The Internet Research Agency: behind the shadowy network that meddled in the 2016 Elections
Date: February 21, 2018 Author: Alexander Reid Ross
[Source = https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2018/02/21/internet-research-agency-behind-shadowy-network-meddled-2016-elections]
[Web Archive = https://web.archive.org/web/20180312114400/https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2018/02/21/internet-research-agency-behind-shadowy-network-meddled-2016-elections]
Special counsel Robert Mueller, Jr., indicted 13 agents from the Saint Petersburg based Internet Research Agency last Friday, but the shadowy figures behind the organization remain obscure.
Tracing those involved leads to an intriguing web of far-right paramilitary groups, think tanks and institutes directed by a trans-national, far right network of oligarchs, politicians and media figures.
The Internet Research Agency was founded and led by Evgeny Prigozhin, a catering industry mogul known by some as “Putin’s chef.” Prigozhin met Putin as his financial success through the St. Petersburg gambling business brought increased influence and lucrative state contracts. Two years after conceiving of the Internet Research Agency during the protests of 2011, Prigozhin opened the “Kharkiv news agency” in opposition to the 2013 Euromaidan movement.
Prigozhin is also tied to the conception and funding of a semi-private military company called “Wagner” known to have operated both in Ukraine and Syria under Dmitry Utkin, a man notorious for his “adherence to the aesthetics and ideology of the Third Reich.” Wagner Private Military Company is said to be co-sponsored by the Russian Ministry of Defense and to have participated in the military occupation of Crimea. The U.S. sanctioned Prigozhin in 2014, stating, “a company with significant ties to him holds a contract to build a military base near the Russian Federation border with Ukraine.”
Analysis by U.S. Strategic Command from 2015, revealed that Prigozhin’s Internet Research Agency was an important site in a larger network. Its $1.25 million per month budget and some 80 employees helped its “Translator Project” act as a force multiplier for a host of pro-Kremlin sites, articles, and people linked to syncretic think tanks and institutes bridging far-right interests from Russia to the U.S. as an extension of “hybrid warfare.”
Perhaps most interestingly, the Translator Project allegedly set up fake far-right and left-wing groups like “Secured Borders,” “Blacktivist,” “United Muslims of America” and “Heart of Texas,” advertised them, and deceived hundreds of thousands of people into joining them. In one astonishing case, unwitting members of a Russian troll page were led to stage an armed, Islamophobic protest in Houston.
The strategy: managed nationalism and hybrid warfare
A clue as to the strategy of the Internet Research Agency can be found among the leading members under indictment. Around the time their employee Anna Bogacheva allegedly visited the U.S. in 2014 to gather intelligence, she registered a PR firm called IT Debugger with Mikhail Potepkin, a former leader of the violent, far-right youth brigade, Nashi.
Developed along with several other youth brigades linked to the Kremlin during a short period between 2004 and 2005, Nashi formed part of what then-First Deputy Chief of the Presidential Administration Vladislav Surkov called “managed nationalism.” Concerned about a possible “Color Revolution” in Russia, Surkov hoped to simulate an opposition movement and keep the public under the Kremlin’s control.
“Managed nationalism” and Surkov’s analysis of “network structures” paved the way for a strategy penned in 2013 by Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff of the Armed Forces of Russia. Now known as the Gerasimov Doctrine, The New York Times called it “RT, Sputnik, and Russia’s new theory of war.” In Gerasimov’s words, “The focus of applied methods of conflict has altered in the direction of the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other nonmilitary measures—applied in coordination with the protest potential of the population.”
By the time Hillary Clinton received the official nomination of her party, strategy papers produced by the Kremlin-linked think tank Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS) had specifically called on the Kremlin to dedicate such “applied methods” to “a propaganda campaign on social media and Russian state-backed global news outlets to encourage U.S. voters to elect a president who would take a softer line toward Russia than the administration of then-President Barack Obama,” according to Reuters.
“An Elite Club”
Longtime political operator in the Russian far-right, Aleksander Dugin, has worked for most of the past three decades to develop syncretic, left-right cooperation among anti-liberal opposition groups throughout the world. His influence on, and involvement in, “managed nationalism” and the Gerasimov Doctrine is consistent with his agency in the network that influenced the 2016 elections.
Shortly after Gerasimov published his doctrine, Dugin’s efforts came to a head. He sent his associate Georgiy Gavrish a memo listing a number of pro-Russia political leaders on the European far right and left. Intent on making Moscow the “New Rome” of a spiritual empire of federated ethnostates from Dublin to Vladivastok and stretching south to the Indian Ocean, Dugin’s main aspiration lay in consolidating support networks for the Kremlin and developing ideological unity for his “Eurasianist” geopolitics.
Dugin’s efforts produced a “think tank” called Katehon with influential board members including a senior member of Putin’s Yedinaya Rossiya party and Leonid Reshetnikov, then the leader of the RISS. Reshetnikov is infamous for complaining in February 2016 that WWII was “orchestrated” by “the upper crust of the Anglo-Saxon elite” and is believed by officials to have sponsored a coup attempt that October to prevent Montenegro from joining NATO.
Another member of Katehon’s board, Lyndon LaRouche associate Sergei Glazyev, co-founded the far-right Rodina (Motherland) Party with Dugin, which in 2014 to 2015 led conferences and coordinating groups including members of the racist “alt-right” and the U.S. left that helped prepare the networks Dugin sought.
At the helm of Katehon’s board sits Dugin’s associate Konstantin Malofeev. Known as the “Orthodox Oligarch” for his far-right political positions and proximity to the Russian Orthodox Church, Malofeev was sanctioned by the U.S. for allegedly bankrolling the pro-Russia separatists in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea where Wagner Company operated. Aleksandr Borodai, the first prime minister of the Donetsk Republic, and Igor Strelkov, its first minister of defense, served as Malofeev’s former PR man and security chief, respectively.
The U.S. connection
Many of the crucial connections between the Katehon network and the Western far-right can be found through their mutual commitments to the anti-LGBQT hate group, World Congress of Families. When Stephen Bannon delivered a speech on the merits of Dugin and fascist occultist Julius Evola in June 2014 to high-level members of the World Congress of Families in the Vatican, he effectively endorsed the guiding “Eurasianist” spirit behind Katehon.
Bannon’s speech came in the middle of a four-year period during which Robert Mercer paid him to work for an anti-Clinton group. Also the primary funder of Breitbart News, Mercer was a member of the secretive Council for National Policy (CNP), which supported Trump staunchly during the 2016 elections and is heavily involved in the World Congress of Families.
The CNP has a long history of bridging U.S. and Russian far-right interests, dating back to when its founder Paul Weyrich and executive committee member Robert Kriebel helped launch the career of pro-Russia lobbyist Edward Lozansky — a man who would take a leading role in feeding the troll armies of the far right nearly 30 years later.
Deeply connected to the U.S. far-right, Lozansky founded a dubious think tank eventually named the American University in Moscow “on the same floor as the Heritage Foundation.” Through his organizations, Lozansky has hosted conferences and an annual event known as the World Russia Forum. Featuring speakers like Chuck Grassley, Jeff Sessions and Dana Rohrabacher, the World Russia Forum and Lozansky’s Russia House enjoy a high profile inside the Beltway of Washington, DC. However, there is a more obscure side to the Russia Forum and its related American University in Moscow.
Lozansky’s syncretic fellows
Lozansky’s American University in Moscow has become a crucial hub for the cultivation of editors and journalists behind key “fake news” sites propagated by the “Translation Project.” The list of “Fellows” at his institution is a rogues gallery of syncretic pro-Kremlin spin doctors:
- Alexander Mercouris, the founding editor of leading pro-Kremlin site, The Duran, which promotes InfoWars, the Western radical right and conspiracy theories.
- Patrick Armstrong, who contributed to the short-lived geopolitical cutout, Global Independent Analytics, along with Flores, and was program coordinator at the Lozansky-linked anti-evolution Discovery Institute’s “Real Russia Project.”
- Anatoly Karlin, formerly of Da Russophile and currently an antisemitic blogger for the alt-right-associated Unz Review.
- Mark Sleboda of the Duginist Centre for Conservative Studies.
- Daniel McAdams, head of the Ron Paul Institute.
- Gilbert Doctorow, contributor to Russia Insider and Consortium News
- Members of RT, Voice of Russia and RISS.
Other pro-Kremlin Fellows listed by Lozansky’s American University in Moscow, Darren Spinck, James Jatras and Anthony Salvia are partners in pro-Kremlin groups like the American Institute in Ukraine and the PR group, Global Strategic Communications Group, which sold its services to Rodina during a period when Rodina’s deputies signed a petition to ban Jews from Russia and the party was proscribed from the Duma elections for virulently racist campaign ads.
Aside from contributing to Global Independent Analytics with Armstrong, Jatras also served as a witness for the defense at the trial of Slobodan Milosevic and is featured on a number of YouTube videos posted by Katehon.
The red-brown creep
Lozansky has a long and extensive relationship with Dugin, hosting him at influential conferences in 2004 and 2005, along with red-brown propagandist Aleksandr Prokhanov, Rodina leader Dmitri Rogozin, and other éminences grises of the U.S. and Russian far-right.
In September 2008, Lozansky joined Dugin for a conference with far-right figures such as fascist creator of the European New Right Alain de Benoist, Duginist Israeli far-right leader Avigdor Eskin and Israel Shamir, a holocaust denying antisemite who would later become the Russian emissary for Wikileaks. Within a few weeks, Dugin and Lozansky appeared together on the TV program “Three Corners” for a discussion on the merits of “soft power.”
“In our world (we are talking about the information space) ideas can also play a bigger role,” Lozansky cautioned, “even more important than guns and missiles.”
A week after the Crimea crisis touched off in April 2014, Lozansky’s heavy frame was hunched over a long conference table across from Dugin in a cramped, stuffy conference room. They were discussing the role of media in the “New Cold War.”
The next September, Lozansky moderated a roundtable discussion at the World Russia Forum to consider a “Proposal to Establish ‘Committee for East – West Accord.’” Co-moderated by American University in Moscow Fellow Gilbert Doctorow, the roundtable featured leading Duginist Andrew Korybko, as well as a number of professors from U.S. and Russian institutions. The U.S. side of the Committee would be spearheaded by professor and contributing editor of The Nation, Stephen F. Cohen, along with an influential board including former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and former ambassadors William vanden Heuvel and Jack Matlock.
That month, Cohen’s associate Doctorow helped editor Charles Bausman create the antisemitic website Russia Insider. Soon after, Doctorow joined alternative journalism site Consortium News, which accepts tax-deductible donations for Russia Insider as a fiscal sponsor. Doctorow and Lozansky went on to write three articles together in the Washington Times. Russia Insider features a contact form to get in touch with Lozansky through their website. However, when Hatewatch wrote to Lozansky using Russia Insider’s contact form, we received no response. Within 24 hours, Lozansky’s website, RussiaHouse.org, mysteriously went dark.
An information shell game
While the Kremlin’s propagandists disseminate half-truths, distortions and lies, they rely on sites like Consortium News, Russia Insider, Global Independent Analytics and The Duran to adopt their narratives and “launder” them so that “the original source… is either forgotten or impossible to determine,” according to expert on the far right Anton Shekhovtsov’s latest book, Russia and the Western Far Right. This project utilizes what national security site War on the Rocks calls “‘gray’ measures, which employ less overt outlets controlled by Russia, as well as so-called useful idiots that regurgitate Russian themes and ‘facts’ without necessarily taking direction from Russia or collaborating in a fully informed manner.”
By election season, the network of “less overt” sites had developed behavior patterns and positions spurred on by the troll factory: they supported the illegal Crimea referendum, denied the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime and denigrated Syria’s humanitarian White Helmets. They also often operated as connectors to far-right sites like Breitbart News and conspiracy-theory site, Infowars, which crossposted more than 1,000 RT articles between 2014 and 2017 and published two interviews with Dugin last year.
Such apparent unity of action and intent may have also occurred because the “fake news” sites boosted by the Translation Project have significant audience overlap, as well as institutional crossover. For example, the syncretic site 21stCenturyWire crossposts stories from Consortium News and features interviews with its founder, the late Robert Parry. Created by former Infowars associate editor, Patrick Henningsen, 21stCenturyWire’s archived stories trade in antisemitic Soros and Rothschild conspiracy theories and a battery of Kremlin-supported stories maligning the White Helmets in Syria.
Regarding 21stCenturyWire’s stories, analytics engines found “evidence of coordination of timing and messaging around significant events in the news cycle” among “many known pro-Kremlin troll accounts, some of which were closed down as part of the investigation into Russian interference in the US election.” Given its Kremlin support, it is unsurprising that 21stCenturyWire hosts an alt-right podcast called Boiler Room, as well as an interview with Dugin, himself, while publishing Korybko as a “special contributor.”
There are many more similar sites on the web and, despite the indictments of 13 members of the Internet Research Agency, the echo chamber of cutouts, fake profiles, front groups and conspiracy sites that duped hundreds of thousands of people across the political spectrum shows no sign of relenting. In the 48 hours before time of writing, Russia Insider, 21stCenturyWire and Duginist site Fort-Russ were all trending domains and URLs on the Russian “botnet.” Only an informed public will be able to take down the crisis of “fake news” and its illiberal progenitors.
Alexander Reid Ross is a Lecturer in geography at Portland State University. His latest book Against the Fascist Creep was named one of the Portland Mercury’s best books of 2017.
Patrick Simpson and Grant Stern contributed research for this article.