Mobilizing Gay People, Mined Passports, Zelensky the Locust and “Glory to Urine!”

Ukraine was the target of most Russian fakes last year. The fact-checking project Provereno.Media summarizes the events of 2023.

Date
27 Dec 2023
Author
Daniil Fedkevich (Provereno.Media, Deputy Editor-in-Chief)
Mobilizing Gay People, Mined Passports, Zelensky the Locust and “Glory to Urine!”

The Ukrainian Armed Forces are losing hundreds of thousands of soldiers — whilst recruiting the elderly, gay, and homeless from abroad to fight on the front line

Throughout the year, Russian Telegram channels regularly featured “shocking revelations” about the losses sustained by the Ukrainian army during the war. For example, in mid-May, a video allegedly produced by the Ukrainian Association of Football began circulating on social media, inviting Ukrainians to attend matches in memory of 300,000 compatriots who have died on the front lines. At the end of August, the Ukrainian mobile operator “Kyivstar'' had purportedly “accidentally revealed” that there were in fact 400,000 fatalities, and two weeks later, the “true” scale of losses was exposed by a French tour company which launched a campaign in memory of 500,000 killed military personnel. Finally, in November, confidential information was supposedly revealed by the Ukrainian TV channel 1+1, when a rolling news ticker appeared on the screen indicating that the figure stood at over 1.1 million dead and missing. All four reports were in fact hoaxes — in the first three cases, the videos were created entirely by diversionists, whilst in the television segment, they simply altered the news displayed on the ticker. There is no accurate data on Ukrainian losses, although estimates reach up to 70,000.

Another method of convincing audiences that the Ukrainian Armed Forces is on the verge of losing its last remaining soldiers, is through reports that Kyiv is mobilizing new types of citizens. For example, videos showing gamers being recruited into the Ukrainian army (under the slogan, “You’re no longer a child, the games are over”) as well as gay people, (“It doesn’t matter if you love women or men, the main thing is that you love Ukraine”) spread rapidly across Telegram. The first video was compiled using an advertisement for a computer mouse posted on YouTube, some video game footage, and recordings taken from the front line. While the second combined Polish news report footage from three years ago and a Ukrainian Armed Forces advertisement shot in 2016.

Pro-government media peddled the same message when citing photographs of leaflets and brochures allegedly distributed both in Ukraine and abroad. Supposedly, pensioners from Kyiv, homeless people from New York, and students from Washington were all being recruited to the front lines. As proof, they had photo “evidence” which, conveniently, was shot in such a way that it was impossible to verify where the photo was taken.

Since the start of the war less than two years ago, fact-checkers have debunked dozens, if not hundreds, of similar fakes. As IStories reported, such posters and leaflets are purposely displayed and photographed not in Ukraine, the EU, or the US, but in Moscow.

To make this fake more convincing, the perpetrators stuck the recruitment poster on top of several genuine flyers from the University of the District of Columbia. However, given that copies of the flyers had been posted on the educational institution’s “X” account, anyone could create such a noticeboard.
To make this fake more convincing, the perpetrators stuck the recruitment poster on top of several genuine flyers from the University of the District of Columbia. However, given that copies of the flyers had been posted on the educational institution’s “X” account, anyone could create such a noticeboard.

European streets are covered in graffiti mocking President Zelensky

Back in November 2022, “Tsargrad”, Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyov’s Telegram channel, and other media outlets reported that a group of anonymous artists called Typical Optical had covered the sidewalk in the center of Warsaw in 3D graffiti drawings depicting the Ukrainian president emerging from under the asphalt whilst devouring money. Strangely, not one of the thousands of city commuters passing through this busy intersection posted anything about this online, and the local media and municipal services debunked the existence of the graffiti altogether.

Over the following months, reports of similar drawings emerged from several European cities: Paris, Brussels, Madrid, Berlin, London, and The Hague. “Artists” depicted the Ukrainian president as a black hole, locust, and octopus. Not stopping there, the Ukrainian head of state could be seen devouring money and military equipment from beneath the sidewalk, and let’s not forget his portrayal as a pimple and feces.

According to social media, Typical Optical have plastered their paintings all over Europe. Curiously, Europeans are yet to see any in person.
According to social media, Typical Optical have plastered their paintings all over Europe. Curiously, Europeans are yet to see any in person.

In Typical Optical’s work, one city can often be mistaken for another — this was uncovered thanks to Google Street View panoramas. When the artists were supposedly painting graffiti in Zurich (which they later claimed to be Berlin), a nearby chestnut vendor remembered them — according to him, the young people didn’t paint anything. In fact, the youths in black hooded jackets were simply taking photographs, crouching down in various European cities, and then using photo-editing software to superimpose graffiti to the images.

Zelensky’s wife spends millions on jewelry

This is another fake with an interesting backstory. Information pertaining to Olena Zelenska spending €40,000 in local boutiques during a visit to Paris emerged at the end of 2022. By 2023, the amount had increased. In the fall, when the Ukrainian president was visiting New York for the UN General Assembly, it became “irrefutably” known that his other half spent $1 million on jewelry at Cartier.

Russian media outlets and Telegram channels referenced a report published on the Nigerian website “The Nation,” written by a guest writer and paid for by an unknown source. The author of the piece, in turn, referred to a video released by a young woman who claimed to work at the jewelry store in New York and served Zelenska. It later turned out that the video was recorded by a Cameroonian-national residing in St Petersburg.

The Zelenskys were greeted in the U.S with the offensive slogan, “Glory to Urine!”

The Zelenskys’ trip to the United States in the fall became a breeding ground for a new series of fakes. On the day of the Ukrainian delegation’s arrival in New York, a blue-yellow flag with the inscription “Glory to Urine!” was prominently displayed on a digital billboard in the city center. A video allegedly shot by an eyewitness was used as evidence. “Not a fake… It seems they must know something”, commented Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson, on her Telegram channel. Almost all major pro-government media, from Rossiyskaya Gazeta to Moskovsky Komsomolets, reported on the public humiliation.

The viral video caught the attention of American fact checkers. They determined the filming location and found that everything was not quite as it seemed: the billboard screens are positioned differently, and there is a McDonalds in the building opposite which didn’t appear in the video. The fake could have been based on old video footage showing a stroll through New York. This is not a new move.

Left — a screenshot from the fake video, right — how the intersection looked in September 2023
Left — a screenshot from the fake video, right — how the intersection looked in September 2023

The phrase “Glory to Urine!” almost became a fake meme. The phrase was allegedly graffitied across various cities in Europe. In reality, the words were digitally imposed upon photos taken around a single neighborhood in Paris.

Western celebrities urge Zelensky to seek treatment for his drug addiction

In July, a “stories” video allegedly taken from the Instagram account of actor Elijah Wood (played Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy) amassed millions of views on Telegram. The video showed the Hollywood star supposedly urging Zelensky to go rehab and finally overcome his drug addiction. In the following weeks, users shared footage of similar appeals from actors Dean Norris (Hank Schrader from “Breaking Bad”), John C. McGinley (Perry Cox from “Scrubs”), and Kate Flannery (Meredith Palmer from “The Office”), boxer Mike Tyson, Elvis Presley’s widow Priscilla, and System of a Down bassist, Shavo Odadjian. Calls for Zelensky to undergo treatment were reported on Channel One, RIA Novosti, and Rossiyskaya Gazeta, with dozens of pro-Kremlin bloggers also sharing the news.

For a small fee, Elijah Wood and Dean Norris are persuading someone named Vladimir to take a different path and kick the addiction. Unbeknownst to them, pranksters will redirect their words in reference to President Zelensky
For a small fee, Elijah Wood and Dean Norris are persuading someone named Vladimir to take a different path and kick the addiction. Unbeknownst to them, pranksters will redirect their words in reference to President Zelensky

Whilst skeptics might assume that all seven videos were created using neural networks, in actuality, all the videos are authentic. They were commissioned through the Cameo video-sharing service which allows fans — and, as it turns out, developers of fakes — to reach out to their idols, for a comparably small fee, with a request to record a holiday greeting, well-wishes before a big event or just a personal message. Organizers of the campaign against Zelensky apparently used Cameo to contact the stars with a request to motivate an unknown Vladimir (none of the victims of the scam mention the surname of the Ukrainian president) to seek treatment. The videos were subsequently formatted to look like a series of stories, posted by the celebrities on Instagram.

Ukrainians are not just Nazis but also heathens

Against the backdrop of the escalating conflict between the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), evidence depicting how Ukrainians betray true Christian teachings began circulating online. The Kyiv Pechersk Lavra became the primary target of such fakes. In March, major Russian media outlets reported that following the first religious service held on the monastery’s grounds by members of the OCU, crosses above the Refectory Church turned black. In reality, as evidenced by multiple old photographs, the color of the crosses has remained unchanged for at least two decades.

There were also reports of selling the treasures of the Lavra. In June, the head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, Sergey Naryshkin, claimed that Ukrainian authorities, with UNESCO’s mediation, had agreed with their European counterparts to transfer the relics of saints to their museums. There is no evidence to support these claims, with Ukrainian officials and UNESCO denying Naryshkin’s allegations. Shortly after, Telegram channels reported on an upcoming auction in Paris where “Orthodox relics” from the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra would allegedly be sold. The only evidence was a photo of a poster advertising the auction, which turned out to be an edited stock image.

The perpetrators used photo-editing software to announce the sale of Orthodox relics in Paris
The perpetrators used photo-editing software to announce the sale of Orthodox relics in Paris

In April, a video circulated in the mass media and on Telegram showing supporters of the OCU allegedly setting fire to a UOC church in the Nikolaev region. The clip was actually shot 10 years ago near Astrakhan. Before long, a fake screenshot of a post on OnlyFans went viral on pro-Kremlin resources, showing two Ukrainian webcam models supposedly announcing a fundraiser in aid of the OCU. After Halloween, Telegram channels spread a video falsely depicting how a Ukrainian Orthodox church were celebrating the holiday by singing about Satan. In actuality, the original video was filmed a month earlier, with the creators of the fake replacing the audio. Finally, in November, pro-Russian bloggers began reporting on the supposed registration of the Holy Church of Saint Patron the Dog, citing two humorous videos as evidence.

Europeans are against supplying military equipment to Kyiv

When the transfer of German Leopard tanks to Ukraine was being discussed at the end of 2022-2023, pro-Russian Telegram channels were quickly flooded with several “testimonies” claiming that “ordinary citizens” of Germany opposed this decision. Calls not to send the machinery to the Ukrainian Armed Forces were supposedly posted, for example, on a screen at Stuttgart Airport and on a sign at the entrance to Berlin Zoo, asking visitors to “Not to feed the leopards with Zelensky’s empty words.” The images presented as evidence had been edited: in the first case, based on an old photo, in the second, from an Instagram post by a visitor to the zoo.

Left — the viral image circulated on social media, right — the original
Left — the viral image circulated on social media, right — the original

In the summer, major pro-government media outlets told of a video that had purportedly been filmed in Germany, where a group of people dressed in uniform enter the home of an ordinary German family and seizes all their belongings (including a toy leopard). The group leader then hangs a portrait of the Ukrainian president on the wall and utters the words, “Heil Zelensky!” The message at the end of the video reads, “Is your home in NATO? Get used to NATO being in your home. Since 2022, more than €22 billion has been given to Ukraine from the German budget.” As journalist Mark Krutov from Radio Svoboda discovered, at least several roles in the “German” video were performed by Russian actors, and Provereno subsequently uncovered an Instagram post by one of the said actors stating that the video was commissioned by Russia Today (RT).

The “Heil Zelensky!” video was most likely produced by order of RT
Some roles were definitely played by Russian actors
Some roles were definitely played by Russian actors

Another type of weaponry that has attracted the attention of both pro-war commentators and Russian officials are depleted uranium munitions. In May, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev claimed that a Russian hit on a depot storing such munitions near Khmelnytskyi caused a “radioactive cloud to head towards western Europe.” Several days prior, Z-channels had published screenshots of certain services showing an increase in radiation levels in western Ukraine and Poland. In both cases, the information was accurate but taken out of context — weekly data indeed showed elevated levels of radiation but didn’t exceed the norm. In fact, Moscow had approximately the same level of background radiation over the same period. Overall, the buzz surrounding uranium munitions is totally unjustified as the only thing they have in common with nuclear weapons is their name.

Ukraine is selling weapons to Hamas and objects to helping Israel

On October 7, the day the militants attacked Israel, Yevgeny Satanovsky, an orientalist and until recently a regular guest on Solovyov’s shows, stated that Hamas rebels used weapons sold to them by Ukraine during their attack on the kibbutzim along the border of the Gaza Strip. Two days later, former president Dmitry Medvedev espoused similar claims, and the following day, a video allegedly released by the BBC went viral on Telegram. Citing the investigative group Bellingcat, the video claims that Kyiv’s summer counteroffensive efforts failed because some of the Western weaponry they received was transferred to Hamas. Both the BBC and Bellingcat denied releasing such materials. Other videos peddling the same Kremlin narrative are either falsified or cannot be regarded as convincing evidence.

Shortly after President Joe Biden promised to provide Israel the necessary assistance to combat the attacking militants, a billboard with the words “Helping Jews = Burning Money. Stand with Ukraine!” supposedly appeared on the streets of New York. According to pro-Kremlin media outlets and Telegram channels, the installation was funded by either Ukrainians living in the U.S or by Zelensky’s associates. The video taken as evidence was, you guessed it, edited — as with similar fakes, it originated from a YouTube clip showing a stroll through New York, with the billboard text being superimposed using photo-editing software.

One month later, contradicting “news” emerged from the American metropolis. This time, a video was allegedly shown on a huge digital billboard in Manhattan urging for support to Israel instead of Ukraine. The video went viral beyond the Russian-speaking segment of the Internet, with independent fact checkers from across the world managing to establish that, in reality, an advertisement for an animated film was being shown in the original footage, and the first edited version of the video was published on a Russian pro-war Telegram channel.

Israeli and Western media are liars, just like the Ukrainians

The Israeli-Hamas war provided Russian propagandists with an opportunity to remind the people of just how “staged” Western media reporting is — how they’re lying about the kibbutzim on the Gaza border is exactly how they lied about the Ukrainian city of Bucha. In October, pro-Kremlin Telegram channels presented at least two “examples” of how foreign television networks produce staged reports from the front line in the Middle East. However, in the case of Clarissa Ward’s report for CNN, the audio had been dubbed by a pro-Trump blogger, and in Cristina Cileacu’s report for the Romanian channel Digi24, the video was edited in such a way that the montage footage didn’t capture the sounds of the air raid siren and explosions.

Original CNN video
Fake video, dubbed by a pro-Trump “coordinator”

Even direct evidence, published by Israeli government officials, pertaining to the massacre orchestrated by Hamas, were branded as fabrications by pro-Kremlin Telegram channels. This was the case, for example, with the image of a child burned to death by the militants. Many sources subsequently claimed that the image was actually of a puppy in a veterinary clinic, edited with the help of AI technology. “Such vast quantities of fakes being released by the Israeli authorities and media outlets indicates a serious lack of genuine evidence, given that they’ve resorted to such fabrications”, commented Boris Rozhin (Colonelcassad). In fact, the opposite was true: the image of the child, posted by the Israeli Prime Minister, was genuine, while the photo of the puppy was created by an X user (formerly “Twitter”), who commented: “It took me five seconds to do this. Creating a convincing fake isn’t difficult anymore.”

The genuine fake wasn’t of the burned child, but the cute puppy
The genuine fake wasn’t of the burned child, but the cute puppy

Ukrainian saboteurs are mining money and passports

And finally, a folkloric fake of sorts to round off. In early December, Russian social media networks and messengers were flooded with panicked warnings about Ukrainian saboteurs allegedly scattering various mined items near schools. Initially, the matter concerned a school in Balabanovo, where a miniature explosive device wrapped in bank notes was reportedly found. But reposters, eager to sound the alarm, quickly spread the threat to other areas of the country, including the Saratov and Ivanovo regions. Significantly, the image remained unchanged, only the caption was edited to cater to the location. A reverse image search reveals that the warnings initially appeared at the beginning of the year, with authorities quickly debunking their authenticity.

Concerned parents flooded school group chats with fake “evidence” of Ukrainian saboteurs scattering mines
Concerned parents flooded school group chats with fake “evidence” of Ukrainian saboteurs scattering mines

Mines from Ukrainian saboteurs is a tale that, naturally, garnered interest off the back of the ongoing war. Over a year ago, Internet users were already spreading stories about saboteurs hiding explosive devices in toys, balls, mobile phones, tablets, and documents. Here’s a typical post: “Warn everyone immediately, saboteurs have entered Russia!... They leave mines on roads, benches, in bushes - phones, tablets, notebooks are all mined… Yesterday, in Kursk one of our warrant officers had his hand blown off by a passport — he picked it up, opened it, and it completely blew off one of his hands, he lost three fingers on the other hand and sustained abdominal injuries.” Of course, the case in Kursk in May 2022 wasn’t an isolated incident. Subsequent instances were reported in Voronezh, Krasnodar, and other regions. The type of victim was sometimes changed, from a warrant officer to an unlucky passerby, and the written text was periodically presented as a message issued on behalf of the Unified Duty Dispatch Service of Voronezh. Nevertheless, there has been no evidence to corroborate these attacks, and no injuries have been sustained from these fake mines.

Translated by Sasha Molotkova