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Fact check: No, Putin did not kneel before Xi Jinping

March 23, 2023

A strange image has gone viral. Did Vladimir Putin really get down on one knee and kiss the hand of Xi Jinping? No. The picture, which was allegedly taken during the Chinese leader's recent trip to Russia, is fake.

the AI-image of Putin kneeling before Xi with some of the most conspicuous errors enlarged
DW's image analysis detected a number of conspicuous errors in an image purportedly showing Putin kneeling in front of Xi. Ears, shoes, and hands are deformed and not authentic. This strongly suggests AI manipulation.Image: Twitter/DW

Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Russia made international headlines. The demonstrative display of closeness between him and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, and the signed new pact between their two nations are considered to be a sign of a strategic consolidation of relations between the two powers. This comes at a time when the West has been calling upon China to clearly distance itself from Russia, especially now that the International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued an arrest warrant for Putin.

Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin
Xi and Putin might have signed a new pact, but there was no kneeling involvedImage: Sputnik/Mikhail Tereshchenko/Pool via REUTERS

Given these circumstances, an image that has gone viral on social media has been the topic of much debate. It purports to show Vladimir Putin kneeling before Xi Jinping. It would be a gesture of submission with much symbolism — if the image were not fake.

Claim: "Putin down on his knees, swearing obedience and loyalty to his master and commander," one Twitter user wrote after posting the image in question. Another user joked that Putin's knees must be hurting. A correspondent for the English-language Kyiv Post also shared the picture that has also been circulating on the instant messaging service Telegram and the online image sharing service imgur.

Across platforms, the image has been viewed over 1 million times. Did Putin really kneel before Xi?

DW Fact check: False.

Putin did not kneel before Xi Jinping: The photo is fake. Aside from the fact that such a gesture of submission would be highly unrealistic on the part of a head of state, our research suggests that the image was generated by an artificial intelligence (AI) app. There are a number of clues that point in that direction, starting with the results produced when the image is run through a reverse image search tool. The oldest result is dated March 20 but a more concrete source cannot be found for the image, even when different tools are used.

Deformed ears, one giant shoe, fused hands

Upon closer inspection, several puzzling details in the image catch the eye. The rear shoe of the person kneeling — claimed to be Putin —  is disproportiontely large and wide. The calf on the same leg looks stretched. The person's head, while half covered, is also very large and does not match the proportions of the rest of the body. The ear is strangely deformed and features several odd, nondescript lumps that other images of Putin's ear do not show. The ear on — purportedly — Xi Jinping's head also appears strangely deformed if one zooms in. But the most obvious discrepancy does not regard either Xi or Putin, but the person standing left of them. This man's hands appear to be fused together.

Experience has shown that these are all noticeable problems that occur in AI-generated pictures. These are graphics created by apps with the help of AI and intended to look real. Recently, an AI app generated fake images of former US President Donald Trump being arrested even though he had not been arrested. AI tools such as Midjourney and DALL-E can create photorealistic images of natural settings and humans that are full of detail and hard to distinguish from real images. However, AI apps regularly produce images that contain errors; especially unrealistic representations of hands and ears are one of the problems AI image generators face.

AI detector: 57% artificially generated

Since there were many signs of artificial intelligence with regard to the Putin-Xi image in social media, we decided to examine it using AI-detecting software. We used the program Hugging Face, which inspects images for abnormalities and then gauges whether they arose more or less artificially. It estimated that the picture of Putin kneeling before Xi Jinping had been 57% artificially generated.

Fact check: How do I spot manipulated images?

Finally, we searched for images of Xi's state visit to Russia. In particular, we were looking for details that might be similar to the image in question. But we found no images, whether in the database of the US-British visual media company Getty Images nor that of the Russian state news agency TASS , that featured the alleged genuflection. Even the furniture depicted in real photos of the state visit did not match.

Conclusion: The image purportedly showing Putin kneeling in front of Xi Jinping is fake. It cannot be found in any agency database and our research has found clear evidence that the image was generated by AI software.

Find out more about how we uncover fakes here.

This article was translated from German.