Fact Check: Russia Claims Injured Ukrainian Mom in Photo Is Crisis Actor

Voting in what are widely viewed as illegitimate referendums took place earlier this week to determine whether four regions in eastern Ukraine should become part of the Russian federation.

Referred to as a “propaganda show” by the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, citizens in Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson were said to have voted overwhelmingly in favor of joining—results the U.S. State Department and democracy advocates described as a “sham.”

Amid the condemnation, one Russian official fired back on Twitter, claiming that pro-Ukrainian propagandists had used an actor to further spread doubt about the disputed polls.

Olena Kurilo, also known as Helena, stands outside a hospital after the bombing of the eastern Ukraine town of Chuhuiv on February 24, 2022, as Russian armed forces attempted to invade Ukraine from several directions. Conspiratorial posts on social media have implied that Kurilo is a crisis actor, planted to spread pro-Ukrainian propaganda.

The Claim

A tweet sent by Russian UN representative, Dmitry Polyanskiy, retweeted a post featuring two photos of a woman in bandages. The first photo is attached to a news report from February 25, 2022, from Ukraine following its invasion by Russia.

The second photo, used to accompany a video about the illegitimate referendums held in eastern Ukraine in September 2022, appears to show the same woman.

Polyanskiy’s accompanying tweet states: “She seems to be a professional victim. Maybe it’s time to invent a special Oscar nomination. White helmets are undoubtedly the best candidates.”

The original post, retweeted by the Russian official, was sent by commentator Ian Miles Cheong with the caption: “How many more times is this woman going to get injured.”

Newsweek reached out to Cheong for comment.

The Facts

Polyanskiy has repeatedly made misleading claims about the war in Ukraine, some of which Newsweek has previously debunked. Cheong, who Polyanskiy tweeted, has also spread mistruths about Ukraine, among other topics.

This most recent claim touches on the notion of crisis acting, a conspiratorial theory circulating on the fringes of culture and politics, which accuses genuine victims of global crises of being actors used by state or other clandestine powers.

The idea behind this baseless and harmful theory states that these “actors” are directed to appear in front of media, or in otherwise staged environments, as part of a propaganda effort by whichever political leader put them there.

This misleading and insensitive misinformation tactic has been used to spread mistruths about the COVID-19 pandemic and American mass shootings.

The methodology, as evidence indicates, is no less manipulative in this case.

The two images in Polyanskiy’s tweet, put side-by-side, appear to imply that the same woman has been photographed months apart with the same bandages; once at the start of the conflict and once during the illegitimate referendums in eastern Ukraine.

This is not the case.

The woman in the photo is Olena Kurilo, a 53-year-old teacher from Ukraine.

Kurilo was interviewed and photographed by foreign press on February 24, 2022, after Russian missiles targeted the city of Chuhuiv, Kharkiv Oblast. The undoubtedly striking photo was used widely in early reporting of the invasion at the time, and later on.

The city of Chuhuiv in eastern Ukraine was among the first places to report damage caused by shelling after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion.

In an interview, Olena Kurilo told AFP she had been “very lucky” and that she must have a “guardian angel.”

“Never, under any conditions will I submit to Putin. It is better to die,” she said. “I only managed to think in that second ‘My God, I’m not ready to die.'”

Kurilo added: “I was in shock, I felt no pain.”

While some articles quote Kurilo simply as “Helena”, this is merely a spelling convention; Olena is the Ukrainian variation of that name.

Crucially, it doesn’t change the fact that the photos of her were taken on the same day, with the only difference between some of them being her bandaging.

The video thumbnail, featured in Polyanskiy and Cheong’s tweets, is taken from an YouTube video report describing the illegitimate referendums in eastern Ukraine and which uses one of the photos of Kurilo from February 2022.

The video in question was posted on the YouTube channel and podcast “Breaking Points with Krystal and Saagar,” presented by Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti.

It is unclear why the producers or editors of the show chose to use this specific image, which does not feature in the video, as the thumbnail.

Most of the other videos from the channel viewed by Newsweek appeared to use a still from the video, and/or photos of the specific people it concerns. Newsweek has contacted Ball and Enjeti for comment.

Regardless of the reasons for the choice, it is fair to say the thumbnail is misleading, as Chuhuiv is not among the regions where the referendums were held.

But a YouTube show editor using a misleading or out-of-context stock image in no way reflects on the woman that the photo depicts, as the Russian official implied.

The video does not suggest that Kurilo suffered during the referendums, nor does it mention her at all. Furthermore, reports from March 2022 state Kurilo left Ukraine less than a month after the photos of her were taken, fleeing to southern Poland with daughter Katerina.

It is not the first time that Kurilo has been subject of unfounded “crisis actor” claims. In March, 2022, Reuters debunked a theory that her photo had been used following a Russian gas explosion in 2018.

Newsweek has contacted the Permanent Mission Of The Russian Federation To The United Nations for comment.

The Ruling

Misleading Material.

There is no evidence that Olena Kurilo, the woman in Polyanskiy and Cheong’s tweets, is a crisis actor as they imply. Her photos were taken on February 24, 2022, after Russian forces struck the town of Chuhuiv. One was used in a YouTube thumbnail, shared by Polyanskiy, to illustrate coverage of the illegitimate referendums in eastern Ukraine. Kurilo is thought to have since left Chuhuiv and, in any case, referendums are not being held there. Such use of dated or stock images, while misleading, is not uncommon in the media.

FACT CHECK BY Newsweek’s Fact Check team

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