Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelensky becomes target of luxury yacht hoax

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has become a renewed target for misinformation after online posts viewed tens of thousands of times baselessly claimed he purchased two luxury yachts in October 2023. The false posts cited fabricated documents that have since been disowned by the yachting association they cited. As of January 18, 2024, the yachts were still for sale, their brokers told AFP.

A wave of pro-Kremlin disinformation -- much of which has targeted Zelensky -- has flooded the internet since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

The latest major hoax about the Ukrainian leader cited fabricated documents that falsely purported to show he bought two luxury yachts.

It emerged in late November last year on US social media accounts, most notably on the Facebook page for "Redacted", a US-based online show hosted by Natali Morris and her husband Clayton Morris, a former "Fox & Friends" personality.

The baseless claim subsequently spread on Korean social media, including in this Korean-language YouTube video on November 28, 2023 that has been viewed more than 14,000 times. 

A Korean speaker -- heard narrating over MSNBC footage of Zelenksy addressing the US Congress in December 2022 -- alleges the Ukrainian president "secretly purchased two luxury yachts" using close aides as proxies, citing Redacted as his source.

He goes on to say that Zelensky acquired one yacht, "My Legacy" after it was purchased in the name of Sergiy Shefir -- a Ukrainian politician and close aide of the president -- for $49.75 million on October 25, 2023.

He says Zelensky acquired a second yacht "Lucky Me" after it was purchased for $24.90 million by Sergiy's brother Boris.

"It's revealed that Zelensky, who has completely destroyed the country and is facing defeat, is preparing to flee overseas," the speaker says.

The clip then cuts to screenshots appearing to show purchase records for the yachts. They are labelled: "Memorandum of Agreement Approved by The Mediterranean Yacht Brokers Association", as shown in the screenshot below:

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Screenshot of the YouTube video taken on January 17, 2024

Following the revelations in the so-called Pandora Papers obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Zelensky was reported in 2021 to have used a network of offshore companies to buy upmarket properties in London before transferring his stake in one of the companies to Sergiy Shefir shortly ahead of his election as president in 2019 (archived link).

However, according to the BBC, the Ukrainian President's Office has refuted the latest yacht purchase allegation, saying that Zelensky and his family members "do not and did not have any yachts" (archived link).

Redacted's video appears to have been removed from its YouTube channel but has surfaced on other platforms including BitChute and TikTok. The episode's transcript has also been shared online.

Similar posts baselessly claiming Zelensky purchased two luxury yachts have also spread in other Korean-language posts on social media site X; Naver Blog; and DC Inside.

'Obviously modified'

A closer analysis of the alleged purchase records for the yachts -- which cite "The Mediterranean Yacht Brokers Association" -- found they were fabricated.

The France-based firm has since been rebranded "MYBA The Worldwide Yachting Association" as reflected here in a 2008 entry on the French government's corporate registry website (archived link).

AFP found the firm's logo on the fabricated documents was also old and had not been used on the MYBA's archived pages since 2014

"Our current logo dates from 2021," Jane Adlington-Brumer, MYBA's general secretary, told AFP on January 15. The documents in the false posts "have obviously been modified", she added.

Below is a screenshot comparison of a purported document shared in the false posts (left) and MYBA's official website displaying its current name and logo (right):

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Screenshot comparison of the alleged sales document (left) and MYBA's official website displaying its current name and logo (right)

AFP found the fabricated documents resemble an old purchase agreement template published on the MYBA's website. Adlington-Brumer said the template was "no longer endorsed by MYBA".

Unsold yachts

Luxury yacht brokers separately told AFP that "My Legacy" and "Lucky Me" had not been sold, contrary to the claim in the social media posts. 

"'My Legacy' is still for sale with Burgess as the sole central agency for the listing. The yacht has not been sold," Burgess company spokesperson Nicci Perides said on January 8.

A representative for BehneMar, the firm listing the "Lucky Me" yacht, separately told AFP on January 10 the posts are "totally wrong and false".

"The yacht has not been sold and is still for sale with BehneMar as the exclusive listing company," the representative said. 

Both "My Legacy" and "Lucky Me" remained listed for sale on the respective websites of Burgess and BehneMar as of January 19 (archived links here and here).

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