Responding to a question on what NATO could do to deter Russia’s nuclear threat, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said NATO and its allies should use “preventive actions” against Russia. But the Kremlin and social media posts have misquoted Zelensky, claiming he referred to nuclear strikes when he was referring to economic sanctions against Russia.
One of Russia’s tactics in attempts to cause fear in Ukraine and among its NATO allies has been the use of nuclear blackmail.
In a national address in September, Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened Western countries and Ukraine by stating, “I want to remind those who allow themselves such statements about Russia that our country also has a variety of weapons of destruction, and in some areas even more modern than those in NATO countries. We will without question use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. This is not a bluff.”
In response, U.S. officials said that the consequences would be “catastrophic” and “horrific” if Russia were to use nuclear weapons. In November, Chinese President Xi Jinping, largely friendly to Russia since its invasion of Ukraine, offered a rebuke to Russia’s nuclear threats, saying the international community should “jointly oppose the use of or threats to use nuclear weapons.”
In an address and discussion at the Lowy Institute, a think tank in Sydney, Australia, in October, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was asked what else NATO could do to deter Russia from using nuclear weapons.
Zelensky responded by saying, through an interpreter, that his expectations for the international community were to take “preventive strikes, preventive actions so that Russia would know what would happen to them and not in return, I mean, waiting for the nuclear strikes first…”
These statements, said in Ukrainian and translated into English, caused a swift response from the Kremlin. Russian government spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated, “Zelensky’s words to NATO are nothing more than a call to start a world war with unpredictable and monstrous consequences.”
Zelensky’s spokesman, Sergii Nykyforov, clarified the president’s comments in an Oct. 6 Facebook post saying, “The President spoke about the period until February 24 . Then it was necessary to apply preventive measures to prevent Russia from starting the war. Let me remind you that the only measures that were about then were preventive sanctions.”
Zelensky’s advisor Mykhailo Podolyak also clarified the statements on Twitter on Oct. 6, saying that Zelensky “said nothing about a preventative nuclear strike on [Russian Federation]. Zelensky reminded about Russian nuclear blackmail and suggested to preemptively outline the consequences for Russia and intensify strikes against it – sanctions [against Russia] and armed assistance to [Ukraine].”
On Oct. 8, Zelensky himself clarified his comments at the Lowy Institute in an interview with the BBC stating, “You must use preventative kicks, not attacks.” He also said that the response to his comments was an attempt by Russia to “retranslate” his words.
Despite the clarifications, numerous social media accounts in February resurfaced Zelensky’s speech from four months ago, highlighting his “preventive actions” comment. A Feb. 12 Facebook post captioned in Spanish, read, “Zelensky pide atque nuclear preventivo contra Rusia,” and amassed 140,000 views. An English-language version of the caption — “Zelensky calls for preventative nuclear attack against Russia”– has since been taken down.
A French far-right political commentator shared a clip on Twitter on Feb. 2 with edited English subtitles that claim Zelensky stated, “They can use nuclear weapons on Russia” and “we need to launch preemptive strikes so that they know what will happen to them if they use it…” The tweet received more than 350,000 views and has been shared widely on Twitter.
The news station France 24 debunked the clip and verified that the English subtitles in the clip were not what Zelensky said in Ukrainian.
Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. Our previous stories can be found here. Facebook has no control over our editorial content.
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