A newly declassified American intelligence analysis says Russian spy agencies are using influence laundering techniques to hide the Kremlin’s involvement in cultivating pro-Russia and anti-Ukraine messages.
The Kremlin is hoping to develop a network of young leaders who will support Russia or spread pro-Russia messages in their home countries, according to a U.S. intelligence analysis.Credit…Maxim Shipenkov/EPA, via Shutterstock
Russia is intensifying its efforts to spread pro-Russia and anti-Ukraine messages in the United States and the West, using influence-laundering techniques to hide the efforts of its intelligence agencies to manipulate public opinion, according to a newly declassified American intelligence analysis.
Efforts by Russian intelligence agencies to shape public debate leading up to the 2016 U.S. election focused on methods designed to have short-term effects, like exacerbating tensions inside the United States through social media posts.
But the newly declassified U.S. analysis looks at how Russian intelligence services, in particular the Federal Security Service or F.S.B., have been secretly using allies inside nominally independent organizations to spread propaganda and cultivate ties with rising leaders, efforts that are intended to play out over long periods of time.
The intelligence analysis, which was declassified for public release, was described by U.S. officials who were authorized to disclose the information.
Russian influence operations may have been dealt something of a blow in the aftermath of Yevgeny V. Prigozhin’s mutiny against the Russian military leadership and subsequent apparent assassination. Mr. Prigozhin, in addition to running the Wagner group, a private military force, founded and funded the Internet Research Agency. Although the organization was dissolved last month — after Mr. Prigozhin’s failed rebellion — the I.R.A. had been involved in running one of the most prominent troll farms that supported the candidacy of Donald J. Trump during the 2016 election by criticizing Hillary Clinton.
But the information released by the United States on Friday is designed to show how much deeper Russian influence operations are than those efforts to sow dissent on the internet. Instead, the influence operations are focused on developing a network of young leaders who the Kremlin hopes will support Russia or spread pro-Russia messages in their home countries, efforts not unlike the Soviet Union’s spy agency’s work to develop ideological allies and informants around the world.
A U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the newly released material described a group of so-called co-optees, who claim to be acting independently but in fact have been used by Russian intelligence agents to conduct influence operations against the United States. These operations include programs designed to build support for Russia among Americans and Europeans along with blunter efforts like fake grass-roots protests. The newly released material focuses on four Russians who have worked with Russian intelligence, including Natalia Burlinova, who was named in a Justice Department indictment that was unsealed this year.
The indictment said Ms. Burlinova had conspired with the F.S.B. to recruit U.S. citizens from academic institutions to participate in the nongovernmental organization she founded, Creative Diplomacy. The organization bills itself as a public diplomacy program for aspiring leaders to facilitate dialogue with Russia. The organization says 80 people from a wide range of countries have attended its program.
After the indictment in June, the Treasury Department sanctioned two F.S.B. officers, including Yegor Sergeyevich Popov, who the government said was Ms. Burlinova’s handler. The Treasury Department said Mr. Popov oversaw Ms. Burlinova’s work and provided her a list of U.S. citizens to approach.
The declassified intelligence analysis said the F.S.B. had helped fund Creative Diplomacy and that it was a “grooming campaign” that Russian intelligence operatives used to build up a network of “future Western influencers” who the F.S.B. hoped would develop into Kremlin supporters.
The F.S.B. has tracked the activities of Creative Diplomacy’s alumni, some of whom have gone on to publish pro-Russia articles, the American officials said. While Ms. Burlinova has denied any ties to the Russian government, the U.S. intelligence disputed that claim.
One of the participants in Creative Diplomacy, an American who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said if he had known the program’s connections to Russian intelligence, he would not have participated. Still, he said he did not regret attending the program because it gave him a chance to speak to and question Russian officials he would not have met.
The pro-Russia slant of the program was no different than public diplomacy programs in other countries, he said, and some participants left with a worse — not better — opinion of Russia. The participant said he was not surprised to learn Ms. Burlinova was working with the F.S.B. But if the program was a Russian intelligence operation, he said, there was little for the U.S. government to be concerned about, given its ineffectiveness.
The declassified analysis singles out three others: Andrey Stepanenko, who worked for the F.S.B. from 2014 to 2019; Maksim Grigoryev, the director of the Foundation for the Study of Democracy, an organization the U.S. analysis says has spread anti-Ukrainian narratives on behalf of the Kremlin; and Anton Tsvetkov, the head of a group called Officers of Russia. The U.S. officials said Mr. Tsvetkov, at the direction of Russian intelligence, organized protests in Moscow, including one outside the U.S. Embassy.
Mr. Tsvetkov, at the behest of Russian intelligence, also organized protests against Bard College in New York State and its partnership with a St. Petersburg college; those actions eventually led to the New York school being banned in Russia by the Kremlin, which was fearful of Western influence on Russian universities. Since then, the intelligence analysis said, Mr. Tsvetkov has organized anti-Ukraine protests throughout 2022 outside various Western embassies in Russia.