Propaganda disinformation about the recruitment of people with Down syndrome in Ukraine

Published on:

Claims that Ukraine is recruiting people with Down syndrome due to a lack of new soldiers come from pro-Russian sources and, apart from a video of questionable authenticity, there is no evidence to support such allegations.

Photo: Freepik

In an article published on the web portal Epoha on December 31, 2023, there is a video from platform X in which a person with Down syndrome, in a military uniform, is verbally abused by other soldiers. The article features the following title:

Desperate Ukraine calls people with Down syndrome to the front line

The article states:

Ukraine is now calling people with Down syndrome to the front lines because Zelensky has no more military-fit recruits for the exhausting war with Russia.

In the description of the video in the article, the person with Down syndrome is described as a “mentally disturbed man”. The “shocking” video, it said, shows a “mentally disturbed man” who is “sitting in a trench with what appears to be a stick”. The soldier filming allegedly says: “Look who they just sent us!” After that, he makes fun of a man with Down syndrome.

The article also quoted the statements of Sasch Lehnartz, a correspondent of the German newspaper Die Welt, who allegedly said earlier that the Ukrainian counter-offensive had failed and that there was a feeling that Kyiv had already lost the war. It is stated below:

Earlier this month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky begged Western leaders to send all their money to Ukraine. He claimed that they should not “build roads”, but finance weapons for Kyiv.

Epoha’s article was shared on Facebook with allegations that Ukraine is recruiting people with Down syndrome.

What are the facts?

Epoha’s article is a translation of an article published on December 31, 2023, in English, on the web portal The Peoples Voice, known for disinformation and conspiracy theories.

This article also published a video from the X social network showing soldiers in a trench abusing another soldier with Down syndrome. The logo of the TikTok social network and the account name @uvoin19 are visible in the video. This account has only 17 followers and a total of four posts. However, the video on this account is no longer available.

Scrrenshot, TikTok

Before it was deleted, the video was shared on pro-Russian social media accounts (123) and in Russian media (123).

Several Ukrainian fact-checking web portals analyzed the video after allegations that Ukraine was recruiting people with Down syndrome were published based on it (123).

In an article from January 3, 2024, the Ukrainian fact-checking web portal Bez Brehní addressed the authenticity of the video footage. In addition to being deleted from the account where it was first posted, it said, the video contained a number of suspicious details. It was also stated that there are no characteristics based on which it would be possible to conclude which army the person shown in the video belongs to, and that the soldier, apart from the uniform, does not even have a minimum of equipment, although it is stated that he is on the front line. It is also suspicious, as stated, that he is wearing rubber boots even though it is winter.

The person in the video is claimed to have Down syndrome based on external physical characteristics alone. Down syndrome is a condition that causes an excess of chromosomes, which can cause mental and physical difficulties.

People with chromosomal disorders with significant dysfunctions, including people with Down syndrome, cannot serve in the army according to the Regulation on Military Medical Examination in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, amended on August 18, 2023. The same decree prescribes detailed rules according to which people with certain diseases and conditions are declared unfit for military service.

In the credible media, as shown by the results of a Google search, there is no information about the recruitment of people with Down syndrome in Ukraine. These claims come from pro-Russian sources and, apart from a video of questionable authenticity, there is no evidence to confirm the accuracy of these allegations.

Epoha’s article also claims that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “begged Western leaders to send all their money to Ukraine” and that he said that they should not “build roads” but finance weapons for the government in Kyiv.

These claims were shared after Zelensky’s visit to the United States last year and were covered by Snopes in an article published on December 13, 2023. The visit began on December 11, 2023, with a meeting with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. A day later, Zelensky met with US President Joe Biden. After the meeting, Zelensky was a guest on the “Special Report” show on Fox News television. A clip from the show was published on the X social network on December 13, 2023, along with a description in which claims were made that Zelensky begged the leaders of Western countries to send “all the money” to Ukraine, that is, to direct “all the money” to weapons, drones, society and pensions.

Snopes published a transcript of part of the conversation between journalist Bret Bair and the Ukrainian president. Bair asked Zelensky how he deals with domestic criticism that his rule is turning into an authoritarian regime, and what he would say to critics who say that. Zelensky provided the following response:

I say to those people from the Government or the mayor: Think about the war, think about how to defend our people. Don’t travel the world every day, travel to the front lines. Ask the people, ask the soldiers what they need. Do this, don’t build roads for today. Don’t do that. Spend all your money on guns, on drones, on society, on pensions and so on. And don’t cry. Because you are leaders, and that’s it. That’s why, that’s why we did and that’s why we stayed, because most people don’t cry. People stay and fight against Putin. And we have no enemies in our country. We can’t have time for this and we don’t have it. We have only one enemy, that’s Putin, and that’s it.

Thus, these calls are addressed to Ukrainian government critics, not Western leaders, as presented on the X platform and reported in Epoha’s article.

The claim that Ukraine is recruiting people with Down syndrome because there are no more new soldiers is based on a video of questionable authenticity, which is not evidence of such a practice. In contrast, according to Ukrainian law, people with significant dysfunctions due to chromosomal disorders do not serve in the army. Such claims are part of the Russian propaganda narrative about the situation in the Ukrainian army.

Accordingly, we consider the claim that Kyiv is recruiting people with Down syndrome, published in Epoha’s article, as fake news.

We give the same assessment to the claim that the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, begged “Western leaders to send all their money to Ukraine” and claimed that “they should not build roads, but finance weapons for Kyiv”.​

(Author: Alena Beširević,