A 2016 arrest by Estonian intelligence agents of a 55-year-old citizen of the Russian Federation led to the discovery of a whole trail of electronic communications, giving us a glimpse of just how Russian Federation-funded sites, masquerading as news, operate as well as some of the figures involved in their finance.
The information, obtained by a trifecta of media companies: investigative site Re:baltica, Estonian daily Postimees and US internet media company Buzzfeed, obtained under freedom of information laws, has been reported at length by Re:baltica, what follows is a redacted form thereof.
The Russian government has long been funding several apparently-independent news sites in the Central and Eastern European (CEE) region. The recipient sites apparently propagate pro-Kremlin stories, at the latter's behest. Funding for such Russian-sponsored sites in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, has been channelled through companies in Serbia and Cyprus, it is reported.
Raul Rebane, a leading strategic communications expert in Estonia, stated that the activities constitute "systemic information-related activities on foreign territory. In other words — information warfare," according to Re:baltica, noting that the networks have in recent years become more intense in their drive to spread disinformation and cause an about face in the outlook of countries like Estonia, away from the west and more towards Russia. Most of the sites target native Russian speakers in Estonia and Latvia, which make up between 25% and 30% of the populace of both countries.
One of the sites in question is a portal called Baltnews, launched in 2014 in each of the three Baltic States. Each portal is independent of the other, but all are in the Russian language and nominally focus on issues such as minority rights in education. Their 'look and feel' is very similar, with a different colour scheme for each country (red for Estonia, green for Lithuania and gold for Latvia for whatever reason) and their stories will be different in content if not in intention or tone. Written in Russian, they are seen by the intelligence agencies of all thre countries as Russian propaganda tools.
One of the Skype chats obtained by BuzzFeed apparently show Baltnews spokesperson Alexander Kornilov, member of the Coordination Council of Russian Compatriots in Estonia, receiving orders from an employee of Rossiya Segodnya ('Russia Today', closely connected to the more well-knon, in the west at least, media channel of the same name, albeit shortened to RT), Aleksandr Svyazin.
Apparently Mr. Kornilov and Mr. Svyazin were in regular contact over a two year period via Skype, though Mr. Svyazin denies the link. The exchanges suggest that the Baltnews sites were being used as something of a mouthpiece for Rossiya Segodnya, with Mr. Svyazin often sending a list of three to five stories which Baltnews were required to cover, and requesting weekly reports from Mr. Kornilov on noteworthy forthcoming events, including a visit from then-US President Barack Obama (Mr. Obama's visit to Estonia in September 2014 occurred shortly before the conversations in question began, in October of the same year).
Skype chats back and forth
Some of the requests for info could be quite insistent:
"Aleksandr, a preview of significant events coming up next week is needed urgently. After another hour it is already too late," read one message, from 19 November 2014.
"I don't have them," Kornilov replied.
Svyazin: "But where can I get them from? I need to add them to the calendar by 4 p.m."
Putative surveys published by Mr. Kornilov included info claiming that almost half of people in the UK, France, and Germany wanted the EU to be more independent from the US, that most Europeans don't believe the EU was independent when deciding on sanctions against Russia, and that there was a rising concern among European people about the level of the EU's dependence on the US.
Similar stories were run about US citizens supposed mistrust in their police and authorities.
Polling companies, bought clicks, troll factories
The source of this information was claimed by Baltnews as being London-based ICM research, though ICM states it has never worked for Rossiya Segodnya/Sputnik* (the latter is a related news agency), aside from some polling published in 2015.
Similar conversations ran through 2015 between Kornilov and Svyazin, covering issues such as a possible Grexit (ie. Greece leaving the Eurozone) and a US Navy ship entering the Black Sea.
Baltnews also reportedly bought clicks and tested out purchasing comments from Russian-based 'troll factories' to boost numbers and hence search engine ranking.
Mr. Kornilov's activities became known to the Estonian intelligence serive, KaPo, after he was investigated on suspicions of tax evasion and forgery. He apparently either is or was at the time a 55-year-old citizen of the Russian Federation.
Alexander Kornilov and Altmedia
When approached by for comment, Mr. Kornilov said that as he doesn't work for Baltnews anymore, he is not prepared to answer journalists' questions about the websites.
Using an NGO set up by Mr. Kornilov called Altmedia, records show money was sent to the tune of €91,400 in five separate monthly payments, four from Media Capital Holding and one from Barsolina Ventures Ltd., a company registered in Cyprus.
Apparently from early 2015 regular monthly traffic reports would be sent to Barsolina Ventures Ltd in return for €11,400 being sent to Altmedia, an arrangement which continued into 2016.The documents received only cover the period up to and including at least some of 2016, but there is reportedly reason to believe they continued thereafter until spring 2018 when Rossiya Segodnya pulled the plug on Baltnews (although the sites remain active).
The Serbian company which Altmedia had links with, SPN Media Solutions DOO Beograd, registered in Belgrade, had a turnover of around €3.5 million in 2016 and 2017, it is reported, despite having no employees on its books, though its managers are recorded by Serbian authorities as being Russian citizens. SPN Media Solutions DOO Beograd has apparently also been coverly financing the Ukrainian branch of RIA Novosti, ultimate owners of Baltnews and a Kremlin-operated news agency.
Latvia and Lithuania
The Latvian branch of Baltnews had an annual turnover of €100,000 despite not being a commercial site.
In addition, the Latvian branch of Baltnews did file at least one monthly report to Barsolina Ventures, according to the documents obtained by BuzzFeed News.
The financial reports of Baltnews.lv show it had an annual turnover of 100,000 euros, but it displays little to no advertising and had no paid-for subscriptions.
Baltnews.lv's editor-in-chief, Andrejs Jakovlevs, declined to comment when approached, though he did say there had been an information-sharing arrangement in place with RIA Novosti, but no money was exchanged, and no one ever told him what to write.
However deputy head of the Latvian intelligence agency the DP, Ēriks Cinkus, told Re:Baltica that: "The information obtained by [DP] indicates that money received from Russia was the main source of income for Baltnews.lv."
Similar viewpoints were taken by the VSD, the Lithuanian counterpart to KaPo and the DP, pointing to articles published concerning the country's Polish-speaking minority and Poland's supposed intentions towards Lithuania.
Baltnews.lt apparently received around €500,00 in a three year period from Barsolina through a non-profit called Eurasian Media Laboratory.
Returning to Baltnews' direction from Russia, it appears that the Kremlin net spreads much wider than just the Baltics. On May 25, 2016, Alexandr Svyazin — probably in error — sent Kornilov a list of topics that appear to show the expected coverage of Kremlin-owned media across the former USSR: Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and the Russian-supported breakaway region of Ossetia in Georgia in addition to the Baltics.
Estonia had two separate entries in the list — one for Baltnews and the other for the local edition of Sputnik.
From at least July 2015, orders to cover various topics including Rossiya Segodnya news stories on the troop and arms movements of the Eastern Ukrainian separatists from a woman going under the name of Liana Minasyan, in addition to Mr. Svyazin.
The KaPo identified Minasyan as the supervisor of the Estonian Sputnik office in 2015.
The records show also that Kornilov and Alexandr Svyazin's daily Skype sessions continued for months, often arguing about internet traffic stats and chatting off topic, including complaints about their bosses and bureaucracy.
Large amounts of evidence also point towards efforts made to purchase pageviews, Russian troll factory comments and more, and are covered in much more depth in the original Re:baltica/Buzzfeed article here.
Harrys Puusepp, a superintendent and spokesperson at KaPo, told BuzzFeed News that the Baltnews scheme matches the modus operandi of other Kremlin propaganda operations and shows how their covert financial schemes are used to legitimise hostile propaganda.
"It's a telling vicious circle of producing and financing propaganda, then referring to it as a genuine voice of local Russians, in order to use the distorted public image to support their foreign policy goals at international platforms," Mr. Puusepp said.
How it played out
The Skype chat logs came to an end when Alexnder Kornilov was seized by the Estonian authorities on tax evasion charges, and on 1 June 2018 a brief message was posted on all three Baltnews sites, saying that due to a change of publisher, a new editorial team was to be formed, with Mr. Kornilov posting a message on his social media page announcing his and his team's farewell: "Thank you to everyone who has been with us for those four years," he wrote.
Whilst Mr. Kornilov reached a plea deal with the Estonian prosecutor's office and in so doing avoided a conviction for tax fraud and forgery of documents, Altmedia was convicted in his stead in spite of evidence that he was involved in forgery and tax evasion.
Baltnews, which declined to comment when contacted on the issue, continues to be published online in all three Baltic countries.
*Sputnik itself lodged a complaint against ERR in May this year, claiming that it had been misrepresented as speading disinformation regarding the reasons for an Estonian Defence Forces (EDF) recruit getting injured by a firearms wound. The complaint was overruled by the Estonian Press Council.
Editor: Andrew Whyte
Source: Re:Baltica, Buzzfeed News