Ukraine Military Spox Ends Boycott of CNN Over ‘Mercenaries’ Comment

A spokesperson for Ukraine’s military forces on Thursday ended her calls for a boycott of CNN after she accused the network of endangering the lives of Kyiv’s soldiers with its coverage of the war.

Sarah Ashton-Cirillo, a transgender U.S. journalist who was last week appointed a spokesperson of the Territorial Defense Forces of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, initially released a video message on Twitter admonishing CNN.

“Over the last week CNN, led by its diplomatic editor Nic Robertson, has cast aspersions on all foreign fighters here in Ukraine—all of us who are soldiers fighting on behalf of Ukraine’s liberty and liberation and against the Russian war of aggression,” she said.

Addressing Robertson personally, Ashton-Cirillo said: “You referred to us as ‘Western mercenaries’—there’s nothing further from the truth nor further from the legal definition.”

She appeared to be referring to an article, published last Friday under Robertson’s byline, about Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The story said that last fall, MBS “had a role in the release of Western mercenaries captured by Russian forces while fighting in Ukraine.”

Following the release of Ashton-Cirillo’s video, the phrase “Western mercenaries” was changed to “foreign fighters.” A note under the edited story explained: “This story has been updated to clarify the language used to refer to fighters released from Russian captivity earlier in the war.”

“Boycott over,” Ashton-Cirillo tweeted shorted after. “@NicRobertsonCNN had the wording changed. TY @NicRobertsonCNN.”

In her original video, Ashton-Cirillo claimed to have emailed Robertson more than 24 hours before posting her video, and said that some of her colleagues “and fellow soldiers” had similarly “reached out” to him, but that all the requests had been met with “silence.” She went on to allege that referring to foreign fighters as “mercenaries” had “clearly put our lives in danger.”

She also slammed CNN for deciding to show “rotting bodies of Ukrainian soldiers in the sun for the world to see.” Ashton-Cirillo did not detail which images or footage she was talking about, though a report broadcast on Erin Burnett OutFront on Tuesday did show deceased Ukrainian troops. The segment featured Ukrainian military footage of a unit tasked with collecting the bodies of dead Ukrainian and Russian soldiers from battlefield trenches, with CNN journalist Nick Paton Walsh saying in a voiceover at one point: “This Ukrainian body seeming to have almost melted into the ground.” A section of the report was later circulated by pro-Russian propaganda accounts on Telegram.

“I have to recommend that nobody in the Armed Forces of Ukraine works with CNN in any capacity until we’ve received an apology directly from you Nic, as well as from the CNN production team on the ground here,” Ashton-Cirillo said. “Ultimately, we cannot have our lives at risk despite your desire to have clicks and views. Free press matters—ethical journalism matters more.”

A CNN spokesperson declined to comment on the record when contacted by The Daily Beast.

Exactly how Ashton-Cirillo believed lives were endangered by CNN is not explained. With respect to the complaint about referring to foreign volunteers in Ukraine as “mercenaries,” the Geneva Conventions describe a mercenary as someone who participates “directly” in hostilities “essentially by the desire for private gain.” Mercenaries are also specifically described as not being a national of any party involved in the conflict, and not being sent by a state which isn’t party to the conflict on an official duty as a member of the state’s armed forces.

It was also unclear whether Ashton-Cirillo’s call for a boycott was ever going to actually be enacted by the Ukrainian Armed Forces. According to Newsweek, she arrived in Ukraine in March 2022 and initially worked as a journalist—with USA Today calling her “the world’s first openly transgender war correspondent.” She later enlisted in Ukraine’s military, currently serving as a junior sergeant and combat medic with the Ukrainian Ground Forces, according to a Kyiv Post tweet.

In October 2022, Ashton-Cirillo was criticized for recording a video following a Russian missile strike on Kyiv in which a dead body was visible in the background. In February this year, she was hurt by shrapnel from an artillery shell, suffering injuries to her right hand and face, according to the Washington Blade.

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