U.S. Tries New Tack on Russian Disinformation: Pre-Empting It

An article that appeared in August on an international news outlet, Pressenza, recycled a false Russian claim that the West was looting religious relics and art from a monastery in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, one of the holiest sites in Russian Orthodoxy.

The article stands out, U.S. officials said, not because of what it claimed — but because of its source and intended audience.

State Department officials have linked the article to what they describe as a covert information operation to spread Russia propaganda in Central and South America by producing articles that appear to originate with local media organizations, not the Russian government.

The operation is nascent, but the department’s Global Engagement Center is disclosing the influence campaign in hopes of blunting its effect in a region where Russia has sought to discredit the United States and erode international support for Ukraine.

The center, which since 2017 has focused on combating propaganda and disinformation, routinely details Kremlin efforts, but identifying and trying to pre-empt a campaign when it is barely off the ground is a new tactic. It is one that reflects the realization that false narratives are harder to counter once they have already spread.

“What we’re trying to do is expose Russia’s hidden hand,” James P. Rubin, the center’s coordinator, said in an interview in which he described the Russian effort in broad outlines.

Mr. Rubin said the department was acting “based on new information” but declined to elaborate. The disclosure of the campaign recalls the Biden administration’s release of intelligence findings about Russia’s military before and after its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

It is part of an intensifying campaign for influence in parts of the world where American officials and analysts warn Russia’s hostility toward the United States and its allies has found fertile soil.

The State Department released a report last week about the activities in Brazil of an international organization, New Resistance, which embraces the views of Aleksandr Dugin, a former Soviet dissident who has become a prominent advocate of Russia’s imperial ambitions. The organization, the report said, promotes Russian disinformation, holds seminars and training courses and has supported paramilitary activities.

Aleksandr Dugin, a prominent advocate of Russia’s imperial ambitions.Credit…Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press

“Russia has exploited distrust of the United States by characterizing the latter as intent on resource extraction and endorsing economic policies poorly suited to Latin America, offering Russia as a friendly, less intrusive alternative,” said another report released last week by the United States Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan research organization the U.S. Congress founded.

The new campaign, Mr. Rubin and other officials said, involves two Russian companies and the Institute for Internet Development, an industry association a former Kremlin official leads. All have close ties with the presidential administration of Russia’s leader, Vladimir V. Putin.

The companies — the Social Design Agency, a public relations company, and Structura National Technologies, an information technology firm, both in Moscow — have been identified as sources in disinformation campaigns.

Since July, the companies and their executives have faced punitive economic sanctions in the European Union for their involvement in disinformation around the war in Ukraine. That includes the creation of a news outlet, Recent Reliable News, which produced fake articles purporting to be from actual news organizations, including The Washington Post, and promoted them extensively online.

In the current campaign, according to the State Department, the Russian companies intend to commission articles through a network of local writers and to use artificial intelligence chatbots to amplify the articles on social media. The effort aims to cultivate media contacts in countries from Mexico to Chile.

“We expect them to carry out this information manipulation campaign to surreptitiously exploit the openness of Latin America’s media and information ecosystem,” said Mr. Rubin, who took over the Global Engagement Center this year.

The Kremlin devotes significant resources to propagate its views on the war in Ukraine and to denigrate the United States and NATO, using both overt and covert means. American intelligence officials recently warned of a concerted Russian effort inside the United States to undermine political support for providing weapons to the Ukrainian military.

The Institute for Internet Development, a Russian organization led by Aleksei Goreslavsky, who previously oversaw internet policy at the Kremlin, has indicated that it planned to spend the equivalent of $32 million this year on information efforts surrounding the war, according to two other State Department officials, who under department policy spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Those officials said the new campaign was intended to “launder” Russian news and opinion through contacts already writing in Spanish, as well as in Portuguese, for online news organizations in the region.

It was not clear how extensive the campaign would be, but the targeting of so many countries suggested an ambitious one. The officials cited Pressenza and the article in August, which appeared in Spanish, French and English, as an example of the coordination that American government agencies had identified.

The author, according to the byline, was Nadia Schwarz, identified as a correspondent in the outlet’s Moscow bureau.

It echoed accusations first aired a month earlier in Russian state news agencies — and have since been rebutted — that Ukraine planned to remove relics and other valuables from the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, a complex of churches and other buildings dating to the 11th century and recognized as a world heritage site by UNESCO.

Metropolitan Epiphanius, Primate of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, leads the Christmas liturgy service at the Holy Dormition Cathedral of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra in January.Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

“The West is trying to make up, in part, for what it has spent in Ukraine,” a prominent analyst, Rostislav Ishchenko, is quoted in the article as saying. Mr. Ishchenko, who faces sanctions in Ukraine, compared the situation to the long dispute between Peru and Yale University over artifacts taken from Machu Picchu at the beginning of the 20th Century.

The officials also cited a journalist, Oleg Yasinksy, who is based in Chile and whose writings have appeared on the website RT en Español, the Spanish-language arm of the state television network. Mr. Yasinsky could not immediately be reached for comment though his account on X.

Pressenza, which is in Quito, Ecuador, and describes itself as an outlet committed to peace, human rights and nonviolence, did not respond to a written request for comment, nor did the Social Design Agency and the Institute for Internet Development.

Brian Liston, an analyst who studies Recorded Future, a cybersecurity company headquartered in Somerville, Mass., said in an interview that Russia saw information campaigns in Central and South America as a proportionate response to what it sees as American influence efforts in Eastern Europe and the Baltics.

He said it remained to be seen how effective the State Department’s effort to “prebunk” Russian propaganda would prove to be. Disputing false or misleading information in advance, he added, has worked well against specific events that can be anticipated or forecast.

“There are certain applications, I think, in which debunking the narrative is effective,” he said. “I think it’s more limited to anticipating preplanned events or things that are able to be spun up versus in real time.”

Related Articles

Back to top button