A video of an interview with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has resurfaced alongside claims that he has called on NATO to deliver a nuclear strike on Moscow.
“Zelensky says it is fine to nuke Moscow but Russia must not respond in kind,” David Vance, a right wing blogger who was suspended from Twitter in 2022 following accusations of racism, said in the tweet caption (archived here).
“ZELENSKY: NATO SHOULD NUKE MOSCOW,” another user wrote in a tweet viewed 890,000 times.
In the clip, the subtitles supposedly translate Zelensky’s response to a question about NATO.
“What should NATO do? They can use nuclear weapons on Russia, but what’s important I once again appeal to the international community, as it was before February 24, we need to launch preemptive strikes that they know what will happen to them if the use and not vice versa,” the president purportedly states.
However, as Newsweek Misinformation Watch has established, the video is miscaptioned, with an inaccurate translation woven into Zelensky’s speech, which itself has previously been used misleadingly to promote the narrative that Ukraine is escalating the conflict.
The clip is taken from an October 2022 online meeting at the Australian Lowry Institute, during which the Ukrainian leader was asked about the possibility of Moscow using a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, and what the Western response to it should entail.
In his reply, Zelensky insisted that instead of assessing possible responses to such a strike the West ought to deter Russia from carrying it out in the first place.
“Що має робити НАТО? Виключити можливість застосування Росією ядерної зброї. Але, що важливо, я ще раз звертаюся до міжнародної спільноти, як це було до 24 лютого: (потрібні) превентивні удари, щоб вони знали, що з ними буде. А не навпаки – чекати на ядерні удари Росії, щоб потім сказати: “Ах, ти так, ну, ось тримай від нас!” he said, in Ukrainian, which translates to English as:
“What should NATO do? Eliminate the possibility of Russia using nuclear weapons. But, what is important, I appeal to the international community once again, as it was before February 24: (necessary) preventive strikes so that they know what will happen to them. And not on the contrary, to wait for Russia’s nuclear strikes to then say: ‘Oh, that’s what you do, well, take this from us!'”
The false translation critically changes the meaning of the statement, from “preventing” a strike by Moscow, to “striking Moscow.”
The original video had also been used misleadingly back in October, as Newsweek Fact Check reported, with Zelensky’s words being taken out of context to imply that he called for a nuclear strike on Russia, whereas the rest of the speech indicates he is instead talking about exerting “pressure” on Moscow, including through sanctions.
“Reconsider the way you apply pressure. This is what NATO should do: reconsider the order in which it applies pressure [on Russia],” he added.
As Newsweek had reported at the time, the mix-up was in part down to translation issues. The Ukrainian word “удар,” which Zelensky used in the address, can mean a literal “strike,” but also has figurative meanings, such as a “hit” or a “blow,” a nuance that perhaps has become lost in the the simultaneous interpreting and the subsequent reporting.
The phrase fueled sensationalist headlines and drew condemnation from Russian officials, forcing Zelensky’s spokesman Serhii Nykyforov to step in and clarify the president’s remarks, which he said were referring to preventive sanctions that should have been applied to Russia before its full-scale invasion.
He said in a Facebook post that the “nuclear hysteria” had “gone a little too far,” and that Zelensky had been speaking about action “in the period before February 24.”
“Then it was necessary to apply preventative measures to prevent Russia from starting the war,” he said according to a translation, referring to sanctions. He added that “to hint at the use of nuclear weapons is afforded only by the terrorist state Russia. You will never hear such calls from Ukraine.”
As Newsweek and others have reported in the past, inaccurate captions—whether accidental or deliberate, malicious or benign—are a potent misinformation tool.
Not only do inaccurate captions or subtitles add an air of authority and are often hard to spot (and tricky to verify even with text translation tools), but they also gain additional circulation through being screengrabbed and shared misleadingly to promote specific narratives.
This type of content is particularly dangerous when it concerns sensitive subjects, such as the threat of nuclear war.
Newsweek reached out to David Vance for comment.