Social media posts claim a man pictured trailing Volodymyr Zelensky during US President Joe Biden’s surprise trip to Kyiv was the Ukrainian leader’s secret body double or clone. This is false; other footage of the same moments shows the man is Maksym Donets, Zelensky’s bodyguard since 2019.
“Polish TV accidentally showed not one double of Zelenskiy, but two at once,” says one February 25, 2023 tweet shared thousands of times.
The narrative reverberated across Twitter and other platforms, boosted by supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory, the website Zerohedge and radio host Stew Peters, who has spread disinformation about the Covid-19 vaccines and other topics.
The posts show video — or, in some cases, screenshots from the footage — of Zelensky and Biden walking up the stairs inside the Mariinsky Palace during the US president’s February 20 visit.
Screenshot from Twitter taken February 28, 2023 – AFP
But while the man seen at the base of the steps has a similar build and shirt as Zelensky, better-quality images from the day make his identity clear. He is Zelensky’s longtime bodyguard Maksym Donets, whose appointment as head of the Ukrainian president’s personal security was announced in 2019.
Retracing the images
The video in the posts comes from the Polish tabloid newspaper Fakt, the logo for which can be seen in the corners of the screen.
The original footage, which is higher resolution than the version in the posts and was published to Fakt’s YouTube channel, shows the alleged Zelensky “body double” in the background of different shots — including in a doorway seen at the 21-second mark.
The sequence with Zelensky and Biden ascending the staircase begins at approximately the 30-second mark.
AFP also captured footage and photos of the same moment, showing the figure in the background behind the two leaders.
Donets’ identity — and the differences between him and Zelensky — are more apparent when zooming in using InVid-WeVerify, a digital verification tool. Donets has different hair and facial features and was wearing trousers that did not match Zelensky’s.
Donets is also visible in other AFP video footage and photos from Biden’s stint in Kyiv, including outside St. Michael’s Cathedral.
Frequently photographed since 2019
Since his appointment in 2019, Donets has been regularly pictured near Zelensky, including in photos featured on Zelensky’s presidential website depicting the Ukrainian leader’s working trips to various regions of the war-torn country in 2022.
Screenshot from the President of Ukraine website taken February 28, 2023 – AFP
“Donets is rarely seen near the President indoors, but as soon as Zelensky moves outside and into more dangerous conditions, the head of the security service himself follows him at least a few steps away,” Ilta-Sanomat, a prominent tabloid newspaper in Finland, wrote in a November 2022 report highlighting photos of the two men together.
AFP has previously debunked body-double conspiracy theories about American football player Damar Hamlin and former Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari, as well as misinformation about the war in Ukraine.