Inside the Kremlin’s disinformation war against Ukraine
Documentary evidence shows Vladimir Putin’s security service tasking a local journalist with peddling disparaging, falsified content about Ukraine.
The West has long been caught off guard and outfoxed by successful Russian influence operations over the last decade, from its stealth takeover of Crimea in 2014 to a series of brazen hack-and-leak operations designed to sway or degrade democratic elections.
Yet in the lead-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, the U.S. and U.K. made the unprecedented decision to declassify intelligence in real time, showing that a supposedly defensive “special military operation” was long planned and that Vladimir Putin’s justifications for going to war were crude pretexts. The goal was to either preempt an invasion of Ukraine or, failing that, shore up support among Western allies who were skeptical that Putin would ever pull the trigger. “Not so fast” might well have been the mantra of undercutting Moscow’s falsehoods a year ago, though that of course hasn’t stopped Moscow from minting more of them.
A document obtained by Yahoo News from a Western intelligence agency reveals how Putin’s security services rely on local journalists to launder narratives intended to undermine Ukraine’s unexpectedly robust performance on the battlefield. The tasking document was given to a Siberia-based Russian journalist by an officer of Russia's Federal Security Service, or FSB, instructing the reporter to circulate claims that Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense was intentionally mischaracterizing thousands of dead Ukrainian soldiers as “missing in action” in order to avoid paying compensation to their families. These claims were said to have come from the hacked email account belonging to Serhiy Shaptala, the chief of the Ukrainian Armed Force’ general staff.
The only problem?
The yield of the alleged hack bears obvious signs of manipulation if not outright invention.
Even more bizarre is the fact that this fake scoop had already been published elsewhere, on far more prominent Russian media platforms, raising the question of why the FSB even bothered to get a low-level asset in Russia’s Far East to lift a finger at all.
“This is part of a campaign coordinated from Moscow by the FSB’s headquarters,” the Western intelligence source told Yahoo News. “And it shows just how concerned the FSB is over the reputation of Ukraine’s Armed Forces that they feel compelled to conduct overwhelming discrediting campaigns deep inside Russian Federation territory.”
Or, at any rate, it shows that the higher-ups in the FSB are concerned with undermining the Ukrainian military’s reputation. Their underlings, on the other hand, sometimes phone in their duties out of a seeming indifference to the quality and efficacy of their tradecraft.
The Kremlin’s more recent efforts at waging information warfare against Ukraine have often been clumsy, contradictory or improvisational. For one thing, Moscow originally insisted it launched its invasion to stop “neo-Nazis” in the only country in Europe headed by a Jewish president and with no far-right party represented in parliament. When that narrative failed to gain much purchase outside a narrow field of reliably pro-Russian politicians and commentators, Moscow flipped the script. Now, top Russian officials say, the country is locked in an epic or sacred contest against NATO or Satan — or maybe both.
The FSB document on the supposed Ukrainian hack, uncreatively titled “Zadaniye” (“Tasks”) was sent to Yury Karnovsky, a 63-year-old journalist and editor living in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, more than 2,000 miles from Russia’s border with Ukraine. The sender was Aleksandr Yatsura, an employee of the FSB’s Novosibirsk branch, formerly the head of the press office of the FSB Border Service in that region in 2010 and 2011. The FSB, one of the successor agencies of the Soviet KGB, for which Putin famously worked, controls domestic security and counterintelligence in Russia. It also has a foreign arm known as the Fifth Service, which was principally responsible for intelligence gathering in Ukraine in preparation for the war. As with all Russian spy services, the FSB relies on agents and informants, many of them paid, to spy on others or to prosecute influence operations targeting Russians and non-Russians alike.
Karnovsky appears to be just such an agent. He did not reply to Yahoo News’ request for comment on this story.
Born in Kharkiv, northeastern Ukraine, Karnovsky once served as a signals officer in the Soviet and then Russian Air Force, retiring from the military in 1999. Since 2000, he has been working in regional media as both an editor and a writer for a number of newspapers and websites, including the publication Youth of Siberia, which was shuttered in 2012, and Big Novosibirsk.
Since at least 2010, Karnovsky has run his own website called WorldAndWe. Its strapline is “Truth and Objectivity.” Published in four languages — Russian, English, Polish and Ukrainian — this little-known portal may be said to fall short of its lofty mission statement. A characteristic intervention in English is titled, “About the Neo-Nazi Diarrhea in the Countries of the Baltic States or as the USA Raise the Fascism Again [sic].”
In early January, Yatsura sent Karnovsky an order, the Western intel shows. “Draft an article based on the materials published in the highly rated Telegram channel ‘The World Today With Yuri Podolyak’ about the hacking by the AnarchistKombatant group of the archives of the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine S. Shaptala and the discovery of official correspondence confirming the death of 35,382 Ukrainian servicemen, whom the command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine passes off as missing in order not to pay their relatives the 15 million hryvnia ($400,000) prescribed by law.”
Among the “main theses” that Yatsura tells Karnovsky to hammer home at WorldAndWe is that Zelensky’s government, “controlled by Washington,” falsely categorizes over thousands of Ukrainian military personnel as missing rather than deceased in order to deprive them of “monetary compensation, benefits and other social payments promised by V. Zelensky.” Furthermore, Zelensky should be presented, Yatsura writes, as prioritizing “foreign mercenaries and nationalists from the Azov regiment in the lists for prisoner exchanges.”
This last task apparently capitalizes on the fact that the war’s largest single prisoner swap to date was for 215 pro-Ukraine figures, including 108 from the Azov regiment, in exchange for 55 Russian or pro-Russia figures in addition to Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch personally close to Putin. Although the Azov regiment — now elevated to a special assault brigade — doesn’t exceed 2,500 soldiers out of a Ukrainian military of half a million personnel, the group draws significant backlash due to its far-right origins and iconography. In 2018, U.S. Congress barred it as an extremist group from receiving American weapons and training. Others, including Azov members themselves, now insist the regiment has been reformed. Yet Moscow has exerted enormous energy and time to using the group’s controversial status as a broad brush to depict Ukraine as beholden to a fascist and racist ideology.
Moreover, far from being denounced by ordinary Ukrainians, the Azov prisoner swap was celebrated owing to the fighters’ bravery in defending the last redoubt in the besieged port city of Mariupol, which finally fell to Russian forces in May. In fact, the swap, which was orchestrated by Turkey, was furiously condemned by Russian ultranationalists and hawkish military bloggers who saw it a Kremlin betrayal; they had hoped the Azov fighters would be tried and executed in a Nuremberg-themed tribunal.
“The publication by WorldAndWe is clearly part of a broader campaign to portray Ukraine's losses in the war as unsustainable,” said Pierre Vaux, a senior investigator at the London-based Centre for Information Resilience, which maps disinformation schemes. “This campaign has been underway for several months now and has frequently involved fabricated documents, such as the fake letters demanding Latvia, Lithuania and the U.K. deport Ukrainian men for conscription. This particular example is remarkably clumsy, but quantity of noise is often more important than quality in Russian information operations.”
The FSB email ends on a note of exhorting Karnovsky, himself of Ukrainian birth, to address the nation targeted by Putin’s invasion as follows: “Citizen of Ukraine, remember — ‘your death is not needed by your family and homeland. Biden and Zelensky need your death.’”
The instructions seem rather odd in more ways than one.
First of all, few Ukrainians have heard of WorldAndWe.com, much less would be prepared to heed the counsel of a clearly pro-Kremlin commentator. Second, Karnovsky was being asked to reproduce material already floating around on the Russian internet in the form of the “highly rated Telegram channel ‘World Today With Yuri Podolyak.’” Podolyak is another pro-Kremlin Ukrainian journalist who fled to Russia in 2014, the year Putin’s forces seized the Crimean peninsula and launched an undeclared war in Eastern Ukraine. The Telegram channel, moreover, simply published a link to a brief article on Podolyak’s own website, dated Dec. 14. And that product was little more than a screenshot of documents published on another Telegram channel, Mash, earlier that morning.
Mash is one of the most well-known news sources in Russia, with over 1.7 million subscribers. It carried far more detail on the purported hacking of the Ukraine force’s chief of staff than did Podolyak, with under eight thousand subscribers. For instance, Mash displayed a screenshot of a supposed correspondence written on Ukrainian Ministry of Defense letterhead from the head of the personnel center of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Col. Mykhailo Oleksandrovich Mitkevich. In the letter, Mitkevich discusses how an analysis done by the ministry confirms that 35,382 Ukrainian soldiers were miscategorized as missing in action rather than deceased. However, the document has clear signs of fabrication. A section in the upper right hand corner contains an isolated and broken fragment of recurring text, Ukrainian words indicating the document is “Top Secret,” as if copied and pasted there by mistake.
An officer in GUR, Ukraine’s military intelligence service, who asked to remain anonymous, told Yahoo News that the document is a forgery and that Shaptala’s communications had never been hacked. “Top Secret documents are not sent via the data exchange system,“ the GUR officer said. “By form, it’s close to the requirements but not the same. For instance, paper documents are always signed by an official or signed digitally when sent via the data exchange system. This one isn’t signed at all. Also, the stamp in the upper lefthand corner should contain a specific place for the date and number of the document. That’s missing here. In short, it’s a clear fake.”
Nevertheless, Mash’s original write-up was disseminated by major Russian news outlets such as Moskovsky Komsomolets. So it remains unclear why Yatsura didn’t just direct Karnovsky to these more recognizable sources, or why he emailed Karnovsky nearly a month after the original fabrication was published as news elsewhere.
According to an officer in the FSB’s Ukrainian counterpart, SBU, the whole scheme speaks of Russian intelligence’s laziness and box-ticking busywork. “You need to understand the mentality of these regional FSB servicemen,” the SBU officer told Yahoo News. “He needs to show his work. His boss is probably an old general who knows nothing of information operations, but the bigwigs back in Moscow demand results. And lo and behold, they find such a flunky somewhere and use him in what they think is a clever op but is, in reality, trash. Stuff like this shows you why Ukraine isn’t losing.”
WorldAndWe did publish an article corresponding to the FSB’s instructions on Jan. 12, 2023. It reused the Mash screenshots of the purportedly hacked documents from Shaptala’s account but conjoined this story with two other narratives. The first was about protests across Ukraine, demanding explanations for missing soldiers. “In the towns and villages of Ukraine there have already been regular protests from families of servicemen who “disappeared without a trace during battles with the ‘Russian occupiers,’” the piece stated.
This aspect of the story seems designed to promote another trope of Russian propaganda that has been growing since November. It is true that a number of small Ukrainian protests have been held calling for the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense to release information on the fates of members of the 24th Mechanized Infantry Brigade. Whether these protests have been instigated or are organic is a separate matter, but Russian media outlets and Telegram channels have seized on them, inflating them into a mass phenomenon.
WorldAndWe even goes so far as to offer quotable “appeals” to the Ukrainian government, inviting readers to use verbatim elsewhere:
“Dear bloggers and volunteers! Help us spread this information so that Ukraine, the UN and the Red Cross hear us. We will not be silenced, we will fight for an ‘all-for-all’ exchange”
“Tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and officers, fulfilling their duty, went to the front. But some were forgotten so as to economize on payments, and others were thrown into captivity.”
The WorldAndWe article is credited to someone named Stepan Bulbenko, who is also listed as the author of anti-Ukrainian or anti-NATO articles on numerous other minor pro-Kremlin propaganda sites. From at least 2014 onwards, the name has appeared on a regional site for Ozyorsk, a closed city near Russia’s Ural Mountains. Bulbenko’s byline has also run at the separatist publication Vestnik Khartsyzska, based in the Russian-occupied Donbas, as well as at TopWar.ru, a military content portal. Some of his pieces were also republished by better-known disinformation and propaganda sites like the Crimea-based News Front, which, as the U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center noted in a 2020 report, is linked to far-right Russian figures. News Front has pushed any number of conspiracy theories, including that the U.S. created COVID-19 as a bioweapon and that Microsoft CEO Bill Gates has used the pandemic to implant microchips in people.
"Units for disseminating disinformation or propaganda are in every Russian region and they all have their own collaborators like Karnovsky,” the Western intelligence source said. Their objective is to pollute an information ecosystem with so many unverified and contentious claims that truth becomes all but impossible to separate from fiction, and debunking lies requires far more time and energy than the ready manufacture of more of them.
The invented Shaptala hack and the emphasis on homegrown Ukrainian protests are integrally tied to broader Russian campaigns meant to sow social discord in enemy territory by portraying the defending government as treacherous or inhumane. Previous Kremlin propaganda efforts falsely claimed that Ukraine was seeking the deportation of male refugees from Western countries and lowering the age of conscription to 16. The overall aim is to present Ukraine as desperately short of manpower and on the brink of collapse, and therefore undermine both morale at home and foreign confidence in Ukraine’s viability in the face of an ongoing Russian offensive.
The FSB’s banal requirement that a fringe Russian publication amplify such efforts may be no more than a provincial bureaucrat’s boondoggle. But the orders also provide insight into how the Russian security services launder their narratives through dubious but hyperactive content farms, just like WorldAndWe.