Unmasking the Russian propaganda machine

Holger Roonemaa
, ajakirjanik
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Photo: Pm

Threads that began in Estonia led to the discovery of a Kremlin-led propaganda network that used anonymous companies all over Europe to fund propaganda sites in the Baltics and Eastern Europe. The content of Estonian sites was managed by employees of Rossiya Segodnya (RS) straight from Moscow.

This is the conclusion of a joint investigation by Postimees, BuzzFeed News, Latvian investigative journalism center Re:Baltica, Lithuanian news portal 15min.lt and the Serbian Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK).

Contracts, reports, accounts and logs of Skype conversations at Postimees’ disposal show how almost every move of the seemingly independent Baltnews website was curated directly from Moscow. The Estonian Internal Security Service has named Baltnews, run by one of the local leaders of Russia’s compatriots policy in Estonia, Aleksandr Kornilov, as one of the primary publishers of pro-Kremlin propaganda in Estonia.

On October 2, 2014, Delfi published an article on a news portal to be opened in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania called Baltnews that would be aimed at the Russian population. A Russian citizen living in Estonia, Kornilov, stepped up as Baltnews’ representative and said that every country’s desk will have its own head and that the portal will be entertaining – apolitical.

Immediately after the Delfi article was published, Kornilov – a frequent character in security police yearbooks and an Estonian member of the Russian Compatriots Coordination Council – and editor-in-chief of Baltnews Yevgeni Levik discussed, over Skype, how best to respond to inquiries by journalists.

Levik: “Our official position is this: we are developing an interactive media project with our partners?”

The conversation moved on to how to react when more specific information is requested about Dutch investors.

Kornilov: “Perhaps they will want a company name? I’m sure a lot of people would be happy. And all of our contacts? And that we’d prepare a business plan?

Levik: “When they ask me about the Dutch, I will say they are private individuals and that the conditions of the business project are confidential. I’m the editor-in-chief and talk directly to their representatives in Estonia. Right?

Kornilov: Yes. You only respond to things that are your responsibility. They are not private individuals to be accurate, it’s an investment fund.”

Levik refused to comment over the phone.

“It is history from four years ago. I was an ordinary journalist,” he said.

Levik then demanded to be sent sections of the article that concerned his person.

“I warn you that it is your duty,” he said. “And then I will tell you whether you can publish this or not.” However, Levik did not share with Postimees an email address where the sections could be sent.

The Baltnews domains of the three Baltic countries were registered from Kornilov to Dutch company Media Capital Holding B.V. just a few days after the Delfi article and the Skype conversation. The company is not a project of Dutch businessmen but is instead owned by Rossiya Segodnya through two Russian intermediaries.

Rossiya Segodnya is a Russian state media holding company that owns, among other things, the RIA news agency and online portals and radio stations network Sputnik. The latter, present in more than 30 countries worldwide, is considered to be among the largest Russian propaganda networks the activities of which have been restricted or even banned by several countries.

A contract at Postimees’ disposal shows how Media Capital Holding paid Kornilov’s nonprofit Altmedia €91,400 to launch Baltnews. The object of the contract, signed on August 18, 2014, was “creation and dissemination of media projects in Estonia and the Baltic countries”. The document, signed simultaneously in English and Russian, ordered the Dutch company to pay Altmedia in five monthly installments ranging from €14,200 to €23,500.

Aleksandr Kornilov refused to comment, saying that he is no longer interested in the matter as Baltnews is history for him.

Kornilov’s primary contact at the Russian headquarters of Rossiya Segodnya was Aleksandr Svyazin with whom he exchanged thousands of messages over two years. Svyazin started demanding reports on the website’s traffic and a list of next week’s events from Kornilov a mere month after Baltnews was launched.

“Aleksandr, we ask you to send us information on upcoming events. Is that possible? Send it on Sunday or Monday,” Svyazin wrote to Kornilov on November 10.

Kornilov: “Previews of what?”

Svyazin: “More important upcoming events. For next week.”

Kornilov: “I don’t know what you mean.”

Svyazin: “Look, government sitting on Tuesday, government resigns on Wednesday, Obama’s visit on Thursday and whatever is happening on Friday…”

Kornilov: “I have nowhere to get these kinds of news.”

Svyazin: “It was an example. Send what you have.”

Svyazin was far more exacting nine days later. “Aleksandr, we urgently need information on next week’s events. It will be too late an hour from now,” he wrote.

A month later, on December 18, Svyazin gave Kornilov a clear task. “We have been told to publish five studies on Europe ordered by the flagship (RIA Novosti – H. R.). The materials need to be published with thorough comments by experts. I will soon send you the materials.”

The opinion polls concerned EU and U.S. relations and sanctions against Russia.

The first was published under the headline “Most Europeans do not believe in the European Union’s independence concerning Russian sanctions”. The news story claims that Europeans believe the union was pressured into imposing sanctions by the United States.

The second story aimed for the same target: “Dissatisfaction with U.S. dependence growing in Europe.”

And the third: “More than a third of Europeans against Russian sanctions.”

Kornilov was told what to cover on other occasions. Svyazin sent him another RIA Novosti poll in February and didn’t even have to say it needs to be published on Baltnews.

The story was published a short while later: “Most Americans do not consider the police to be a provider of security”. The headline’s claim is wrong as the study in question asked Americans what or who they consider the main provider of security. 46 percent of people questioned said it was the police. (For example, 21 percent said it was the second amendment, or the right to bear arms.) Because the poll asked for the primary provider, the conclusion that the remaining 54 percent do not trust the police cannot be drawn.

When Postimees contacted Svyazin through Facebook, he claimed he has had nothing to do with Baltnews or Sputnik. Svyazin went silent after he was shown a screenshot of a Skype conversation where his username and profile picture are clearly visible. Svyazin’s name pops up as that of a coauthor on Sputnik sites of different countries that have published his stories.

The nearly €100,000 contract Altmedia had with Media Capital Holding only lasted until the end of 2014, during the time of preparations for Baltnews’ launch and for two months after that. Documents in Postimees’ possession show that from 2015 Altmedia started receiving monthly payments from a company registered in Cyprus called Barsolina Ventures Ltd., with the contract taken over in the middle of the year by Serbian venture SPN Media Solutions DOO Belgrad.

Barsolina Ventures is owned by another Cypriot company Largos World Ltd. which is in turn owned by private individual Antrea Koyntoyphi. From there, the trail goes cold.

SPN Media Solutions is registered to law firm Stanisic that is working out of a fancy office building in downtown Belgrade. The Serbian business register suggests the company is owned by Russian company OOO Media Kapital. The latter is in turn owned by Rossiya Segodnya through another intermediary. Passport copies of directors of SPN Media Solutions Tatyana Snegova and Yevgeni Zhestyannikov reveal they are both Russian citizens.

Both Barsolina and SPN Media paid Altmedia €11,400 monthly. The money was paid out based on monthly reports Kornilov was tasked with presenting. The reports listed published articles by headlines and by clicks in some months. Altmedia signed a new contract with one of the companies every three months based on the text of the original contract with the Dutch company. Even a typo in the address of Altmedia’s Tallinn office was carried over from one contract to another. The contract read “Kolpi street” instead of “Kopli street”.

What did change were things expected of Kornilov that were laid down in addendums. For example, he was required to publish no fewer than 70 and no more than 500 news stories of 10-100 words a month. Also, 10-50 monthly analyses, essays or features, with comments from at least two experts in each. The range of topics had to interest a broader audience in the Baltic countries. Altmedia was also expected to establish direct contacts with sources and raise awareness of the Baltnews brand.

Altmedia’s tasks included “creating contacts with the media and the community of experts who influence political and economic decision-making processes and urging them to cooperate” and Baltnews stories had to be different from the “mainstream approach” of foreign media.

Postimees found that companies that funded Baltnews in Estonia are tied to organizing the work of pro-Kremlin propaganda publications in several other countries.

NPO Eurasian Media Laboratory, founded by editor-in-chief of Baltnews in Lithuania, Anatoly Ivanov, has received half a million euros from Barsolina Ventures over a period of three years: €163,000 in 2015 and 2016 and even a little more last year. Clarification for the donations in the nonprofit’s reports is “web portal services”.

Asked what the money was used for specifically, Ivanov grew angry and refused to answer. “Young man, I don’t think you heard me. I’m busy, I have people in my office. You can ask whatever you want. If you cannot understand Russian, I can tell you the same thing in Lithuanian,” he said and switched to a different language. “I have people sitting in my office, and I do not want to waste my time [on you].”

When the question concerning the origin and purpose of €500,000 was repeated, Ivanov sighed and hung up.

Documents at Postimees’ disposal include at least one monthly report to Barsolina Ventures from Baltnews in Latvia. A report like the ones based on which organizations that ran Baltnews were paid on a monthly basis. The Latvian business register reveals that the annual turnover of baltnews.lv was at least €100,000 – the website did not have visible advertising, nor does it offer paid digital subscription.

That the same financing scheme worked in Latvia is also confirmed by a Skype conversation between Kornilov and Svyazin. Svyazin used Skype to forward first drafts of new contracts that in one case included conditions concerning Latvian. Kornilov quickly pointed it out to him.

Latvian counterintelligence service DP told Postimees that as far as they know Baltnews in Latvia was funded from Russia using companies registered in third countries. “Our information suggests that money from Russia was the main source of income for baltnews.lv,” said Deputy Director of DP Eriks Cinkus.

The background of Serbian company SPN Media Solutions is even more interesting. The company, established three years ago, has had an annual sales revenue of €3.5 million. All of it from “activities in other countries”. Its annual reports do not show the company having any employees. Ukrainian court documents show it has secretly funded the branch of RIA Novosti in the country.

Ukrainian special service SBU arrested the editor-in-chief of the local RIA Novosti office Kirill Vyshinski and charged him with treason in May of this year. SBU accuses Ukrainian citizen Vyshinski of participating in information warfare against Ukraine on the Russian side and that the agency published 16 articles under his leadership “the aim of which was to split and spread dissent in society and disseminate ethnic hatred”.

Whereas, it is claimed SPN Media Solutions played an important role in funding RIA Novosti in Ukraine. A seizure of property order from the Ukrainian court documents register helped SBU discover that SPN Media Solutions transferred €53,000 a month to intermediaries in Ukraine that transferred the money to RIA Novosti.

Postimees did not manage to contact Tatyana Snegova or Yevgeni Zhestyannikov. The company is registered to the address of law firm Stanisic in Belgrade and the name of Tatyana Stanisic shows up in its articles of association. After three visits to the office and several emails, Stanisic said that she is not at liberty to talk about the activities of SPN Media Solutions. “What stops me is the advocate’s code of ethics and attorney-client privilege” she said in a written response.

Back to Estonia. In addition to financing, several Rossiya Segodnya employees were increasingly exacting in terms of what Kornilov had to cover and how.

The morning of June 19, 2015.

A conversation between Svyazin and Kornilov.

Svyazin: “San, please respond.”

Svyazin: “Aleksandr, please give us a sign!”

“Here,” Kornilov eventually responds.

Svyazin: “San, hello! I have a task.”

Svyazin: “You need to cover three of the five topics we’re about to give you every day.”

Svyazin proceeded to give Kornilov the list of the first five topics. They included further sanctions for Russia, asking for comments on the fate of Greece and the possibility of it leaving the Eurozone, but also Vladimir Putin’s private meetings during the St. Petersburg economic forum.

Kornilov had no choice but to answer laconically: UNDERSTOOD.

By early July, Kornilov couldn’t even choose which three topics of the total five to use. Some of the topics that were still being sent to him in Skype now had the comment “mandatory” added. The latter often included those that showed tensions in the EU or USA: for example, the Greek financial crisis and the refugee crisis. Other mandatory topics concerned the conflict in Ukraine and rebel-held areas backed by Russia.

In addition to Svyazin, orders also came from Liana Minasyan, Yasna Nagdaliyeva and Dmitri Lanin. Minasyan is an employee of Rossiya Segodnya known to the Estonian internal security service as the person responsible for publishing Sputnik in the Baltics. Dmitri Lanin has been to Tallinn to recruit journalists for Sputnik in Estonia – as reported by Eesti Ekspress in 2015.

Minasyan denied any connection to Baltnews as recently as a year ago but told Re:Baltica that she is responsible for Sputnik in the Baltic states. Now, when asked new questions, Minasyan said that she no longer works with Baltnews and has nothing to do with the Baltic countries. “If you’d like, I can forward your questions to a former colleague,” she said but did not react again.

Mandatory topics became a daily routine. One time, Svyazin sent Kornilov a list of daily topics for propaganda networks in 11 countries. In addition to the Baltics, Svyazin’s letter also included topics for Sputnik in Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Georgia, Ossetia, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. Estonia was on the list twice: topics for Baltnews and Sputnik were separate.

An analysis carried out by Postimees showed that the Sputniks of those countries did run the prescribed topics that very day. Sputnik in Kyrgyzstan published a piece on one of the most influential businessmen in the country, Sharshenbek Abdykerimov, who secretly owned a luxury apartment in London’s highest skyscraper at the time The Tower. Sputnik in Georgia was ordered to write about the fashion sense of the country’s female politicians. The publication did an exemplary job as the piece included examples and photographs.

In Moldova, they had to write about the leu’s dependence on the ruble and the price of oil. This spawned a story headlined: “Our leu’s diagnosis: breaking out of one dependence leads straight into another”. Postimees could not find stories on the provided topics in the Sputniks of just two countries that day.

Logs of Skype conversations show that while Baltnews was paid from Moscow on a monthly basis and given daily work orders for which Kornilov had to present a detailed monthly report on articles and traffic, Kornilov manipulated the site’s ratings. Kornilov and his assistant and friend Aleksandr Dorofeyev bought clicks to paint Baltnews’ viewer figures in a false light.

Dorofeyev approached the first such service provider back when the site was opened in October 2014.

“I’m thinking of trying 2,000 [clicks] for starters and taking 14,000 rubles worth if everything checks out. Will these visits be distributed evenly throughout the day? If I order 100,000, you will spread them out over the entire month?” he asked a conversation partner in Skype known as “Site promotion”.

The test run succeeded and the business continued. Dorofeyev was told that ordering one million views would cost 10,990 rubles – around €150. Dorofeyev placed several orders in months following the Skype conversation. He announced in March of 2015 that he wants to pursue long-term cooperation and place one or two orders every week.

Most such orders had to be placed over email or using a special website, while Dorofeyev also placed orders over Skype. For example, he ordered 20,000 clicks distributed over five days and four articles on February 18, 2016. A single click’s duration was to be set at 90-120 seconds per article. One of the stories for which clicks were procured was titled: “NATO aid might not reach Estonia in time”. Another was an interview with founder and then chairman of the People’s Unity Party Kristiina Ojuland who promised to fight refugees coming to Estonia.

During a phone call with Postimees, Dorofeyev denied having paid for clicks and said that he only worked at Baltnews as an editor. “I wrote and published stories I believed were important and interesting,” he said. The journalist claimed that no one told him what he must cover.

When told about the Skype logs that prove his participation in procuring viewer figures, Dorofeyev said it means nothing. “I can have a ticket to the moon, but it does not prove I’ve been there.”

Even though the most recent documents available to Postimees are from the middle of 2016, public information shows the same financing scheme continued until at least the end of 2017. Kornilov, who had become a person of interest for the tax board and the police, probably switched nonprofits that had contracts with anonymous companies in 2016. Instead of Altmedia, nonprofit Baltnewsmedia became the new publisher of Baltnews.

The organization earned a total of €136,800 in donations and support in 2016. This comes to exactly €11,400 a month which is the same sum paid to propaganda channels from Russia based on earlier contracts. Baltnewsmedia’s turnover grew to €155,508 last year.

Baltnews of all three Baltic countries published a laconic message on June 1 this year, according to which the site’s publisher has changed and a new editorial team will be put together soon. Kornilov announced on Facebook on the same day that his team’s ties with Baltnews have ended. “Thank you everyone who were with us during those four years,” he wrote.

Four days later, Kornilov cut a deal with the Estonian prosecution. Charged with falsifying documents, Kornilov managed to avoid a criminal punishment but NPO Altmedia was punished as a legal person. The ruling clearly states that Kornilov played an instrumental role in evading taxes and falsifying relevant documents.

Baltnews will continue to be published in all three countries after new editorial teams are assembled.