An American woman serving as an official spokesperson for Ukraine’s military has been suspended after a Republican U.S. lawmaker raised concerns about her “threat of violence” against Russian propagandists.
Sarah Ashton-Cirillo, the English-language spokesperson for Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces, was suspended Wednesday over public statements “that were not approved by the command,” the TDF said in a statement.
“The command of the TDF will conduct an official investigation into the circumstances of these statements,” the statement said, without specifying which statements landed Ashton-Cirillo in hot water.
Days earlier, however, she sparked an uproar among pro-Russian figures on social media with a dramatic video in which she vowed that Russian propagandists would be “hunted down” and “justice served.” Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH), who has called for an end to further aid for Ukraine, cited the video in a letter to top U.S. officials asking if Ashton-Cirillo was being paid with “American resources.”
“I worry American resources could be supporting violence or the threat of violence against people for speaking their mind,” Vance wrote, also floating the bizarre claim that Ashton-Cirillo might be a “former intelligence operative.”
Along with right-wing figures in the U.S., the video also sparked a hysterical reaction in Russia’s state-controlled media, which has obsessively mocked Ashton-Cirillo for being transgender.
Some critics in Ukraine took issue with her role as spokesperson for an entirely different reason, however.
Before enlisting in Ukraine’s Armed Forces, she worked as a freelance journalist covering the war against the country, sharing the aftermath of missile attacks and mortar shelling in videos posted on Twitter and YouTube. One of those videos, shot against the backdrop of the bloody body of a man who’d just been killed in a missile strike on Kyiv, sparked backlash among Ukrainians who accused Ashton-Cirillo of exploiting war deaths for online clicks.
“She gained notoriety for posting selfies and videos against the backdrop of Ukrainians who had just been killed. It’s unbelievable she even got that job,” Alona Shevchenko, the co-founder of a group working to raise cryptocurrency funds for Ukraine, wrote on X. “The way she behaves is extremely disrespectful towards Ukrainians and she certainly shouldn’t represent our Armed Forces in any capacity.”
Others said they’d rather have a Ukrainian representing the country’s Armed Forces, or at least someone with a longer history in Ukraine.
“I’m allowed to not want someone who came to Ukraine in 2022 to represent the armed forces. I’m allowed to want someone who fought from 2014 to do it. Someone Ukrainian who isn’t popularizing messages Ukrainians don’t agree with,” the host of the Ukraine War Brief podcast, who goes by Yewleea, wrote on X.
Ukraine’s former Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar, who was fired earlier this week, had praised Ashton-Cirillo’s work in reaching a “large American audience” last month. When she was tapped for the role of spokesperson in June, a military representative said the goal was to get “truthful information” about the war to people in Europe and the U.S. in order to counter Russian propaganda.
In a video message posted on X, Ashton-Cirillo confirmed she had been suspended and said she trusted Ukrainian authorities to conduct a “full and fair investigation,” the results of which she vowed to respect.
Hitting back at Kremlin propaganda, she said: “I’m not in jail. I’m not under house arrest. I haven’t been diagnosed with any chronic or life-threatening illnesses. And ultimately, yes, I’m still in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.”