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Zelenskyy’s shirt featured Ukraine military emblem, not hate symbol

March 18, 2022 GMT
In this image from video provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office and posted on Facebook, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to members of the U.S. Congress from Kyiv, Ukraine, on Wednesday, March 16, 2022. Some social media users falsely claimed the image on his T-shirt is a hate symbol, but it is actually the emblem for the Ukraine Armed Forces. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)
In this image from video provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office and posted on Facebook, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to members of the U.S. Congress from Kyiv, Ukraine, on Wednesday, March 16, 2022. Some social media users falsely claimed the image on his T-shirt is a hate symbol, but it is actually the emblem for the Ukraine Armed Forces. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)
In this image from video provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office and posted on Facebook, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to members of the U.S. Congress from Kyiv, Ukraine, on Wednesday, March 16, 2022. Some social media users falsely claimed the image on his T-shirt is a hate symbol, but it is actually the emblem for the Ukraine Armed Forces. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)
In this image from video provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office and posted on Facebook, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to members of the U.S. Congress from Kyiv, Ukraine, on Wednesday, March 16, 2022. Some social media users falsely claimed the image on his T-shirt is a hate symbol, but it is actually the emblem for the Ukraine Armed Forces. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)
In this image from video provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office and posted on Facebook, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to members of the U.S. Congress from Kyiv, Ukraine, on Wednesday, March 16, 2022. Some social media users falsely claimed the image on his T-shirt is a hate symbol, but it is actually the emblem for the Ukraine Armed Forces. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

CLAIM: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Wednesday addressed the U.S. Congress while wearing a shirt emblazoned with a neo-Nazi symbol.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. Zelenskyy wore a military T-shirt that featured the official emblem for the Ukraine Armed Forces. In its center, the emblem includes Ukraine’s official coat of arms. The image on his shirt did not match the Iron Cross or any hateful symbol, according to historians and extremism experts.

THE FACTS: Conspiracy theorists and Russian propagandists have repeatedly sought to paint Ukraine’s president as a neo-Nazi or Nazi sympathizer during Russia’s attack on Ukraine, even though Zelenskyy is Jewish and has said three of his grand-uncles died in the Holocaust.

The false narrative circulated again this week when Zelenskyy livestreamed an impassioned plea to the U.S. Congress, asking for more help fighting off Russian invaders. Some social media users misrepresented a symbol on the T-shirt he wore as an Iron Cross, a German military decoration from the early 1900s that the Nazi regime and hate groups later co-opted for their own purposes.

“Zelensky invoked Martin Luther King, said Ukraine is going through 9/11 AND Pearl Harbor EVERY DAY and called on Biden to become the ‘leader of the world,’ as he prodded congress to start WW3,” one Twitter user wrote. “Wearing his Iron Cross T-Shirt.”

“Why Is Ukraine’s Zelensky Wearing The NAZI Iron Cross?” read a headline from a blog supporting former President Donald Trump.

But the symbol on Zelenskyy’s shirt is the official emblem of the Ukraine Armed Forces, not a hate symbol or an Iron Cross, historians and experts confirmed to The Associated Press.

“This is not an Iron Cross of any kind,” said Yale University professor and European history scholar Timothy Snyder. “It is the insignium of the armed forces of Ukraine. The trident in the middle is the state seal of Ukraine. The use of a cross as part of a military insignium is not at all unusual.”

“Zelensky’s T-shirt emblem is clearly that of the Ukrainian armed forces,” said Paul Josephson, a professor of Russian and Soviet history at Colby College. “This president, unlike others, has been serving with his soldiers, and he is proud to wear it during a time of war.”

The Anti-Defamation League, a group that tracks extremism and antisemitism in the U.S. and internationally, also reviewed the imagery and told the AP there was no merit to the false claims.

The shirt Zelenskyy wore in his speech is part of the standard Ukrainian army uniform, according to Mykola Balaban, deputy head of the Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security, an agency run by Ukraine’s central government. He called claims that Zelenskyy is a Nazi “absolutely absurd.”

The symbol that appears on Zelenskyy’s shirt was designated as the official emblem of Ukraine’s Armed Forces in 2009 and appears on its official website and social media pages. It features a straight, equilateral crimson-colored cross and Ukraine’s official coat of arms – a gold trident on a blue background – in the center.

While Zelenskyy’s shirt did not feature an Iron Cross, an Iron Cross presented without any other extremist imagery is also not necessarily considered a hate symbol, according to the ADL. It is used commonly in sports equipment and other contexts separate from hate groups.

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This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.