An altered photo of a US naturalization certificate with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s name and photo has been circulating online since early December 2023, with social media users claiming it proves he plans to flee his country amid its ongoing war with Russia. This is false; legal experts confirmed the document is fake, pointing to several signs of manipulation.
“Zelensky Is DITCHING Ukraine for America,” says the caption of a December 21, 2023 TikTok post from Clayton Morris, a podcaster and former Fox & Friends host.
The video includes a photo of the supposed naturalization certificate bearing Zelensky’s name and photograph, that says he is residing in Vero Beach, Florida.
A wave of pro-Kremlin disinformation flooded the internet after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
The latest false claim appears to stem from DC Weekly, a website researchers say has roots in Russia. The majority of its articles are about the conflict in Ukraine.
“Unprecedented US Operation to Shelter Zelensky Raises Eyebrows,” says the headline of a November 29, 2023 article with a photo of the Ukrainian president’s alleged US naturalization certificate issued in New York and stating he applied in Tampa, Florida.
DC Weekly credits the story to Jessica Devlin, a journalist who purportedly worked for Bloomberg in Moscow. However, AFP found no trace of a journalist with that name and background.
“I didn’t write this article,” Battalion, an author, told AFP in a December 21 email. “I had never heard of this publication and had never had any contact with it. My photo was used without my permission.”
Signs of manipulation
The supposed document at the center of the DC Weekly story is bogus, too — legal experts told AFP several red flags point to its inauthenticity.
“A real naturalization certificate includes the person’s signature by their photo. The certificate in the photo doesn’t contain that,” said Steve Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration law at Cornell University, in a December 22 email.
“The USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Service) registration number on a real certificate usually has spaces between every three numbers. The certificate in the photo doesn’t. Also, the alleged certificate doesn’t contain Zelensky’s signature at the top, which it is supposed to.”
Marcin Muszynski, an immigration lawyer based in the state of New York, noted that USCIS Director Ur M Jaddou signed all certificates issued in 2023. However, the supposed Zelensky document bears the signature of someone named “Haley Burns.”
These documents also differ from the image circulating online.
“It is impossible for the certificate number to be within the range of 35,XXX,XXX,” Muszynski said. “The September 2023 certificate numbers for New York state begin with 44,921,XXX.”
Several other clues in the document circulating online indicate it is fake:
- A reverse image search found the photo of Zelensky was taken from the president’s official website (archived here).
- Agnieszka Piasecka, a US-based immigration lawyer, confirmed in a December 22 email that naturalization applications in Tampa are administered in Florida — not New York.
- Zelensky’s supposed residence is Vero Beach, where the main zip code is 32960. According to the USCIS field office locator, the appropriate facility for that code is West Palm Beach — not Tampa, which is on the opposite side of the state.
In general, naturalization in the United States requires being a permanent resident for at least five years, or three years if someone is married to a US citizen. AFP contacted USCIS for comment, but a response was not forthcoming.