Fact Check: U.S. Spokesperson Did NOT Justify Ukrainian Strikes On Belgorod, Russia Saying It Holds 'Virtually No Civilians' -- Video Is AI Fake

Fact Check

  • by: Uliana Malashenko
Fact Check: U.S. Spokesperson Did NOT Justify Ukrainian Strikes On Belgorod, Russia Saying It Holds 'Virtually No Civilians' -- Video Is AI Fake Doctored Sound

Does a 50-second video show authentic remarks by U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller discussing "military targets" in the Russian city of Belgorod, with "virtually no civilians left" in that city? No, that's not true: The video mixes video of different briefings, during which Miller made no such remarks. The words falsely attributed to him in the video were AI-generated. The State Department labeled the video a deepfake.

The story appeared in a post (archived here) on X, formerly known as Twitter, where it was published by @Sprinterfactory on May 31, 2024. It opened:

Washington, DC.

The US State Department, represented by Matthew Miller, stated that there are no civilians in Belgorod, so everyone who is there is a legitimate military target.

Question: '[...] What do you think about other countries, 10 of which have allowed their weapons to be used to hit targets on Russian territory. Will they hit military targets?'

MM: 'We see how the situation is developing. We need to draw a clear line between what is a civilian object and what is not.

We know that there are virtually no civilians left in Belgorod, a Russian city located about 45 miles [72 km] from the Ukrainian city of Kharkov.

At the moment, it is almost full of military facilities and we are seeing the same thing begin in neighboring regions.[...]

So we're going to support our allies in whatever they decide to do, and maybe help some people who are on the fence make the right decision.'

This is what it looked like at the time of writing:

Screenshot 2024-06-03 at 9.58.40 AM.png

(Source: X screenshot taken on Mon Jun 3 13:58:40  2024 UTC)

In the video, Miller, the U.S. State Department spokesperson, appeared to be saying the following in this exchange:

REPORTER: You've already made the US position on this issue, but you haven't addressed what you think about other countries already 10 of them, allowing their weapons to strike targets deep within Russian territory. Will they have the capability to strike military targets?

MILLER: We're all witnessing the situation unfolding. We need to draw a clear line between what is a civilian object and what is not. We're aware that Belgorod a Russian city roughly 45 miles from Ukrainian Kharkov has essentially no civilians remaining. It's practically full of military targets at this point. And we are seeing the same thing starting in the regions around there. Russia needs to get the message that this is unacceptable. So we're going to back our allies in whatever they decide to do, and maybe help some of the folks who are on the fence about this make the right choice.

The setting in the video on X was consistent with what the State Department briefing room looks like, and the caption implied that it was a recent announcement.

But the video is concocted of several different events and fake audio was added that put the words about Belgorod in Miller's mouth.

The last time U.S. State Department Speaker Matthew Miller was seen wearing the same white shirt and blue tie paired with the dark blue jacket during the agency's briefing was on May 9, 2024. A Lead Stories reporter listened to that press conference in its entirety: Miller did not mention Belgorod.

At the 30:18 mark in the official recording, the same person in the same clothes as in the video on X starts to ask questions, but, contrary to the claim, the exchange had nothing to do with Russia -- it was about the Israeli military operation in Gaza:

QUESTION: I just wanted to clarify something you said at the top. I think I heard you say there are certain types of military systems that we will not make available to Israel for use in a Rafah campaign. Does the president's statement preclude delivering those weapons shipments or analogous ones to Israel for use in other areas during this timeframe?

MILLER: I am just not going to get beyond what the president said last night at this point. We've made clear what our policy is, we will engage with the government of Israel about this question and others. But as I said at the top, while we are opposed to, let's speak about this generally, while we're opposed to a major Rafah military operation, we do still support Israel's right to defend itself against other threats -- that has not changed, that will not change. The president's commitment to Israel's security is ironclad. And I should have said this earlier. So I'll make the point now. We actually think, we actually do believe that a Rafa campaign, actually, in addition to all the harm it would cause the Palestinian people, actually weekens Israel security, doesn't make it stronger. It's one of the other reasons were opposed to the campaign.

REPORTER: So and it's just a practical matter, do you assess that Israel requires the weapons in these shipments to proceed with the camp(aign)?

MILLER: I just am not going to get into the details of how they would conduct an operation at all.

REPORTER: Okay, so well, then (inaudible) granted your point that they're not concerned in these negotiations about civilian casualties, you have said before you eluded just now there is Hamas, there are military targets in Rafah. Does Hamas in these negotiations feel an incentive to release hostages in order to preserve that military infrastructure?

MILLER: We think the only thing that Hamas leadership cares about is protecting themselves. I'm kind of limited in what I can say here. But ultimately, when you look at the things that are on the table in a hostage deal, to the point of a hostage deal, the things that Hamas gets out of it are things that would benefit the civilian population of Gaza...

An advanced Google search utilizing the keywords seen here (archived here) showed that Miller mentioned Belgorod twice during the State Department's briefings, but he did not say the words the video on X claimed he did.

On February 14, 2024, the exchange was brief:

Screenshot 2024-06-03 at 1.14.56 PM.png

(Source: Department of State screenshot taken on Mon Jun 3 17:14:56  2024 UTC)

On May 22, 2023, a year before the publication of the viral clip on X, Miller did discuss the matter of Ukrainian attacks on Russian territories but his response was different from what the clip on X purported to show: At the time, the State Department's representative said that the U.S. does not encourage such strikes, though it allows Kyiv a choice on how to conduct its military operations.

Screenshot 2024-06-03 at 1.32.39 PM.png

(Source: State Department screenshot taken on Mon Jun 3 17:32:39 2024 UTC)

Lead Stories searched for a precise quote (archived here) from the purported speech but found no matches on government websites.

What was remarkable about the video on X was that Miller was seen in different clothes that he seemed to have changed in a matter of seconds while being on the podium: At the 18-second mark, he appeared wearing a different tie and shirt than at the beginning of the clip. That was a clear confirmation that the piece was misleadingly edited.

Furthermore, according to Hive Moderation, the words attributed to Miller were not a result of a simple cut changing the meaning of his answers -- the AI-detection tool indicated that the 30-second fragment that included a phrase about "virtually no civilians" remaining in Belgorod was artificially generated:

Screenshot 2024-06-03 at 10.38.57 AM.png

(Source: Hive Moderation screenshot taken on Mon Jun 3 14:38:57 2024 UTC)

On June 3, 2024, a State Department spokesperson responded to Lead Stories via email, describing the video in question as a deepfake, and the spokesperson said that it does not represent statements made by the Department's representatives nor U.S. policy.

Also, Miller directly refuted the claim, as reported by the New York Times (archived here):

The Kremlin has made spreading disinformation a core strategy for misleading people both inside Russia and beyond its borders... It's hard to think of a more convincing sign your decisions aren't working out than having to resort to outright fakes to defend them to your own people, not to mention the rest of the world.

The doctored video went into circulation on social media shortly after Politico (archived here) reported that the U.S. administration allowed Ukraine to use American-made weapons for certain strikes within Russian territories. In its response to Lead Stories on June 3, 2024, the State Department said that the changes only allow Ukraine to use U.S.-made weapons for counter-fire purposes against military targets in connection to the defense of Kharkiv and that the U.S. policy prohibiting the use of long-range missiles inside Russia has not changed.

The video of fake remarks was also posted by the Russian Embassy in South Africa account on X, but later that post was deleted.

Yet, the doctored video prompted a response (archived here) from the head of Russia's Human Rights Council, Valery Fadeyev, who referred to Miller as a "cynic from the State Department."

Nevertheless, on June 1, 2024, even Fadeyev admitted that the video was not authentic, and that was reported by TASS (archived here), one of the Russian state news agencies. As translated by Chrome, he said:

The video recording with statements by State Department official representative Matthew Miller about the absence of civilians in Belgorod, which I commented on, turned out to be fake.

Other Lead Stories fact checks related to the Russia-Ukraine war that began on February 24, 2022, can be found here.

Stories about international topics are here.

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  Uliana Malashenko

Uliana Malashenko is a New York-based freelance writer and fact checker.

Read more about or contact Uliana Malashenko

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