An article published in August on Presenza, an international news outlet, repeated a false Russian claim that the West was looting religious relics and art from a monastery in the Ukrainian capital Kiev, one of the holiest sites in Russian Orthodoxy.
US officials said the article came to light not because of its claims, but because of its source and intended audience.
State Department officials described the article as a covert information campaign to spread Russia’s propaganda in Central and South America, producing articles that appeared to originate from local media organizations rather than the Russian government. Are there.
The operation is still nascent, but the department’s Global Engagement Center is unveiling the influence campaign in hopes of blunting its influence in the region, where Russia has sought to discredit the United States and erode international support for Ukraine. Is of.
The center, which has focused on countering propaganda and disinformation since 2017, regularly details Kremlin efforts, but tends to identify a campaign and try to start it before it has barely got off the ground. Be that as it may, there is a new strategy. This reflects the realization that false stories are difficult to counter once they spread.
“What we’re trying to do is expose Russia’s hidden hand,” James P. Rubin, the center’s coordinator, said in an interview. In which he described the Russian effort in broad outline.
Mr. Rubin said the department was acting “based on new information,” but he declined to elaborate. The disclosure of the operation is reminiscent of the Biden administration’s release of intelligence findings about Russia’s military before and after the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
It is part of an intensified campaign for influence 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 in Brazil about the activities of the New Resistance, an international organization that espouses the views of Alexander Dugin, a former Soviet dissident who has become a leading advocate of Russia’s imperial ambitions. The report said the organization promotes Russian disinformation, organizes seminars and training courses and supports paramilitary activities.
“Russia has taken advantage of distrust toward the United States because the United States has been described as intent on resource extraction and supporting poor economic policies for Latin America, giving Russia a friendlier, less intrusive Has been introduced as a giving option,” said. another report Released last week by the United States Institute of Peace, a non-partisan research organization established by the US Congress.
The new campaign involves two Russian companies and the Institute for Internet Development, an industry association led by a former Kremlin official, Mr. Rubin and other officials said. All have close ties to the presidential administration of Russian leader Vladimir V. Putin.
The companies – Social Design Agency, a public relations company, and Structura National Technologies, an information technology firm, both in Moscow – have been identified as sources of the disinformation campaigns.
Since July, companies and their executives have faced punitive economic sanctions in the European Union for their involvement in disinformation surrounding the war in Ukraine. This included the creation of a news outlet, Recent Reliable News, which produced fake articles purporting to be from real news organizations, including The Washington Post, and disseminated them extensively online.
In the current campaign, according to the State Department, Russian companies intend to commission articles through a network of local writers and use artificial intelligence chatbots to enhance articles on social media. The effort aims to develop media contacts in countries ranging from Mexico to Chile.
“We expect they will carry out this information manipulation campaign to covertly exploit the openness of Latin America’s media and information ecosystem,” said Mr. Rubin, who took charge of the Global Engagement Center this year.
The Kremlin spends significant resources using both overt and covert methods to promote its views on the war in Ukraine and to discredit the United States and NATO. American intelligence officials recently warned of a concerted Russian effort inside the United States to undermine political support for providing arms to the Ukrainian military.
Institute for Internet Development, a Russian organization led by Alexey Goreslavskyhas indicated it plans to spend as much as $32 million this year on information efforts around the war, according to two other State Department officials who previously oversaw Internet policy at the Kremlin. Spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Those officials said the new campaign was intended to “launder” Russian news and opinion through contacts already writing in Spanish, as well as Portuguese, to online news organizations in the region.
It was unclear how widespread the campaign would be, but targeting so many countries suggests an ambitious campaign. Officials cited the articles in Presenza and August, which were printed in Spanish, French and English, as examples of coordination identified by US government agencies.
According to the byline, the author was Nadia Schwarz, identified as a correspondent in the outlet’s Moscow bureau.
It echoed allegations first aired in Russian state news agencies a month ago – and have since been denied – that Ukraine planned to remove relics and other valuables from the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, which dates back to the 11th century. There is a complex of churches and other buildings and is recognized. As a world heritage site By UNESCO.
The article quoted Rostislav Ishchenko, a leading analyst, as saying, “The West is trying to recoup to some extent what it has spent in Ukraine.” 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.
Authorities also cited Oleg Yasinksy, a journalist who is based in Chile and whose writings have appeared on the website RT en Español, the Spanish-language branch of the state television network. Mr. Yasinski could not immediately be reached for comment, although he has an account on X.
Presenza, which is based in Quito, Ecuador, and describes itself as an outlet committed to peace, human rights and nonviolence, did not respond to a written request for comment, nor did the Social Design Agency and the Internet Development Institute. .
Brian Liston, an analyst who studies Recorded Future, a cybersecurity company headquartered in Somerville, Mass., said in an interview that Russia has launched information campaigns in Central and South America as a proportional response to U.S. influence efforts in Eastern Europe. Looked in and the Baltics.
He said it remains to be seen how effective the State Department’s efforts to “debunk” Russian disinformation will prove. Disputing inaccurate or misleading information in advance, he added, works well against specific events that can be anticipated or predicted.
“I think there are some applications in which debunking the narrative is effective,” he said. “I think it’s limited to pre-planned events or anticipating things that may happen in real time.”