How Russia’s disinformation campaign seeps into US views

Washington — On a near daily basis, Scott Cullinane talks with members of Congress about Russia’s war in Ukraine. As a lobbyist for the nonprofit Razom, part of his job is to convince them of Ukraine’s need for greater U.S. support to survive.

But as lawmakers debated a $95 billion package that includes about $60 billion in aid for Ukraine, Cullinane noticed an increase in narratives alleging Ukrainian corruption. What stood out is that these were the same talking points promoted by Russian disinformation.

So, when The Washington Post published an investigation into an extensive and coordinated Russian campaign to influence U.S. public opinion to deny Ukraine the aid, Cullinane says he was not surprised.

“This problem has been festering and growing for years,” he told VOA. “I believe that Russia’s best chance for victory is not on the battlefield, but through information operations targeted on Western capitals, including Washington.”

The Post investigation is based on more than 100 documents collected by a European intelligence service.

The files exposed a Kremlin-linked campaign in which “political strategists and trolls have written thousands of fabricated news articles, social media posts and comments that promote American isolationism, stir fear over the United States’ border security and attempt to amplify U.S. economic and racial tensions,” the Post reported.

Social media

One of the main methods for spreading such disinformation is social media, according to Roman Osadchuk, a researcher at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab and an expert on propaganda and influence campaigns.

“The process begins with a Russian publication on a small website or social media account. This is then picked up by a small Russian Telegram channel, which is subsequently shared by a larger channel with more subscribers,” Osadchuk said.

From there, someone will translate the content into English and share it, for example, on X.

“This is how Russian disinformation can quickly spread within the English-speaking X community,” Osadchuk said.

In an article published April 8, The Washington Post cited Microsoft and the social media intelligence company Graphika as saying that some articles created within this operation could have been first published on sites known as doppelgangers.

Osadchuk told VOA that these are deceptive replicas of legitimate media websites. They feature fake articles and are often taken down, only to be replaced by clones with slightly different web addresses.

“Nobody would know about these sites’ existence unless they are promoted on social media platforms. However, as soon as they detect them, social media block them. So, Russians quickly replace banned sites with their clones,” he said.

Worldwide effect

In interviews with U.S. media, two influential Republicans said they believe the propaganda has influenced their base and some of their colleagues.

“It is absolutely true. We see, directly coming from Russia, attempts to mask communications that are anti-Ukraine and pro-Russia messages, some of which we even hear being uttered on the House floor,” House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Turner said in an interview with CNN.

In an interview with the U.S. news website Puck, Michael McCaul, head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said, “Russian propaganda has made its way into the U.S., unfortunately, and it’s infected a good chunk of my party’s base.”

Serhiy Kudelia, a political scientist at Baylor University, says the Kremlin messaging is effective because it plays on existing fears.

He says the disinformation seeks to reinforce already held beliefs such as the wastefulness of aid to Ukraine, or fuels existing anger and energizes opposition to sending assistance.

“When such alignment occurs, it is easier to push through disinformation and invented news stories that would be accepted as credible by a large number of people, including members of Congress, since they reinforce their prior beliefs,” Kudelia said.

“Once fabricated stories enter mainstream public debates, they become almost impossible to debunk or separate truth from lies,” he said.

The disinformation campaign is similar to ones seen in Europe. Both seek to decrease support for Ukraine, undermine public trust in their institutions and polarize society, says Jakub Kalenský, a senior analyst at Helsinki-based European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats.

Kalenský, who is deputy director of the center’s Hybrid Influence team, believes the Kremlin’s disinformation activities have a significant effect on politics worldwide.

“This is why Russia employs thousands of people for this activity. This is why they spend billions every year, because they see it works,” he said.

But Olga Belogolova, director of the Emerging Technologies Initiative at Johns Hopkins University, says that it is hard to know how effective these propaganda efforts are.

“Russian influence operations are not necessarily always designed to get people to believe anything in particular, but to get them to believe nothing at all,” she told VOA. Belogolova added that claims of the efforts being successful in swaying opinion “is not only irresponsible, it’s dangerous.”

Countermeasures needed

Last month, the U.S. Treasury Department issued sanctions on two people and two companies that it says are connected to a “foreign malign influence campaign.” They include Moscow-based Social Design Agency, its founder Ilya Gambashidze, Russia-based Group Structura LLC and its CEO Nikolai Tupikin.

The Social Design Agency and Gambashidze are believed to be involved in the campaign described in the Post article on April 8.

Kalenský advises governments on countering disinformation and says its success requires countermeasures.

These include strengthening detection and documentation of Russian disinformation campaigns, increasing awareness and resilience of audiences to the propaganda efforts, and preventing the aggressor from exploiting weaknesses of social media and societies.

“Finally, we need to impose higher costs on the information aggressors. So far, they are almost unopposed in conducting their aggression,” Kalenský said.

For Cullinane, the Russian disinformation campaign makes his job harder. He says the debate about the role the U.S. should play in the world appears to be shifting and invoking pre-World War II isolationism.

But he remains resolute. Part of his work is finding what resonates most with each lawmaker.

“Some offices focus very much on the human rights situation in Ukraine. Many members are very moved by the plight of religious communities in occupied territories of Ukraine and the persecution they face at the hands of the Russian military,” Cullinane said. “Other offices are very intrigued by the military reform and the military innovation brought about by an active war in Ukraine.”

The national security spending bill is currently awaiting approval in the House.

This story originated in VOA’s Ukraine Service.

Analysts: US military aid to allies would give US defense industry needed boost

As the Biden administration and the US Senate look to the US House to take up a bill for aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, experts say U.S. allies are not the only ones in need of the funding boost. As VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb reports, some say the US defense industry desperately needs the boost as well.
Camera: Mary Cielak

У Білому домі відреагували на чергові удари РФ по енергооб’єктах України

У Білому домі вкотре закликали Конгрес США ухвалити законопроєкт щодо додаткового фінансування для України

Командувачем сил НАТО в Європі: армія РФ зараз на 15% більша, ніж коли почалося вторгнення

За словами Крістовера Каволі, за минулий рік Росія збільшила чисельність своїх військ на передовій з 360 тисяч до 470 000

Wife of Julian Assange: Biden’s comments mean case could be moving in right direction

London — The wife of Julian Assange said Thursday her husband’s legal case “could be moving in the right direction” after President Joe Biden confirmed the U.S. may drop charges against the imprisoned WikiLeaks founder.

It came as supporters in several cities rallied to demand the release of Assange, on the fifth anniversary of his incarceration in London’s high-security Belmarsh prison.

Biden said Wednesday that his administration is “considering” a request from Australia to drop the decade-long U.S. push to prosecute Assange for publishing a trove of classified American documents. The proposal would see Assange, an Australian citizen, return home rather than be sent to the U.S. to face espionage charges.

Officials have not provided more details, but Stella Assange said the comments are “a good sign.”

“It looks like things could be moving in the right direction,” she told the BBC, saying the indictment was “a Trump legacy and really Joe Biden should have dropped it from day one.”

Assange has been indicted on 17 espionage charges and one charge of computer misuse over his website’s publication of classified U.S. documents almost 15 years ago. American prosecutors allege that Assange, 52, encouraged and helped U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks published, putting lives at risk.

Australia argues there is a disconnect between the U.S. treatment of Assange and Manning. Then-U.S. President Barack Obama commuted Manning’s 35-year sentence to seven years, which allowed her release in 2017.

Assange’s supporters say he is a journalist protected by the First Amendment who exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Assange has been in prison since 2019 as he fought extradition, having spent seven years before that holed up in Ecuador’s London embassy to avoid being sent to Sweden over allegations of rape and sexual assault.

The relationship between Assange and his hosts eventually soured, and he was evicted from the embassy in April 2019. British police immediately arrested and imprisoned him in Belmarsh for breaching bail in 2012.

The U.K. government signed an extradition order in 2022, but a British court ruled last month that Assange can’t be sent to the United States unless U.S. authorities guarantee he won’t get the death penalty.

A further court hearing in the case is scheduled for May 20.

Assange was too ill to attend his most recent hearings. Stella Assange has said her husband’s health continues to deteriorate in prison and she fears he’ll die behind bars.

Russia deceives foreigners to work, fight on Ukraine front lines, analysts say

In Telangana state, India, a man is desperately trying to get his brother back from the front lines in Ukraine after he was duped into working for Russia during its invasion of the country. Experts explain why Russia is using such subterfuge in its war effort. Henry Wilkins reports.

Переговори про Україну без Росії «не мають сенсу» – Кремль

Конференція, яку українська влада називає Глобальним самітом миру, відбудеться 15–16 червня у Швейцарії

У Міноборони обіцяють «найближчим часом» представити законопроєкт щодо ротації і звільнення в запас

За словами речника Міноборони, законопроєкт буде представлено «найближчим часом», «громадськість знатиме, на якому етапі розробка цього закону».

Генштаб: Сили оборони відбили 15 атак РФ на Бахмутському напрямку, стільки ж – на Новопавлівському

На Куп’янському та Лиманському напрямках наступальних дій російських військ не фіксували

Полоненого жителя Сімферополя, який воював проти України, засудили до 15 років тюрми – СБУ

За даними СБУ, у листопаді 2022 року чоловік добровільно мобілізувався до лав російської армії

Kyiv asks allies for help against alleged Russian abuse of Ukrainian POWs

Washington — While the debates around the U.S. aid to Ukraine focus on military assistance, Kyiv is asking Washington for support in another crucial area — locating POWs and civilian hostages held in Russia and their rehabilitation after they return home. 

Ukraine has also called on the United States to introduce sanctions against those who abuse Ukrainian captives in Russian prisons.

Tеtiana, who asked her surname be kept confidential for her family’s safety, said her father, a civilian pensioner, was taken during the Russian occupation of his small Ukrainian village in April 2022.

She found out about his fate only after Ukrainian forces liberated the village. Later, she learned more from Ukrainian POWs who had shared jail cells with him before being released in prisoner swaps.

“They are given just enough food to keep them alive. … They are not allowed to sit. They constantly stand,” she told VOA. 

Tetiana said other treatment amounts to psychological torture.

“They may be told that they’re being taken for a [prisoner] exchange and then returned on the same day and told, ‘We wanted to exchange you, but Ukraine doesn’t want you back,’” she said.

Tetіana talked to VOA in March during visits to the U.S. Senate and State Department with other relatives of prisoners and representatives of the Ukrainian Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War (KSHPPV).  

Olha Pylypey, a member of the small delegation of relatives, told VOA about her brother, Yuliy Pylypey, a marine who fought in Mariupol. On April 12, 2022, he, along with other Ukrainian marines, was captured by the Russian forces at the Ilyich Iron and Steel Works plant. 

Released prisoners told her that her brother is jailed in Kursk, Russia. They also told Yuliy’s family that the administrators and guards of Russian prisons treat Ukrainian captives much worse than regular Russian inmates. 

“They line up [Ukrainian prisoners] and release aggressive dogs on them and don’t allow them to defend themselves,” Pylypey said. She is afraid Yuliy may have also been raped.

Officials at the U.N. Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, or HRMMU, interviewed and documented 60 Ukrainian servicemen recently released from captivity and found that most of them had experienced sexual violence.

“Almost every single one of the Ukrainian POWs we interviewed described how Russian servicepersons or officials tortured them during their captivity, using repeated beatings, electric shocks, threats of execution, prolonged stress positions and mock execution. Over half of them were subjected to sexual violence,” said Danielle Bell, who heads HRMMU.   

Russian officials deny accusations of mistreatment of Ukrainian prisoners. On November 30, 2023, Russian Commissioner for Human Rights Tatiana Moskalkova said she visited 119 Ukrainian POWs in Russian prisons and found the prisons adhered to international standards.

Andriy Kryvtsov, head of the Military Medics of Ukraine nongovernmental organization, helped find his sister-in-law, military medic Olena Kryvtsova, who was part of a prisoner swap after six months in Russian captivity.  

“They were tortured, beaten and used as punching bags,” Kryvtsov said. “Russian special forces trained on them. They beat them like meat. She lost a lot of weight. When she came home, she weighed 77 pounds.”

Along with other relatives of prisoners, Kryvtsov asked the U.S. and its partners for sanctions not only against the leadership of Russia but also against prison personnel.

“Putin is not personally torturing these people,” he said. 

Andriy Yusov, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s military intelligence and a member of the KSHPPV, told VOA that Ukrainian officials understand that the U.S. can’t force Russia to comply with the Geneva Convention treaties, which establish standards of humane treatment for people affected by armed conflicts, including POWs. 

But he said the U.S. can help by locating the whereabouts of Ukrainians in Russian prisons so they can be included on the prisoner exchange lists.

The Red Cross has confirmed the identities of 5,000 Ukrainians in Russian captivity. But tens of thousands of people, both civilians and prisoners of war, remain missing, Ukrainian officials say. 

Yusov also emphasized the importance of rehabilitating released prisoners and assisting their families. 

“Thousands of family members of our defenders who ended up in captivity, as well as thousands of Ukrainians who’ve returned from Russian captivity, need social, psychological and medical support, and all this is a subject for our cooperation with partners,” he told VOA.   

Russia does not differentiate between civilians and military captives, considering both to have been “detained for counteracting the SVO,” a Russian abbreviation for special military operation – Moscow’s official designation of its invasion of Ukraine – Ukrainian human rights lawyers told the BBC. 

Lawyers at the Center for Civil Liberties, the Ukrainian organization that received the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, told the BBC that they believe there are about 2,000 Ukrainian civilian prisoners in Russia and the occupied territories.

According to a report by the U.N. Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine published in March, at least 32 Ukrainian servicemen were executed in Russian captivity between December 1, 2023, and February 29, 2024.

Синєгубов анонсував примусову евакуацію родин із дітьми з трьох районів Харківщини

Голова області зазначив, що це рішення не стосується Харкова

Зеленський з Йоханнісом обговорили роботу експортного коридору України з Румунією

«В умовах агресії Росії тандем Україна – Румунія робить значний внесок у забезпечення глобальної продовольчої безпеки»

Фіцо: Словаччина готова до військової співпраці з Україною на комерційній основі

Прем’єр Словаччини також запропонував допомогу в сфері розмінування та лікуванні поранених

‘Grandfather’ and ‘Mix’: Two Ukrainian mortarmen share their stories

A volunteer fighter from western Ukraine who goes by call sign Grandfather, and his commander from Crimea, known as Mix, are fighting shoulder to shoulder in Donbas. Anna Kosstutschenko met with the two men on the front lines of the war with Russia. Camera and video editing by Pavel Suhodolskiy.

Місцева влада повідомляє про нові удари Росії по Харкову

Голова області закликав харків’ян перебувати в укриттях

Nine people killed as boat capsizes in Mediterranean, Italy coast guard says 

Rome — Nine people, including a baby, have died after their boat capsized while trying to cross the Mediterranean in stormy weather, and another 15 people are feared missing, Italy’s coast guard said on Thursday.

The Italian coast guard said it received a cooperation request from the Maltese search and rescue (SAR) authority after the boat capsized approximately 50 kilometers southeast of the island of Lampedusa on Wednesday.

The coast guard said it dispatched its own patrol boat to the scene, which “rescued 22 survivors and recovered 9 deceased individuals, including a baby.”

The rescue operations “were particularly challenging due to adverse weather and sea conditions in the area with waves up to 2.50 meters,” the coast guard said.

The nationality of the boat’s passengers was not known but Lampedusa, which sits in the Mediterranean between Tunisia, Malta and the larger Italian island of Sicily, is the first port of call for many migrants seeking to reach the European Union.

“New terrible shipwreck near Lampedusa during a rescue operation,” UNHCR Communication Officer Filippo Ungaro posted on X late on Wednesday. The survivors, taken to Lampedusa, were “in a state of hypothermia and shock,” he added.

An aircraft from the Italian coast guard was conducting aerial searches for the missing in the area of the shipwreck.

In a separate operation, the Italian coast guard said it rescued 37 migrants “who were at the mercy of the waves aboard a small wooden boat about 7 meters long” off the coast of Lampedusa on Wednesday. 

Experts say Turkey becoming a drug transit hub

ISTANBUL — Turkish police have seized the third largest haul of cocaine in the country’s history, Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya announced Thursday, as groups monitoring organized crime warned that the country was becoming an entry point for drugs reaching Europe.

Some 608 kilograms of cocaine, most of it in liquid form, were confiscated in an operation across three provinces, Yerlikaya posted on the social media platform X. Nearly 830 kilograms of precursor chemicals used to process the drug were also seized.

Yerlikaya said the police operation targeted an international gang allegedly led by a Lebanese-Venezuelan national, who was among four foreign members of the “organized crime group” detained, along with nine Turks.

“The amount of cocaine seized in the … operation was the third-largest amount of cocaine seized at one time in Turkey,” the minister added.

Groups monitoring organized crime say Turkey is growing as a transit hub for cocaine coming from South America to Europe as security at ports such as Rotterdam in the Netherlands becomes tighter.

In a report dated October last year, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime said a 44% rise in cocaine seizures in Turkey between 2021 and 2022 was not reflected in data on domestic consumption, “suggesting that the country is likely to serve as a drug corridor.”

Officials made Turkey’s largest seizure — 1.1 tons of cocaine hidden in a consignment of bananas from Ecuador — at the Mediterranean port of Mersin in 2021.

Since coming to office in June last year, Yerlikaya has overseen a clampdown on organized crime in Turkey to counter claims the country has become a haven for foreign gangsters.

He regularly posts details of the latest police operation to target drug traffickers, fraudsters and other criminals.

Thursday’s social media post included a video, overlaid with dramatic music, showing apparent surveillance footage, large plastic containers and a pressing machine.

The operation was led by anti-narcotics officers based in Kocaeli, which lies southeast of Istanbul, but also included investigations in Tekirdag to Istanbul’s northwest and in the Mediterranean province of Antalya.

The gang used vineyards in Tekirdag and Antalya to store chemicals and process the cocaine, which had been disguised in fertilizer, according to Yerlikaya. A shotgun was also recovered by police, he added.

“We will not tolerate poison traffickers, organized crime groups and gangs, whether national or international,” the minister wrote. 

Підрив гранат у сільраді на Закарпатті: СБУ передала справу до суду, депутату загрожує довічне

У грудні минулого року підозрюваний підірвав у сесійній залі Керецьківської сільради три бойові осколкові гранати

Рада ухвалила закон про мобілізацію – депутати

За таке рішення проголосували 283 народні депутати

У Кривому Розі вибух газу зруйнував два поверхи: одна людина загинула, ще сім поранені – влада

«Рятувальники виявили бездиханне тіло під час розбору завалів. Наразі ДСНС продовжують роботи з деблокування тіла чоловіка»

Верховна Рада продовжить сьогодні розгляд законопроєкту про мобілізацію – Железняк

За словами парламентаря, на розгляд поправок пішло 11 годин, а в залі до кінця засідання залишалось 30 депутатів

«Китай не сприйматиме звинувачень і тиску» – Пекін відреагував на претензії щодо співпраці з Росією

Китай і Росія мають право на «нормальну співпрацю», вона не повинна піддаватися зовнішньому втручанню або обмеженню, кажуть у МЗС країни

Європарламент схвалив реформу міграційного законодавства ЄС

Реформу ще має схвалити Рада ЄС, тобто представники країн, які входять до Євросоюзу

Без допомоги Заходу в України «досить швидко» закінчаться артснаряди та ракети ППО – Каволі

Росія становить «хронічну загрозу» для світу, а подальша допомога Україні для відсічі російської агресії має вирішальне значення

EU lawmakers approve an overhaul of migration law, hoping to deprive the far right of votes

BRUSSELS — European Union lawmakers approved Wednesday a major revamp of the bloc’s migration laws aimed at ending years of division over how to manage the entry of thousands of people without authorization and depriving the far right of a vote-winning campaign issue ahead of June elections.

The members of the European Parliament voted on the so-called Pact on Migration and Asylum, regulations and policies meant to help address the thorny issue of who should take responsibility for migrants when they arrive and whether other EU countries should be obliged to help.

The proceedings were briefly interrupted by a small but noisy group of demonstrators in the public gallery who wore shirts marked “this pact kills” and shouted “vote no!”

The 27 EU member countries must now endorse the reform package, possibly in a vote in late April, before it can enter force.

The plan was drawn up after 1.3 million people, mostly those fleeing war in Syria and Iraq, sought refuge in Europe in 2015. The EU’s asylum system collapsed, reception centers were overwhelmed in Greece and Italy, and countries further north built barriers to stop people entering.

But few have admitted to being happy with the new policy response to one of Europe’s biggest political crises, and even the lawmakers who drafted parts of the new regulations are unwilling to support the entire reform package.

“I’m not going to open a bottle of champagne after this,” Dutch lawmaker Sophie i’nt Veld, who drew up the assembly’s position on migrant reception conditions, told reporters on the eve of the plenary session in Brussels. She said she planned to abstain from some of the votes.

In’t Veld described the pact as “the bare minimum” in terms of a policy response, but she does not want to torpedo it by voting against. “We will not have another opportunity to come to an agreement,” she said.

Swedish parliamentarian Malin Bjork, who worked on refugee resettlement, said that the pact does not respond to “any of the questions it was set to solve.”

She said the reform package “undermines the individual right to seek asylum” in Europe because it would build on plans that some EU countries already have to process migrants abroad. Italy has concluded one such deal with Albania.

“We cannot have a situation where people systematically, in their thousands, die on their way seeking protection and refuge in Europe,” Bjork told reporters.

The new rules include controversial measures: facial images and fingerprints could be taken from children from the age of 6, and people may be detained during screening. Fast-track deportation could be used on those not permitted to stay.

“The pact will lead to more detention and de facto detention at the EU’s external borders, including for families with children, which is in clear violation of international law,” said Marta Gionco from Picum, a network of migrant rights defense organizations.

Mainstream political parties want to secure agreement on the pact ahead of Europe-wide elections on June 6-9. Migration is likely to be a campaign issue, and they believe the new reforms address concerns about an issue that has been a consistent vote-winner for far-right parties.