An article appearing in the international news agency Pressenza in August seized on a false Russian claim that the West was looting religious relics and art from a monastery in the Ukrainian capital Kiev, one of Russian Orthodoxy’s holiest sites.
U.S. officials said the article stands out not because of its claims but because of its source and audience.
State Department officials have linked the article to a covert information operation to spread Russian propaganda in Central and South America by producing articles that appeared to come from local media organizations rather than the Russian government.
The operation is nascent, but the department’s Global Engagement Center is exposing the influence campaign in hopes of blunting its impact in a region where Russia has sought to discredit the United States and undermine international support for Ukraine .
The center, which has focused on combating propaganda and disinformation since 2017, routinely reports on the Kremlin’s efforts, but identifying and preempting a campaign when it has barely gotten off the ground is a new tactic. This reflects the recognition that false narratives are harder to combat once they have already spread.
“We’re trying to expose Russia’s hidden hand,” James P. Rubin, the center’s coordinator, said in an interview in which he broadly described the Russian effort.
Mr. Rubin said the department acted “based on new information,” but declined to elaborate. The campaign’s disclosure is reminiscent of the Biden administration’s release of intelligence findings on the Russian military before and after the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
It is part of a growing influence campaign in parts of the world where American officials and analysts warn that Russia’s hostility toward the United States and its allies has found fertile ground.
The State Department last week released a report on the activities in Brazil of the international organization New Resistance, which represents the views of Aleksandr Dugin, a former Soviet dissident who has become a prominent advocate of Russia’s imperial ambitions. The organization, the report says, promotes Russian disinformation, holds seminars and training courses and has supported paramilitary activities.
“Russia has exploited distrust of the United States by portraying the latter as bent on resource extraction and advocating economic policies ill-suited to Latin America, and offering Russia as a friendly, less intrusive alternative,” another report said , released last week by the United States Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan research organization created by the U.S. Congress.
The new campaign, Mr. Rubin and other officials said, involves two Russian companies and the Institute for Internet Development, an industry association led by a former Kremlin official. They all have close ties to the presidential administration of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.
The companies – Social Design Agency, a public relations firm, and Structura National Technologies, an information technology company, both in Moscow – have been identified as sources of disinformation campaigns.
Since July, companies and their executives in the European Union have been threatened with economic sanctions for their involvement in disinformation surrounding the war in Ukraine. This includes the creation of a news portal, Recent Reliable News, which produced fake articles purporting to be from real news organizations, including the Washington Post, and promoted them extensively online.
In the current campaign, the Russian companies plan to commission articles through a network of local authors and use artificial intelligence chatbots to distribute the articles on social media, according to the Foreign Ministry. The goal is to cultivate media contacts in countries from Mexico to Chile.
“We believe they are conducting this information manipulation campaign to surreptitiously exploit the openness of the Latin American media and information ecosystem,” said Mr. Rubin, who took over as head of the Global Engagement Center this year.
The Kremlin is using significant resources to spread its views on the war in Ukraine and denigrate the United States and NATO, both overtly and covertly. American intelligence officials recently warned of a concerted Russian action within the United States to undermine political support for supplying weapons to the Ukrainian military.
The Institute for Internet Development, a Russian organization led by Aleksei Goreslavsky, who previously oversaw Internet policy in the Kremlin, has indicated it will spend the equivalent of $32 million this year on information efforts around the Kremlin, according to two other foreign ministries War officials spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with department policy.
Those officials said the new campaign aims to “launder” Russian news and opinions through contacts who already write in Spanish and Portuguese for online news organizations in the region.
It was not clear how extensive the campaign would be, but targeting so many countries suggested an ambitious campaign. Officials cited Pressenza and the August article, which appeared in Spanish, French and English, as an example of the coordination that American government agencies had noted.
According to the author, the author was Nadia Schwarz, who was identified as a correspondent in the magazine’s Moscow office.
It echoed allegations first made in Russian state news agencies a month earlier – and since refuted – that Ukraine was planning the removal of relics and other valuables from the Kiev Pechersk Lavra, an 11th-century complex of churches and other buildings , planned and recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
“The West is trying to partially recoup the spending it made in Ukraine,” a prominent analyst, Rostislav Ishchenko, is quoted as saying in the article. 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 in the early 20th century.
Officials also cited a journalist, Oleg Yasinksy, who lives 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 through his account on X.
Pressenza, which is based in Quito, Ecuador and describes itself as an organization promoting 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, Massachusetts, said in an interview that Russia sees information campaigns in Central and South America as an appropriate response to what he sees as American influence efforts in Eastern Europe and Eastern Europe Baltics.
He said it remained to be seen how effective the State Department’s efforts to “pre-disseminate” Russian propaganda would prove. Disputing false or misleading information in advance, he added, has worked well for specific events that can be foreseen or predicted.
“I think there are certain applications where debunking the narrative is effective,” he said. “I think it’s more limited to anticipating pre-planned events or things that can be set in motion, rather than real-time prediction.”
Source : www.nytimes.com