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Fact check: Russian fake news targets Ukraine's Zelenskyy

Kathrin Wesolowski
February 23, 2024

From lavish shopping sprees to luxury yachts, disinformation swirls around Ukraine's president. DW's Fact Check team investigates dubious claims that aim to weaken Western support for the country's ongoing war.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits soldiers
Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been dogged by disinformationImage: President Of Ukraine/ZUMA/picture alliance

There has been an ongoing debate in the West about whether and when to send more funds and arms to Ukraine.

"Strategically, the West is still standing by Ukraine, but this year will be an important turning point, said Julia Smirnova from the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue. A specialist in disinformation, she told DW that Russia was doing its best to undermine solidarity with Ukraine with fake news and propaganda.

She explained that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was one of the main targets. "Zelenskyy is the symbol of Ukraine, the symbol of Ukrainian resistance, which is why many attacks are aimed at him personally," she said.

Roman Osadchuk, a researcher at the Atlantic Council, a US think tank, agrees. "If you taint Zelenskyy's image, you basically also taint Ukraine's image," he said.

The DW Fact Check team examined evidence that the Ukrainian president and his family have been the targets of anti-Ukrainian disinformation. There have been various false claims regarding their allegedly lavish lifestyle in recent months. DW looked at two in particular that went viral.

Did Zelenskyy buy two luxury boats worth several million dollars?

Claim: Numerous social media users have claimed that Zelenskyy bought two yachts worth $75 million (around €69 million). There is even alleged proof of purchase.

DW fact check: False 

This allegation, which is particularly popular in the US, implies that Zelenskyy has not been using US aid to defend Ukraine against Russia but to live "an extravagant lifestyle." One tweet posted in November to make this claim was viewed more than 4 million times, yet it was clearly disinformation.

A tweet alleging Volodymyr bought two yachts
The false claim that Volodymyr Zelenskyy had bought two yachts was spread in social networks

Documents circulating online that some allege are evidence that the Ukrainian president bought two luxury yachts called "Lucky Me" and "My Legacy" are fake. A simple Google search proves that the two yachts are still for sale.

According to the false documents, one yacht was supposedly sold on October 18 to Boris Shefir, a former colleague of the Ukrainian president, and the other on October 25 to Boris' brother, Serhiy, one of Zelenskyy's current political aides. The Mediterranean Yacht Brokers Association (MYBA) is alleged to have "approved" the sales. But the group has not gone by that name since 2008, when it changed it to MYBA The Worldwide Yachting Association. It also uses a different logo from the one on the fake documents. DW did a Google image search and found an old, blank document that was used to forge the documents and had been uploaded seven years ago. 

However, it must be noted that there have been credible allegations of corruption involving Zelenskyy and Serhiy Shefir. In the Pandora Papers, an international team of journalists revealed that Zelenskyy had sold a stake in an offshore company registered in the British Virgin Islands to Shefir not long before becoming president in 2019. Neither has ever commented publicly on the allegations.

Did Olena Zelenska buy $1.1 million worth of jewelry in New York?

Claim: According to an online article and various social media posts, Zelenskyy's wife spent $1,100,000 on a shopping spree in New York when she accompanied her husband to the US to secure continued support from Washington.

DW fact check: False 

While Zelenskyy was campaigning for US support for Ukraine at the UN General Assembly in September 2023, his wife Olena is alleged to have spent $1.1 million on jewelry at a Cartier boutique. An ex-employee of the store named Boukari Ouedraogo is said to have gathered information about this and smuggled out a supposed receipt. In an Instagram story, she claimed to have met Zelenska and said that she had behaved outrageously. But the receipt is fake, and the story was made up.

An article alleging Olena Zelenska went on an expensive shopping spree
An article alleged Olena Zelenska went on an expensive shopping spree

A viral tweet featuring screenshots of the Instagram story also revealed the account name of the alleged Cartier ex-employee. But the account has no additional posts or stories. There is also no indication that the account ever belonged to a Boukari Ouedraogo. The current profile picture is of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

According to the supposed receipt, Zelenska bought jewelry on September 22, 2023 from Cartier on Fifth Avenue in New York City. However, photos from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press prove that she was in the Canadian capital, Ottawa, with her husband on that day, as well as on September 21. Both of them met with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

An Italian online newspaper, Open, found that the woman who originally made the claims about Zelenska was not a former employee of Cartier in New York but the owner of a store in Russia. Thus, the claim is clearly an example of disinformation.

Kremlin disinformation campaign targets Zelenskyy

The idea of these two false claims is to imply that the Zelenskyys are being lavish with money at a time of war in their own country, and to call into question Western support for Ukraine. "First, the disinformation is posted in the social media, on the accounts of supposed journalists and whistleblowers, who don't actually exist. Then they are taken up by pro-Kremlin media outlets and the Russian state media and spread further," said Smirnova from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

The Washington Post recently reported that it had reviewed over 100 internal Kremlin documents obtained by a European intelligence service and shared with the US daily, which "expose for the first time the scale of Kremlin propaganda targeting Zelenskyy with the aim of dividing and destabilizing Ukrainian society."

The Atlantic Council's Osadchuk agreed that the intention of the Russian campaign was to lessen international support for Ukraine. Disinformation about Ukraine being a corrupt state had existed before the full-scale invasion in 2022, he said, but now "the channels and tactics have changed."

Osadchuk explained that in Europe, much of the disinformation was spread via platforms such as TikTok and Telegram, whereas in other parts of the world, it was spread via Russian state media outlets like RT.

He predicted that anti-Ukrainian disinformation would intensify in the future. "It will continue, and Zelenskyy will become an ever-bigger target," he said.

This article was originally written in German.