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Among other things, Putin has called the Ukrainian leadership a “band of drug addicts” (source) shortly before invading Ukraine in 2022.

This seems like a strange accusation. He could have simply accused them of corruption, extremism, or any other broad claim that’s hard to prove. But he chose drug addiction.

For one, drug addiction is not malicious. It is often a result of emotional struggles and drug addicts should be helped. I do not understand the logic of how this claim is supposed to help justify the invasion.

Also, it is a specific claim and I suppose that he needs to present evidence of individuals in the Ukrainian government who are drug addicts in order to have credibility.

Is there any cultural context which I am missing? Or any known cases of drug addicts in the Ukrainian government?

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  • Someone also pointed out that the Russian word for "drug addict", наркоман, is supposedly thrown around as a bit of a generic insult. So, it might be that Putin was not making a literal accusation.
    – hb20007
    Mar 17 at 18:32

4 Answers 4

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drug addiction is not heinous or shameful. [...] Is there any cultural context which I am missing?

Well, in Russia, which has had a massive heroin problem (fueled by cheap supplies from Afghanistan), the authorities have pretty much painted the addicts as terrible people, hardly different from traffickers (by Western accounts, at least):

Domestically, the Russian government adopts a law enforcement model toward traffickers and users alike, rather than harm reduction, drug prevention, and treatment models.

And some concrete examples:

Despite these numerous reasons for concern and the need for serious and coherent responses, Russian drug policies are mostly retrograde, politicized, and, to date, largely ineffective. To a considerable extent, this is because they are rooted less in the practical needs of the moment and more so in a politicized narrative. Pushed by the FSKN for its own political reasons, this narrative sees the drug challenge as a nationalist and securitized one. As a result, there has in recent years been a partial retreat from Western models of rehabilitation and public education and a move toward a reliance on incarceration and interdiction. For example, in 2004 the government took a step away from earlier, draconian approaches, and decriminalized possession of small amounts of drugs, incidentally leading to the release of thousands of drug users from overcrowded prisons. In 2006, though, these reforms were partially rolled back, largely because of pressure from the police, who claimed that they were encouraging a broader criminalization of society: carrying amounts that previously would have led to misdemeanor charges again became criminal felonies.

[...]

Conversely, a low priority has been placed on effective treatment, prevention, and harm reduction efforts. While short-term detox treatments are available, the same cannot be said about support for lasting rehabilitation. According to Diederik Lohman, senior researcher in Human Rights Watch’s HIV/AIDS and Human Rights Program, “The lack of effective drug addiction treatment in Russia means that drug users who want to break their addiction cannot, and are condemned to a life of continued drug use.”26 In 2007, their researchers found rehabilitation programs available in state clinics in only a third of Russia’s regions; anecdotal evidence suggests that by early 2014, fewer than half still offered these services.

Similarly, while a new law signed in 2013 allows addicts to be forcibly detained for up to 30 days simply for being addicts, the federal government has still not allocated the funds to cover any meaningful rehabilitation program while they are in detention. Likewise, methadone and buprenorphine, widely used around the world as controlled replacement drugs for heroin addicts—and recommended for that use by the World Health Organization—remain banned in Russia. In Crimea, following the March 2014 Russian annexation, this even led to some 800 addicts whom the Ukrainian authorities had placed on methadone programs being denied further treatment. As of June 2014, an estimated 20 had died from overdoses.

In general, in Russian political discourse, drugs are linked to foreigners and the culture of the West, for instance:

According to Deputy member Anatol’yevich from the United Russia party, Russian children are today being “destroyed” and it is therefore important to teach children about traditional Russian values:

What should we do today, in my opinion? We must create a multi-level information system, conduct an information campaign to teach patriotism. We must learn to speak the same language as children, teenagers, we must hear them. We must create a trend, a fashion for Russian history, so that Russian children, even those playing computer games, do not choose the Abrams tank, but our Armata, so that this will be normal. Russian children should be proud of our history, should not be influenced by American drug addicts and wear clothes bearing their images, but those of Russian heroes such as Gagarin or the St. Petersburg metro driver who saved dozens, or maybe hundreds of people’s lives. (Anatol’yevich, B. D., United Russia, 170407)


Putin was probably referencing the somewhat strange reciprocal invitations of Poroshenko and Zelensky to take drug tests during the presidential election campaign of 2019. Both men passed the tests, although there was no official setting for these, so they took them in different venues.

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  • 4
    Even in western countries "drug addict" carries some negative moral implication about the person in all but explicitly drug-friendly circles. Except for Portugal, NO government holds OPs stand on addiction, and their societies dont (widely) think so either
    – Hobbamok
    Mar 11 at 16:22
  • 2
    @Hobbamok: yeah, the chances that someone with a present drug addiction would be considered for office are pretty low, in the West too. On the other hand, politicians admitting to past drug use, in somewhat more distant past isn't seen a huge of flaw of character in the West, I think, e.g. theguardian.com/politics/2019/jun/07/…
    – Fizz
    Mar 11 at 16:24
  • @Fizz: I don't think the article supports your claim. Occasional drug use is not the same as addiction. I think a politician (especially conservative) admitting they've been an addict would have been a very big deal in any country.
    – tomasz
    Mar 11 at 21:09
  • 1
    I'm not able to answer, but another thing that may impact this is a common pattern with Russian propaganda and misinformation is that whatever they accuse their enemy of, they are doing, or are about to do. Mar 12 at 2:09
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Zelensky was accused of being a druggie by Poroshenko (the previous president) as part of the election campaign.

Ukranian sources:

The accusations were enough for Zelensky to publicly take a drug test (that Poroshenko's supporters obviously said was fake and continued pushing the accusations throughout his presidency) and accuse Poroshenko of being an alcoholic in turn.

Putin just took advantage of some pre-made Ukranian internal propaganda, because as a popular actor, in addition to being the Ukranian president, everyone inside Russia was aware of the drug accusations through the tabloids(prime material for them) and everyone who thought ill of Zelensky was inclined to believe them already.

For a US equivalent, it would be Putin repeating Democrat accusations that Trump is insane or Republican accusations that Biden is senile.

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  • 9
    (Last paragraph) Actually, the equivalence is Trump's claim that Obama was born outside the US. Totally false, forced the accused to publicly show proof, which changed no one's mind.
    – DrSheldon
    Mar 11 at 1:35
  • 2
    No, the minutae of constitutional qualifications for presidency, are not something that anyone outside the US would care about at all(can you imagine Putin saying:Obama got elected against the US Constitution!) whereas being insane, senile or a drug addict are universal negatives.
    – Eugene
    Mar 11 at 5:34
  • 2
    The difference is that Putin's claims are totally false. Your examples could arguably be x% true. Mar 11 at 8:07
  • @DrSheldon actually, the equivalence made in Eugene's answer is much better since it mentions two claims that are almost impossible to prove/disprove, unlike the birther conspiracy which can trivially be proven to be false if one just looks at the relevant paperwork. Using such vague terms as "drug addict" or "senile" or "insane" makes it very difficult to find a clear standard of acceptable proof.
    – terdon
    Mar 11 at 13:30
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    Right. If I think Trump is a complete nutjob, it must be because I don't like his politics and was influenced by smear campaigns. It cannot be because he's actually a provable, complete nutjob and a vindictive, pathological liar. Your answer is good BTW, it would be even better without the last sentence. Mar 11 at 22:53
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There is an article in the Russian press way before the conflict began, explaining why people suspect Zelensky to be a cocaine user.

It seems to imply that scandalous Domestic Affairs official Gogilashvili was Zelensky's dealer. Poroshenko, the previous Ukrainian president, tried to use a drugs card against Zelensky in the presidential race.

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    So Putin just re-iterated these accusations. But why would they work. I guess hb20007 is asking why this would be seen as so bad in Russia.
    – Trilarion
    Mar 10 at 9:33
  • 4
    I was answering "it is a specific claim and I suppose that he needs to present evidence"
    – alamar
    Mar 10 at 9:33
  • 4
    These rumors do date to long before the conflict, and are something that was discussed in Ukraine itself. Here is the video from 2019 youtu.be/YuBcHUli-Lo. Until Zelensky became a hero, this topic was somewhat popular in Ukraine. diglogs.com/russia/…
    – ZenJ
    Mar 11 at 2:07
  • 2
    While true, this still needs to be taken in context. After all, senior members of the UK government have admitted to using cocaine without ill effects on their careers.
    – Chris H
    Mar 11 at 11:00
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    @Trilarion "Why would it work"? This site is full of questions about utterly unfounded accusations being made against political opponents. Putin has the advantage that he controls most of the media the people he is trying to convince will see. Throw enough mud... Mar 11 at 15:10
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Putin calls Ukrainian officials "drug addicts" because being a drug addict carries a social stigma both in Russia and in Ukraine. It is yet another attempt to portray Ukraine in a negative light by the Russian Federation in order to promote the unprovoked war the Russian Federation is waging in Ukraine. It is not the 1st such attempt. It is unlikely to be the last.

Propaganda is an important tool during wars. It is used to sow uncertainty and confusion in enemy ranks and to buttress resolve of one's own troops. It maybe 100%, 10%, or 0% true. But that's not what matters. Propaganda is used to produce desired persuasion effects. It is not an attempt to teach anyone anything about reality.

And that's all it is.

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    Afaik it carries a social stigma pretty much everywhere outside of drug-friendly circles
    – Hobbamok
    Mar 11 at 16:22
  • 1
    yes, but that's not all there is to it, as shown in the other answers . there's some backstory to this
    – Manuki
    Mar 11 at 21:03
  • @Manuki an accusation by a former political opponent doesn't rise to the level of a "backstory." Obviously Poroshenko was trying to play into the stereotype of actors' being frequent participants in high-risk behaviors. Mud slinging during political campaigns is not evidence of anything but politics.
    – wrod
    Mar 11 at 21:50

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