Editor's note: DW discussed the ongoing controversy with Ashton-Cirillo before Ukrainian officials announced the news of her suspension. Ashton-Cirillo chose not to provide further comment when contacted by DW after the fact.
If you are an English speaker keeping up with the news of the Ukraine war, you have probably heard of Sarah Ashton-Cirillo. The US national arrived in Ukraine shortly after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February last year. A freelance journalist, Ashton-Cirillo wanted to report from the front lines. Not long after arriving in Ukraine, she developed close ties with the army before deciding to join Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces (TDF), where she was wounded on the battlefield in February 2023. Following her recovery, Ashton-Cirillo was assigned to work on English-language media for the TDF and was later appointed one of their spokespeople. Her firebrand statements, combined with her transgender identity, made her a favorite target of Russian propagandists and pro-Russian trolls online.
In an interview with DW, Ashton-Cirillo said that the hate directed at her on social media is a sign her work is effective.
"The words of Russian haters are meaningless," she told DW's Anna Pshemyska. "I've been at the front lines, all of my colleagues have been at the front lines, and I don't just mean as journalists. We have fought at the front. And we have seen life and we have seen death."
"Words don't matter when you are understanding that your actions will help contribute to not just the liberation of Ukraine, but the saving of Ukrainian lives as well as Russian lives."
But Ashton-Cirillo's words do matter. Evidenced by the ongoing controversy which was sparked after she posted a video on X, formerly known as Twitter, in which she said that Russia's "war criminal propagandists will all be hunted down."
Last week, the former journalist vowed to hunt down a "Kremlin propagandist" saying, "next week, the teeth of the Russian devils will gnash ever harder, their rabid mouths will foam in an uncontrollable frenzy as the world will see a favorite Kremlin propagandist pay for their crimes," Ashton-Cirillo added, without naming the person in question.
"And this puppet of Putin is only the first," she said, addressing the public from a TDF studio.
Pressure from US senator
Ashton-Cirillo's comments reached Washington. US Senator J. D. Vance, who opposes further US military aid to Ukraine, said the former journalist "threatens physical violence to anyone who circulates 'Russian propaganda.'"
"I worry American resources could be supporting violence or the threat of violence against people for speaking their mind," the senator added. "Notably, any critic of America's incoherent policy in Ukraine has been slandered as propagandists, including multiple presidential candidates and American journalists. While we can debate the merits of these accusations, engaging in protected speech should not invite threats of violence," he added.
Although the TDF did not specify which comments made by Ashton-Cirillo resulted in her immediate suspension pending an investigation, it did say her recent remarks "were not approved by the command of the TDF or the command of the [Armed Forces of Ukraine]."
Ashton-Cirillo told DW she stood behind her words and pointed to a peace plan put forward by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, which foresees all criminals brought to justice.
"That includes the war criminal propagandists," she said. "War criminals must be hunted down and be brought to justice. We have the international tribunals ready."
She denied she was talking about targeting journalists and was instead focusing on Russia's "information warriors."
'I knew I had to enlist'
Ashton-Cirillo told DW her own work cannot be viewed as propaganda.
"I consider it to be at the front lines of the information war front. Propaganda is when you make up stories," she said, adding that she was "luckily" on the side of the country that is telling the truth.
The US national was politically active in the state of Nevada prior to moving to Ukraine. She says her stay in Ukraine was originally meant to only last two weeks. Then, she was given a chance to report from the frontline.
"Why I ended up serving [in the Ukrainian forces] is because after six and a half months in Kharkiv Oblast, [I was] seeing the Russian genocide, seeing the Russian terrorism, seeing the Russian war crimes every day."
Her work also took her to Izium, where hundreds of mass graves were discovered after Russian forces were pushed out.
"After Izium, I knew I had to enlist. I had no choice," she said.
'I'm not defined by being LGBTQ'
The junior sergeant still views the city of Las Vegas as her home but doesn't know when she will be going back to the US.
In Ukraine, Ashton-Cirillo says she has found a "very libertarian style of life," which allows people to live as they see fit. Commenting on the problems faced by LGBTQ+ people in Ukraine, she said she has never felt any negative sentiment "in person" over her identity.
"But I'm not defined by being LGBTQ," she said. "What I will say is since day one here in Ukraine, which was March 5th, 2022, I have never had a negative interaction with anyone in the army, anyone in my command, anyone I was working with, and this includes being on the front lines, this includes being here in Kyiv. Simply put, it has not been an issue."
There are at least two other openly transgender people serving in the Ukrainian army, she added.
"Again, soldiers aren't defined by any identity beyond being a soldier."
This article was originally written in Russian.