On June 1, the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti published a story claiming that Bogdan Vechirko, the driver of a tanker truck that drove through protesters in Minneapolis, was a former soldier in the Ukrainian army.
“Bogdan Vechirko, who rammed a crowd of rebelling Americans in Minneapolis with a truck, served in the Ukrainian Armed Forces and was an ardent fan of Donald Trump, writes Strana.ua [a pro-Russian Ukrainian media outlet].”
“According to a site for immigrants, the man (Vechirko) was born in the Vinnitsa region (of Ukraine),” the RIA article continues.
“On his Facebook page previously were photographs in a military uniform, and in his friends list there were many fighters from the airborne forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. However, in recent days, Vechirko cleaned his page of images and statuses.”
This depiction is false.
The Vechirko in the truck and the solider on social media from Ukraine are different people with the same name.
Matt Kupfer, an American news editor at Kyiv Post, helped investigate the identity of the young man seen in the Facebook images published by Strana.ua, RIA Novosti’s source for the story.
Kupfer ran four different images of the soldier’s face through a facial recognition app called Findclone. The soldier’s face matched the profiles of another man on Odnoklassniki and VK, both Russian social media networks. These two profiles had the same first name as the U.S. Vechirko but a different last name – Lipko.
"But he had a lot of friends named Vechirko, and I think that's probably a family name — maybe mother's maiden name,” Kupfer explained to Polygraph.info.
He added that both the VK and Odnoklassniki profiles went dormant after 2018, and the individual may have switched to Facebook after joining the army. (Odnoklassniki and VK were banned by the Ukrainian government in 2017, but many Ukrainian citizens continued to use them.)
Christopher Miller, another Ukraine-based journalist, also investigated the matter and came to similar conclusions. Both Miller and the Kyiv Post noted that there was a 14-year difference in age between the Bogdan Verchirko in Minneapolis and the soldier found on Facebook.
The Ukrainian military's General Staff also denied any connection between the two men.
“The information spread in the mass and social media about the participation in the incident of the alleged anti-terrorist operation participant and ex-military Bohdan Vechirka, the driver of a fuel truck that drove into a crowd of demonstrators at high speed in Minneapolis (USA) on May 31, 2020, is openly manipulative and untrue,” read the statement from the General Staff.
Interestingly, Strana.ua later included this denial and updated its story, although at the time of this writing, RIA Novosti and several other Russian media outlets who cited Strana.ua had not done the same.
“This is a case where a lot of people online got overzealous and drew conclusions that played into popular, polarizing political narratives: Russian interference in U.S. politics or Ukrainian Nazis — that kind of stuff,” Kupfer wrote to Polygraph.info.
“And it turns out there was much less to this story than they thought. Not only was Bogdan Vechirko not the Ukrainian soldier they found on Facebook, now the Minnesota authorities say they think he was not trying to hit the protesters and just didn't realize the bridge was closed,” Kupfer said.
“I think this story is a good example of how appealing circumstantial evidence can be totally wrong.”
The incident happened at a May 31 protest that was caught on news and traffic video. For reasons that aren’t clear, Vechirko was able to drive his tractor-trailer onto a section of Insterstate 35 that had been closed about 45 minutes earlier.
Video from the highway bridge shows protesters scrambling to get out of the way seconds before the tanker truck speeds towards them. The truck slows down and stops only after driving several dozen meters into the area from which protesters had scattered, although it avoided hitting anyone.
Some protesters began throwing objects at the truck, and Vechirko was dragged from the cab and beaten by a crowd of protesters. In other videos of the event, the truck’s horn can be heard as it approaches the crowd.
Vechirko was released on Tuesday from jail after being taken into police custody on suspicion of assault pending formal charges, The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported. Apart from Vechirko, no one was hurt in the incident
The Star Tribune quoted a family friend who said Vechirko was heading home at the time and did not intend to hurt any protesters. One said Vechirko came to the U.S. from “Russia” when he was four years old and had met his wife, who is now pregnant, in Minnesota. If the age is correct, however, Vechirko would have been a citizen of the Soviet Union at the time, not Ukraine or Russia. The family is reportedly struggling financially.