KYIV – The Ukrainian authorities are worried that President Volodymyr Zelensky is vulnerable to a Russian disinformation campaign that will seek to undermine his authority. 

Kyiv is bracing itself for a Kremlin-sponsored narrative that will seek to exploit doubts about the President’s standing in an effort to destabilise public trust, particularly among Ukrainian front-line troops, according to a person familiar with Mr Zelensky’s thinking who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

The issue comes at a delicate moment for the Ukrainian leader, whose once-unassailable popularity is slipping as the war enters a third year and Russian troops mount an offensive.

Officials in the country are concerned that the advances could gain momentum by the summer if allies do not scale up deliveries of ammunition, with stocks running low.

Central to the Kremlin’s effort will be a bid to erode Mr Zelensky’s democratic legitimacy in the eyes of the public as his five-year term comes to a close without a vote to seek re-election. 

The Ukrainian leader has made clear that he anticipates the Kremlin to latch onto the issue, even as President Vladimir Putin in March stages an election whose outcome is tightly controlled by the Russian authorities to extend his nearly quarter-century rule. 

“It’s not an opinion held by Western partners or perhaps somebody inside Ukraine – but a narrative and programme of the Russian Federation,” Mr Zelensky said earlier this week.

He said intelligence from Group of Seven (G-7) nations had obtained documents verifying a Kremlin plan. 

With about a fifth of Ukrainian territory under Russian occupation, millions of people having fled the country and the nation’s infrastructure battered by the two-year invasion, martial law has imposed restrictions on elections.

Mr Zelensky, who took office on May 20, 2019, would otherwise be campaigning for a vote held at the end of March if he were to seek a second term. 

Picking away at a democratic deficit in Ukraine would seem to be a hard sell from the Kremlin.

Mr Putin repeatedly insisted that he would not amend the Constitution to extend his tenure, only to pull an about-face in 2020 as the world grappled with the Covid-19 pandemic, opening a path to stay in power until 2036.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe has criticised the conduct of Russian elections, and was not invited to observe March’s vote. 

Protests and dissent are heavily restricted. The burial on March 1 of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who died in prison in February, was accompanied by a heavy police presence aimed at deterring protests against Mr Putin.

Nevertheless, Ukrainian counter-intelligence has described a Russian plan to unleash a campaign to undermine public trust in democratic institutions in the first half of June, including claims that Mr Zelensky has overstayed his tenure from May. 

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