Monday, April 15, 2024

Kremlin runs covert disinformation campaign to undermine Zelensky

When news first emerged last month that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was preparing to fire his top military commander, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, officials in Moscow seemed jubilant. They had been trying to orchestrate just such a split for many months, documents show.

“We need to strengthen the conflict between Zaluzhny and Zelensky, along the lines of ‘he intends to fire him,’” one Kremlin political strategist wrote a year ago, after a meeting of senior Russian officials and Moscow spin doctors, according to internal Kremlin documents.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s administration ordered a group of Russian political strategists to use social media and fake news articles to push the theme that Zelensky “is hysterical and weak. … He fears that he will be pushed aside, therefore he is getting rid of the dangerous ones.”

The Kremlin instruction resulted in thousands of social media posts and hundreds of fabricated articles, created by troll farms and circulated in Ukraine and across Europe, that tried to exploit what were then rumored tensions between the two Ukrainian leaders, according to a trove of Kremlin documents obtained by a European intelligence service and reviewed by The Washington Post. The files, numbering more than 100 documents, were shared with The Post to expose for the first time the scale of Kremlin propaganda targeting Zelensky with the aim of dividing and destabilizing Ukrainian society — efforts that Moscow dubbed “information psychological operations.”

Ukrainian society, however, has so far remained remarkably united since Russia’s invasion, according to opinion polls, and officials in Moscow, the documents show, sometimes expressed frustration at their inability to undermine Zelensky and foment division. One of them complained in one exchange that the Ukrainian president was like Brad Pitt, a global star with an image that couldn’t be sullied.

But with Gen. Zaluzhny now out, the front lines frozen and further military and financial support from the United States uncertain, some in Kyiv are concerned that Russia’s covert propaganda efforts could begin to erode national cohesion and morale.

“The most difficult times are ahead,” said one senior European security official who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. “Russia survived and they are preparing a new campaign which consists of three main directions: first, pressure on the front line; second, attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure; and thirdly, this destabilization campaign.”

Moscow’s four key objectives

The documents show how in January 2023 the Kremlin’s first deputy chief of staff, Sergei Kiriyenko, tasked a team of officials and political strategists with establishing a presence on Ukrainian social media to distribute disinformation.

The effort built on an earlier project that Kiriyenko, a longtime Putin aide, had been running to subvert Western support for Ukraine, including in France and Germany, previous reporting by The Post shows. The European propaganda group was overseen by one of Kiriyenko’s deputies, Tatyana Matveeva, head of the Kremlin’s department for developing information and communication technologies, the documents show.

By the end of 2022, after Ukraine pushed back Russian forces in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions and officials in Kyiv began to talk of a major spring counteroffensive in the east and south, Kiriyenko put together a second team focused on destabilizing Ukraine itself, the documents show. That effort was headed by one of his closest deputies, Alexander Kharichev, a bureaucrat known in some Moscow circles as the “fixer” or “election handler” because he ensures that domestic elections go the Kremlin’s way.

At a Jan. 16, 2023, meeting, Kiriyenko laid out four key objectives for the Ukraine propaganda team: discrediting Kyiv’s military and political leadership, splitting the Ukrainian elite, demoralizing Ukrainian troops and disorienting the Ukrainian population, the documents show.

The team’s success was to be measured according to key indicators: They were to “lower the ratings of key personnel in Zelensky’s office, the Ukrainian government, and the command of Ukraine’s armed forces,” and increase the belief among the Ukrainian population that the country’s elite was working only for itself. “A growth in the number of government dismissals and public conflicts” would also be a sign of achievement. To increase fear and anxiety, Ukrainian war losses were to be exaggerated, the documents state.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Kharichev and Matveeva did not respond to detailed requests for comment on the contents of the documents.

The documents show that progress was monitored at near-weekly Kremlin meetings, where the strategists gave dashboard presentations showcasing the most widely read posts they’d planted in Ukrainian social media and tallying the overall distribution of their output. They also ran weekly opinion polls on the level of trust in Zelensky and the country’s military leadership.

Among the material they highlighted was a fabricated Facebook post claiming that the family of a fallen soldier had not received any help from the state, which garnered more than 2 million views, according to one of the dashboard presentations. According to another, a top post for the goal of disorienting the population was a fake video on Telegram claiming that the main war aim of authorities in Kyiv was “to fight to the last Ukrainian.”

By early March, dozens of hired trolls were pumping out more than 1,300 texts and 37,000 comments on Ukrainian social media each week, according to one of the dashboard presentations. Records show that employees at troll farms earned 60,000 rubles a month, or $660, for writing 100 comments a day.

Most of the strategists’ reports to their political masters focused on the volume of content produced and total views, but for the first five months, they offered little in the way of evidence that the effort was having any impact on Ukrainians. The Kremlin-conducted polls showed that trust in Zelensky remained consistently high, with 68 to 73.3 percent of Ukrainians trusting the president from February to June.

By August, however, the Kremlin polls showed this measure falling to 65.4 percent. It is impossible to gauge the accuracy of these polls, and it’s unclear how the Russians are conducting them in Ukraine.

A poll by the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center in July showed trust in Zelensky at 81 percent. The most recent poll published by the center, on Feb. 8, showed trust in Zelensky had dropped to 69 percent.

The strategists were aware of the difficulty of their task. “At the current moment, we are having to enter Ukraine’s media landscape practically from zero,” one report in April said. “The pro-Russian segment has been completely purged from the mass media and social networks.”

The strategists advised developing “a network of Telegram channels in combination with Twitter and Facebook/Instagram” as the most effective way of penetrating Ukraine’s media space, noting that the Telegram audience in Ukraine had grown 600 percent over the previous year. After the invasion, Zelensky’s government had created a single source of television news, but Ukrainians had drifted away from the programming, saying Ukraine’s military struggles were not sufficiently reported or discussed.

“Telegram became the most important source of news, even more important than mainstream media,” the senior European security official said. “It’s impossible to block it.”

The Moscow strategists emphasized the need to avoid blatant pro-Russian propaganda to build trust with the audience. “It’s clear that we can’t fly with our old resources,” one of the strategists wrote on April 5 after a Kremlin meeting.

By the first week of May, a post the Kremlin strategists had planted on Facebook, saying that “Valery Zaluzhny can become the next president of Ukraine,” had garnered 4.3 million views, one of the dashboard presentations shows. The Kremlin then issued orders to create similar posts or “additional reality” — a term used by Russian officials for fake news — including reports that Western leaders were looking for a replacement for Zelensky and that Zaluzhny intended to halt the counteroffensive.

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, said in a statement referring to the Russian posts about Zaluzhny and the alleged lack of state aid for the fallen soldier that it had been “monitoring and blocking accounts, Pages and websites run by this campaign” since 2022, “including these two Pages that were quickly detected and disabled by our security team.”

Undeterred, the strategists planted a plethora of articles in Ukraine via social media, with one in May headlined “Zelensky is holding on to the throne. In Ukraine democracy is being liquidated,” the documents show. Another in June sought to play up what it claimed was the prolonged disappearance of Zaluzhny from public view, with bloggers instructed to post comments declaring: “This is why Zaluzhny disappeared: Because he could have and should have taken Zelensky’s place.”

The strategists also sought to exploit Kiriyenko’s campaign in Western Europe by recycling its disinformation for use in Ukraine. The tactics in the European campaign included cloning and usurping media and government websites, such as those for Le Monde and the French Foreign Ministry, and then posting fake content on them denigrating the Ukrainian government, in an operation dubbed Doppelgänger by European Union officials. They also included creating fake accounts on X, or Twitter, for prominent figures including German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. The strategists sought to place stories or posts from those websites or accounts on Ukrainian social media as genuine European reporting or commentary.

After the fake Baerbock account declared in September that “the war in Ukraine will be over in 3 months,” the German authorities launched an investigation and found more than 50,000 fake user accounts coordinating pro-Russian propaganda, including those promoting the tweet. Officials believe the fake accounts were an extension of the Doppelgänger campaign, Der Spiegel reported.

The Doppelgänger operation was first exposed by Meta in December 2022 and then by French authorities last summer and tied to Reliable Recent News, a fake news site traced back to two Russian companies, the Social Design Agency and Structura National Technologies. The Kremlin documents show that the heads of Social Design Agency and Structura — Ilya Gambashidze and Nikolai Tupikin — worked directly with Kiriyenko and another Kremlin official, Sofiya Zakharova, who coordinated efforts in Europe and Ukraine. “She is the brain,” a European security official said.

The E.U. imposed sanctions in July on Gambashidze, Structura National Technologies and Social Design Agency for what it said was their role in creating fake webpages and social media accounts “usurping the identity of national media outlets and government websites” as part of “a hybrid campaign by Russia against the EU and member states.” Gambashidze and Tupikin were named by the U.S. State Department in November for their role in Kremlin efforts to spread disinformation in Latin America

Zakharova, Gambashidze and Tupikin did not respond to detailed requests for comment on the contents of the documents.

Gambashidze, Tupikin and their colleagues proposed narratives they hoped would destroy Zelensky’s image in the West as “the hero of a small country fighting a global evil,” one of the documents sent in April shows. They suggested portraying Zelensky as an actor only capable of following a script written for him by the United States and NATO, and his Western backers as tiring of him. They proposed distributing fake Ukrainian government documents as evidence of corrupt military procurement schemes, and suggesting that Zelensky and his family had Western bank accounts, the document shows.

The plans led to hundreds of articles and thousands of social media posts translated into French, German and English that targeted Zelensky, the document trove shows.

One article, for a French audience, was headlined: “The conductor has gotten bored of Zelensky’s concerts: the actions of the U.S. in Ukraine lead one to believe that Washington soon intends to get rid of Zelensky, without discussing this with Paris.”

On the basis of this article, one of the strategists ordered a troll farm employee to prepare social media posts in French saying, “Washington will replace Zelensky with a more capable president. And France will have to silently continue arming and financing Ukraine.”

Another article described how Zelensky had pushed for Ukrainian forces to defend Bakhmut against Zaluzhny’s wishes, leading, it said, to the deaths of 250,000 Ukrainian troops, a wildly exaggerated death toll in what was nonetheless a brutal battle for the city. The troll farm employees were asked to write comments such as “Why do Ukrainian generals hate Zelensky? PR out of the blood of fighters” and “To shoot the exhausted president? In Ukraine, a generals’ conspiracy is brewing.”

One of the strategists’ aims, European security officials said, was to ensure that the themes placed in European social media filtered back into Ukraine, through reposts and amplification, or by being picked up by Ukrainian politicians keen to boost their profiles with provocative posts.

“They look for weak spots. … They use what they create themselves and whatever is lying under their feet,” a second European security officials said. “Everything is aimed at demoralizing people.”

The strategists also had price lists for planting pro-Russian commentary in prominent Western media and for paying social media “influencers” in the United States and Europe “willing to work with Russian clients.” The documents say the Russians were willing to pay up to $39,000 for the planting of pro-Russian commentary in major media outlets in the West.

“Practically everywhere this will be columnists, leaders of public opinion, former diplomats, officials, professors and so on,” a note attached to the price list states. It is unclear from the documents whether the Kremlin was able to get material into Western publications or whether anyone was paid.

But the Kremlin political strategists were not above lining their own pockets in the process: “I added 20 percent,” one of them wrote to a colleague.

As winter descended on Kyiv, a number of deepfake videos portraying Zaluzhny calling Zelensky an enemy of the people and calling for a coup began to appear. The videos were quickly denounced as fake and did not have any real impact in Ukraine. But the senior European security official said he worried the Kremlin was only testing the ground for future deepfakes.

“It’s very expensive, but it can work,” he said. “In the proper time, it can be used.”

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