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No, video doesn’t show Ukrainian troops surrendering to Russia, but a prisoner swap

IN SHORT: A video of uniformed soldiers and tanks flying white flags taken in Ukraine is circulating on social media. It shows a temporary ceasefire in order to swap prisoners, not Ukrainian troops surrendering.

A video posted on Facebook and TikTok shows a group of tanks flying white flags stopped on a muddy road. People in military uniforms can be seen moving past the tanks in long lines.

One of the posts is captioned: “Ukrainian soldier surrender to Russian forces.”

Russia and neighbouring Ukraine have been at war since February 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine. Russia claims to have done so in support of Ukrainian separatists in eastern areas of Ukraine, who it says wish to break away from the country. Russia similarly seized the Crimean region of Ukraine in 2014.

But was this video taken in Ukraine in May 2023, and does it show Ukrainian forces surrendering to Russia? Here’s what we found.


Video shows a prisoner swap 

Although often associated with surrender, the white flag is also an international symbol of truce or ceasefire. As set out in the Hague Convention, a series of international treaties governing the laws of war, a person bearing a white flag has a right to “inviolability” so that they may request communication with the enemy. The flag is used for negotiation and other events that call for a temporary ceasefire, as in the prisoner swap seen in the video.

A prisoner swap, or prisoner exchange, is an agreement by opposing sides in a war to each release prisoners into the other side’s care. 

In May 2022 Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a public request for a prisoner swap with Russia. Since then, several prisoner swaps have taken place, including in August 2023.

According to Reuters, Ukrainian human rights ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets said in July that 2,576 Ukrainians had been freed in prisoner swaps since the start of the war. A June prisoner exchange was reportedly the 11th of the war.

The video shows a prisoner exchange from May. The Wagner Group, a Russian private military company that has fought on behalf of Russia in the war, took part in the exchange on behalf of Russia.

The exchange took place near the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, the site of a particularly long and intense battle, which Wagner announced that it had captured on behalf of Russian forces on 20 May. 

The details of the exchange were initially shared by Wagner and Ukrainian officials on Telegram, an instant messaging service. The prisoner swap was also widely reported on at the time by international news outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, the Telegraph and CNN

However, this didn’t prevent false claims about the event from being shared online.

Previous claims debunked

In July, fact-checking organisation AFP Fact Check debunked claims that the video showed Ukrainian soldiers surrendering.

AFP exhaustively matched the video with false claims with footage of the prisoner swap shared by news outlets and other official sources. The organisation and social media users also matched the video with satellite images of a dirt road near Bakhmut, where the prisoner swap was meant to have taken place.

News organisation, Newsweek, also fact-checked the claim in July. The following month, Irish news organisation the Journal and fact-checking organisation Check Your Fact also debunked the false claim. An internet search for keywords related to the false claim quickly returns these and similar fact-checks.

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