Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy predicted that if Russia’s invasion of his country is successful, it will invade nearby NATO countries, triggering a war involving the U.S. military. Some conservative commentators misleadingly claimed that he’d called upon the U.S. to “send their sons and daughters to war for Ukraine and potentially die.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy took questions from journalists at a press conference on Feb. 24, exactly one year after Russia launched its invasion.
ABC News reporter Ian Pannell asked Zelenskyy to respond to recent public opinion polls in the U.S. showing a decline in support for sending aid to Ukraine.
The president’s answer has since been taken out of context. An edited version of his comments has circulated widely on social media among conservative influencers, who falsely claim that Zelenskyy called upon the U.S. to “send their sons and daughters to war for Ukraine and potentially die.”
One post claimed he said, “The U.S. will have to send their sons & daughters to Ukraine to fight.”
But Zelenskyy did not call on American soldiers to fight in Ukraine.
Zelenskyy began his comments by thanking “the American people” for the aid that the country had sent so far. He then predicted that Russia would likely invade one or more Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — if it is victorious in Ukraine.
Unlike Ukraine, all three of those countries are members of NATO, an alliance formed after World War II that now consists of 30 countries, including the United States. Article 5 of NATO’s founding document, the North Atlantic Treaty, holds that “an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies.” President Joe Biden has called Article 5 “sacrosanct.”
So, an invasion of any one of the Baltic states could trigger a response that would engage the American military.
But not necessarily. In a 2022 report, Katherine Yon Ebright, of the Brennan Center for Justice, wrote that the language of Article 5 is “relatively flexible.” It allows members to determine for themselves how to respond to an attack on an ally — which could mean sending equipment, imposing sanctions on the aggressor, or engaging in direct military action.
She also wrote that another section of the NATO treaty — Article 11 — specifies that member countries will carry out the agreement “in accordance with their respective constitutional processes.”
“In the United States, that means securing express authorization from Congress, which has the sole constitutional power to declare war and is responsible for military appropriations and oversight,” she wrote.
Maj. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap, Jr., who is now a professor at Duke University School of Law, has similarly said, “Article 5 should not be read in isolation from Article 11.”
Here are Zelenskyy’s comments in full, based on a real-time translation at the press conference, with the relevant portion highlighted in bold:
Zelenskyy, Feb. 24: I would like to thank the American people.
I would like to thank all of the American people that are supporting Ukraine — the Congress, the president, the TV channels, the journalists, and everyone that has been supporting us.
And that percentage of Americans, as you’ve mentioned, is increasing. I can tell them only one thing — if they do not change their opinion, if they do not understand us, if they do not support Ukraine, they will lose NATO, they will lose the clout of the United States, they will lose the leadership position that they are enjoying in the world that they are enjoying for a very fair reason, and they will lose the support of the country with 40 million population, with millions of children. Are American children any different than ours? Don’t Americans enjoy the same things as we do? I don’t think we’re that different.
I’m actually very happy that we have bipartisan support, but we keep hearing those messages from time to time and they’re dangerous. There are political leaders that are elected by people, and if this issue is raised, those political leaders need to be responsible and cautious because people are looking at them.
Who wants a third world war? Would anyone be willing to accept that risk? The U.S. is never going to give up on the NATO member states. If it happens so that Ukraine, due to various opinions and weakening and depleting of assistance, loses, Russia is going to enter Baltic states — NATO-member states — and then the U.S. will have to send their sons and daughters exactly the same way as we are sending [our] sons and daughters to war and they will have to fight because it’s NATO that we’re talking about and they will be dying — God forbid, because it’s a horrible thing. I wish peace and Ukrainian support to the United States.
Some conservative commentators and outlets have posted an edited clip of the press conference that shows only part of Zelenskyy’s comment, stripped of the context about his anticipation of further aggression by Russia against NATO members.
The misleadingly edited clip says: “The U.S. will have to send their sons and daughters exactly the same way as we are sending [our] sons and daughters to war and they will have to fight because it’s NATO that we’re talking about and they will be dying — God forbid, because it’s a horrible thing.”
Many commentators added their own summaries, which were even more misleading.
One wrote, “Zelinsky: Ukraine needs fresh young Americans to help fight on the ground war. ‘The US will have to send their Son’s & Daughter’s… to WAR…’ ‘….and they will be DYING.'”
Another wrote, “Did Zelensky Just Call For America’s Sons & Daughters To Be Sacrificed?”
But, as we’ve explained, Zelenskyy was answering a question about public opinion on Ukrainian aid, and he speculated that, without continued support, Russia could prevail in Ukraine and continue on to invade NATO countries that may trigger military action from the U.S.
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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The Telegraph (@telegraph). “Watch in full: Volodymyr Zelensky press conference on first anniversary of Ukraine’s war with Russia.” YouTube. 24 Feb 2023.
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North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Member countries. Updated 4 Oct 2022.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The North Atlantic Treaty. Updated 10 Apr 2019.
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“Remarks by President Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg | Madrid, Spain.” Whitehouse.gov. 29 Jun 2022.
Yon Ebright, Katherine. Brennan Center for Justice. “NATO’s Article 5 Collective Defense Obligations, Explained.” Updated 15 Nov 2022.
Dunlap, Charles J. Jr. “Legally speaking, the NATO treaty does not require the U.S. to ‘automatically’ use force to defend allies.” Lawfire, Duke University. 21 Jul 2016.