerging from a military coup would lack legitimacy, further deterring the West from viewing Ukraine as a trustworthy partner.

At the onset of the full-scale invasion, Putin’s appeal to the Armed Forces of Ukraine to take power into their own hands as a means of “denazifying” Ukraine portrayed the Ukrainian administration as a belligerent puppet of the West. The narrative implied that Ukrainian society harbored “brotherly love” for Russians and was unwilling to confront them. The narratives circulating now on Telegram advance the view that the United States perceives President Zelensky as an incapable player, unable to engage in dialogue and make agreements. Russian propagandists assert that the Pentagon favors Armed Forces Commander in Chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi over Zelensky, alleging that Zaluzhnyi is more willing to compromise with the Kremlin to prevent his soldiers from dying in vain.

Fighting Back

Moscow’s agitprop has shown it can respond flexibly to the evolving informational landscape concerning Ukraine. However, its primary objective remains the erosion of trust in the Ukrainian government and the state. 

Regrettably, certain internal actors in Ukrainian politics align with Russia in disseminating disinformation, part of a ploy to attract voters in advance of possible presidential and parliamentary elections in the spring of 2024. While criticism and constructive analysis of government actions are integral to the state-building process, exacerbating tensions between the military and political leadership undeniably undermines Ukraine’s interests. In light of the keen scrutiny of Ukraine by Western elites, the press, and influential Western media figures such as Tucker Carlson or Elon Musk, who inadvertently amplify Russian propaganda, Ukraine’s political leadership should engage in the dialogue responsibly and strive to avoid escalating any conflicts between the political and military leadership of the state.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute

About the Author

Lesia Bidochko

Lesia Bidochko

Deputy Head, Detector Media Research Centre; Senior Lecturer, National University of Kyiv−Mohyla Academy
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more