U.S., Ukrainian, and pro-Kremlin Russian outlets all covered the phone call from differing angles
The whistleblower complaint by a U.S. intelligence official about President Donald Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stirred discussion of Ukrainian-U.S. relations in both Ukrainian and Russian media.
While it was not immediately clear from the complaint which foreign leader President Trump’s dealings involved, on September 19, the Washington Post revealed it was President Zelensky. The investigation led to the launch a formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump, and the White House later released a memorandum of the phone call between the two presidents. While the impeachment inquiry has a wide presence in the U.S. media, Ukrainian media has since switched its focus toward Zelensky’s recent decision to sign Ukraine up to the Steinmeier Formula as an attempt to end the war in eastern Ukraine, a provocative decision that has yielded significant public outcry in the country.
The DFRLab analyzed the most prevalent narratives that circulated in Ukrainian and Russian media in the week following the Washington Post’s article. Ukrainian media — often journalists moonlighting by writing op-eds — focused on the consequences of the call for Ukraine’s public image abroad; pro-Kremlin Russian outlets, meanwhile, exploited the incident as an opportunity to characterize Ukraine as an untrustworthy and corrupt diplomatic partner.
Narratives pushed by Kremlin-owned TV channels in Russia
In the Russian information space, the DFRLab analyzed talk show programs aired by the top three pro-Kremlin TV channels — Rossiya 1, Perviy Kanal, and NTV — and identified three narratives regarding broader Ukrainian-U.S. relations. Television represents the main news source for 57 percent of Russian citizens, of which these three outlets dominate the market, comprising 42 percent of the total audience share.
Narrative: Ukraine is interfering in the U.S. presidential election; both Ukraine and the United States are corrupt
Pro-Kremlin TV channels intensively pushed a narrative about Ukraine’s interference in the U.S. elections, conflating Trump’s demand to investigate former Vice President Biden with supposed Ukrainian interference in the affairs of the United States and characterizing the U.S. President’s demand as a prime example of double standards in U.S. politics.
Perviy Kanal claimed that, when opponents accused Donald Trump of having backchannel communications with Russia during the 2016 presidential election campaign, the entire political establishment treated this accusation as objective fact. Additionally, the author claimed that, when Trump allegedly demanded an investigation of Ukrainian interference — again, a conflation with Trump’s actual request regarding the supposed corruption around Biden — into the affairs of the United States, he was accused of violating the U.S. Constitution.
Rossiya 1 talk show co-host Yevgeny Popov claimed that Zelensky turned out to be the one interfering in the U.S. elections, not Russian President Vladimir Putin. He also insinuated that the U.S. political establishment does not care about the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine at all and “money was allocated to Ukraine for only one reason: to convince Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden’s son’s business in Ukraine,” which the Ukrainian President agreed to do. The show’s other co-host, Olga Skabeeva, added that Trump had asked Zelensky a reported eight times to commence the investigation in exchange for military aid money that the U.S. President had put on hold and that, in acquiescing, Zelensky “sold himself to the Americans.”
NTV also claimed that Biden’s ongoing presidential campaign is funded with Ukrainian money and asserted that Trump had fired his National Security Advisor, John Bolton, because the latter had failed to compel President Zelensky to investigate Hunter Biden.
Narrative: Biden’s family was involved in a corruption scheme in Ukraine
Echoing both fringe and mainstream U.S. outlets such as Breitbart and Fox News, pro-Kremlin TV channels claimed that the Biden family was undoubtedly involved in a corruption scheme in Ukraine, but none of the stories provided evidence to support the allegation.
NTV aired a video that claimed that, in 2015, then-Vice President Joe Biden had pushed the Ukrainian government to boost extraction and production of natural gas; his son Hunter Biden was then made a board member of the Ukrainian gas production company Burisma. While Hunter Biden was not involved in the management of the company or in regular board proceedings, he earned millions of dollars from his formal membership on the board. Thus, Biden’s family had direct financial interests in Ukraine and TV anchor concludes that this case is worth investigating in order to expose how Joe Biden tried to cover up corrupt schemes in which his son was allegedly involved.
(Burisma contributes funding to the Atlantic Council, though not in direct support of the DFRLab. Both the DFRLab and, more broadly, the Atlantic Council maintain strict intellectual independence from the company, as with all donors from any sector.)
Rossiya 1 suggested that investigation into the Burisma case started immediately after the new government came to power in Ukraine and that the company’s board membership made a decision to include Western figures — including Devon Archer, a supposed close friend of former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and former president of Poland Aleksander Kwasniewski — who aided in the coverup. According to this false narrative, when Joe Biden heard that Ukraine’s then-Prosecutor-General Viktor Shokin had launched an investigation (which he had not in fact done), he flew to Ukraine and demanded that then-President Poroshenko fire Shokin. The then-deputy Prosecutor-General under Shokin, Vitaliy Kasko, recently clarified that the probe into Burisma had been suspended prior to the elder Biden’s demand that Shokin be fired. Furthermore, Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of the Kyiv-based Anti-Corruption Action Center, added that Biden wanted Shokin to leave his position because the latter had sabotaged an investigation into Burisma, a fact that is well-documented in the timeline of events surrounding the case.
Perviy Kanal accused Hunter Biden of using his position to obstruct anti-money laundering investigations against Burisma in the United Kingdom and Ukraine. In reality, however, British officials closed the Burisma case because of lack of cooperation from Ukrainian officials. Indeed, two months before Hunter Biden joined the company, British authorities asked Shokin to share information about Burisma case as a part of a corruption investigation, a request the then-Prosecutor General ignored. In 2015, U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt criticized the Ukrainian Prosecutor’s Office for insufficient cooperation with the British investigation into Burisma. Given the Obama Administration’s — and, in particular, former Vice President Biden’s — actions indicate pressure to pursue corruption at Burisma, in direct opposition to this false Russian narrative, it is untrue that the U.S. leadership wanted to obstruct investigation.
Narrative: Donald Trump is not Ukraine’s friend
The pro-Kremlin TV channels also pushed the narrative that the Trump Administration does not perceive Ukraine as a close ally, and that Trump himself is not interested in maintaining close ties with Ukraine. Rossiya 1, for example, asserted that Trump is lukewarm in his attempts to solve the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine because, in 2016, then-President Petro Poroshenko had helped the U.S. Democratic Party collect evidence against Trump during the U.S. presidential election. While discussing the September 23 Trump-Zelensky in-person meeting on the margins of the UN General Assembly, an NTV anchor claimed that Trump is not genuinely interested in Ukraine but merely wants the country to investigate the Bidens. The anchor suggested Trump would not be able to locate Ukraine on a map.
During the Trump-Zelensky September 23 meeting, the U.S. President mentioned that he knew a Ukrainian model, who won the Miss Universe Pageant in 2004. Following this statement, Rossiya 1 claimed that Alexandra Nikolaenko, the Miss Universe in question, is Ukraine’s only “bright side” — i.e., “positive asset” — in Trump’s eyes, and he could not recall anything else about Ukraine.
Along the same lines, NTV picked up the unverified story reported by the Washington Post based on an interview with an anonymous former U.S. administration official, who allegedly quoted Trump as saying that “what [the United States] was doing in Ukraine was pointless and just aggravating the Russians… and who cares about Ukrainians?”
According to NTV, Trump’s ignorance of Ukraine’s problems with Russia was the reason why he had not set a specific date for a meeting with Zelensky as of September 21, though they ultimately met on September 23. Pro-Kremlin outlets intensively amplified this narrative. This allegation is false, however, as Trump set up a meeting with Zelensky for September 1, 2019, in Poland but reportedly canceled the trip because of Hurricane Dorian’s impending landfall in the United States. The memorandum of Trump’s most recent call with Zelensky revealed that the two leaders talked over the phone twice since April 2019, first following Zelensky’s victory in the presidential elections in April and then again after his party won the parliamentary elections in July.
To determine the spread of the narrative about the worthlessness of U.S. support for Ukraine, the DFRLab analyzed the keywords “действия США” (“the U.S actions”) and “Украине бессмысленны” (“[are] pointless in Ukraine”) for September 20–26. The scan yielded 643 mentions, indicating that this false narrative had received modest circulation online on September 21. The top articles in terms of engagement also alleged that, in addition to the United States, European countries are also tired of Ukraine for constantly asking for help and that they are increasingly disappointed in Ukraine’s slow progress in making its needed reforms.
Narratives within Ukraine
The news media in Ukraine did not react demonstrably different to the news of the phone call to the U.S. media coverage on the incident. While the subject presented an opportunity for Zelensky’s opponents to attack him from many angles, no particular domestic narratives against Zelensky gained significant traction. The DFRLab did identify some narratives, however, regarding the implications of the phone call for Ukraine’s relationship with the United States and other diplomatic partners.
Narrative: There was no political pressure on Zelensky; diplomatic calls should be confidential
This narrative emerged when Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Vadym Prystaiko gave an interview, published on September 23, to independent media outlet Hromadske. The journalist mentioned the United States House of Representatives’ probe of Trump and his personal lawyer and former Mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani and asked direct questions of the content of the call between Trump and Zelensky. Prystaiko stated that Ukraine is an independent state that has its secrets. He said that he was aware of the content of the call but thinks that there “was no political pressure.”
President Zelensky also put forth the same narrative. During the United Nations General Assembly, Zelensky commented to Russian channel Russia 24 that the “only person, who can put pressure on me is my six year old son.” The message was widely picked up by Ukrainian and Russian media. At the same time, both Zelensky and Prystaiko stated that the call was confidential, though they both did not deny the probability of the eventual publication of the call transcript. During a press conference after meeting with Trump, Zelensky stated that the Ukrainian side did not provide formal permission for the publication of the memo and said that he was sure that the White House would publish only Trump’s statements during the call.
This reaction prompted a comment in an op-ed written by Ukrainian journalist Pavel Kazarin, who stated in a piece for liga.net that Zelensky is an amateur whose actions might lead to unpredictable consequences. Because Ukraine does not have the same institutions as the United States, Ukrainian citizens may never be privy to the content of the calls. Another journalist, Vitaliy Portnikov, echoed the message and also questioned the content of Zelensky’s talks with Putin, implying that the Ukrainian President might have betrayed his nation’s interests.
Overall, articles that adhered to the government stance received far less engagement on Facebook than those written by independent journalists countering the government narrative.
Narrative: The United States is trying to draw Ukraine and Zelensky into its political campaign
This narrative emerged at the beginning of September, when talks about U.S. political pressure on Ukraine became prevalent. On September 5, the Washington Post editorial board published an op-ed accusing Trump of compelling Ukraine to aid in his reelection. Several Ukrainian media outlets echoed that Ukraine was being drawn into the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign. The former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Pavlo Klimkin, also expressed a similar view. Some Ukrainian media noted that Ukraine would be perceived as a source of problems in U.S. public discourse, and that this situation will be a great challenge for the new Ukrainian administration.
Some political experts claimed that Ukraine should stay neutral by refusing to align itself with either Republicans or Democrats in the United States. In doing so, the country would avert another scandal resembling that of 2016, when Ukrainian politicians disclosed Paul Manafort’s illegal payments in Ukraine. Taking sides would risk further damaging Ukraine’s public image, as it would appear as if the country was meddling in another country’s domestic politics, as Russia did during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Other sources noted that Zelensky has already taken a neutral position regarding the 2020 U.S. Presidential election and that he should continue to do so. This particular argument belies the fact that there is a historical norm in democratic countries to maintain a neutral and silent position regarding favored candidates in other countries’ elections.
Narrative: Zelensky is an amateur; Zelensky lost in this scandal
Ukrainian journalists also focused on the negative public image of Zelensky imparted by the reporting on the scandal. Yulia Mostova, Editor-in-Chief of Ukrainian weekly Zerkalo Nedeli, argued that Zelensky had failed in his attempt to navigate U.S. politics, angering both Democrats and Republicans in the process. Mostova stated that Zelensky failed to discuss topics crucial to Ukraine, including the U.S. role in resolution of situation in Donbas and its investments, in his call with Trump and also deemed the servility he demonstrated to be humiliating for Ukraine.
Liga.net’s Kazarin raised a similar argument, suggesting that Zelensky’s amateur approach to diplomacy may negatively affect Ukraine’s public image among its European partners, a vulnerability that the Kremlin may then exploit.
As the Trump-Zelensky scandal unfolds, new narratives will likely emerge in Ukrainian as well as pro-Kremlin Russian outlets.
The Ukrainian, Russian, and U.S. media have covered the call between the two leaders from differing angles. While media in the United States has primarily focused on the impeachment and, less frequently, implications for the upcoming U.S. presidential election, Ukrainian outlets have focused on the negative consequences Zelensky’s conduct will have for Ukraine’s public image with its diplomatic partners. Meanwhile, pro-Kremlin Russian media have exploited the scandal as an opportunity to portray Ukraine as a corrupt and toxic partner on the world stage.
As events continue to unfold, the DFRLab will continue to monitor the spread of these and similar narratives.
Roman Osadchuk is a Research Assistant with the Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab) and is based in Ukraine.
Givi Gigitashvili is Research Assistant, Caucasus, with @DFRLab and is based in Georgia.
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