Russia Engages in Prolonged Influence Campaigns Targeting the United States and Europe

Recently disclosed U.S. intelligence analysis unveils Russia’s escalating endeavors to disseminate pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian narratives across the United States and Western countries. Their tactics involve concealing manipulation efforts orchestrated by their intelligence agencies, as revealed in a newly declassified U.S. intelligence assessment reported by The New York Times.

In the lead-up to the 2016 U.S. elections, Russian intelligence agencies primarily employed tactics with short-term consequences, like amplifying internal tensions within the U.S. through social media engagements.

However, the recently revealed U.S. analysis delves into the covert utilization of allies within ostensibly independent organizations by Russian intelligence agencies, including the Federal Security Service (FSB), to propagate their propaganda. These activities may still persist.

The declassified intelligence analysis was made public by authorized U.S. officials responsible for information disclosure.

Apart from overseeing the mercenaries of the private military company Wagner, the late Yevgeny Prigozhin, in the past, established and funded the Internet Research Agency. Dissolved just last month following Prigozhin’s failed coup endeavor, the organization was subsequently implicated in managing a prominent bot farm known for backing Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and criticizing Hillary Clinton.

The information divulged by the United States on Friday is intended to underscore the more profound nature of Russian influence operations beyond mere attempts to sow discord online. Instead, these influence endeavors are focused on cultivating a network of emerging leaders who, as the Kremlin envisions, will either align with Russia or disseminate pro-Russian narratives within their respective nations. These initiatives bear semblance to the Soviet Union’s intelligence agency’s endeavors in nurturing ideological allies and informants globally.

An unnamed American official detailed a cohort of self-styled co-optees who assert their independent actions but are, in reality, agents of Russian intelligence employed for executing influence operations. These operations encompass initiatives to foster pro-Russian sentiment among Americans and Europeans, alongside more overt strategies like orchestrating large-scale protests. The recently disclosed dossier pertains to four Russians associated with Russian intelligence. Among them is Natalia Burlyanova, whose name has emerged in a recently surfaced incriminatory assessment by the Ministry of Justice.

The charges outlined in the indictment assert that Burlinova collaborated with the FSB to enlist American citizens from educational institutions into her established non-governmental entity, Creative Diplomacy. The organization presents itself as a platform for public diplomacy tailored for leaders aiming to foster conversations with Russia. Creative Diplomacy maintains that its program has engaged 80 participants from diverse countries.

Following the filing of charges in June, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on a pair of FSB officers, among them Yegor Popov, who functioned as Burlinova’s overseer. Popov supervised her activities and supplied her with a roster of U.S. citizens to approach.

Russian intelligence-funded Creative Diplomacy, which was utilized to construct a network of “future Western influencers” envisioned to espouse Kremlin-friendly perspectives, was also under FSB surveillance. It monitored the endeavors of Creative Diplomacy alumni, some of whom persisted in publishing pro-Russian content. Although Burlinova refuted any affiliations with the Russian government, U.S. intelligence contradicted these assertions.

An anonymous American participant of Creative Diplomacy, who preferred to keep his identity undisclosed, expressed that had he been aware of the program’s ties to Russian intelligence, he would have refrained from joining. Nevertheless, he asserted that he doesn’t lament his involvement as it afforded him the chance to engage with Russian officials and pose questions.

In his perspective, the program’s pro-Russian orientation didn’t greatly deviate from public diplomacy initiatives in other nations, and some attendees actually formed a less favorable view of Russia following these interactions, rather than a more positive one. He remarked that the collaboration between Burlinova and the FSB didn’t surprise him. However, he opined that if the program indeed constituted a Russian intelligence operation, its inefficacy should leave the U.S. government untroubled.

The declassified analysis also highlights three additional individuals: Andriy Stepanenko, who served at the FSB from 2014 to 2019; Maxim Hryhoriev, director of the Foundation for the Exploration of Democracy, an entity that American analysts claim disseminated anti-Ukrainian narratives on behalf of the Kremlin; and Anton Tsvetkov, leader of the “Officers of Russia” group. U.S. officials asserted that, acting on the instructions of Russian intelligence, Tsvetkov orchestrated protest actions in Moscow, including those near the U.S. Embassy.

Under the directives of Russian intelligence, he orchestrated demonstrations targeting Bard College in New York state and its collaboration with St. Petersburg College. These activities ultimately resulted in the prohibition of the New York institution in Russia, as the Kremlin harbored concerns about Western influence on Russian educational institutions. Throughout 2022, Tsvetkov spearheaded protests critical of Ukraine near Western embassies in Russia.

Earlier reports indicated that Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service along with its military intelligence agency are striving to reinstate a network of spies within the EU, following the widespread expulsion of Russian intelligence operatives who had been operating under diplomatic cover in European nations.

Despite the prevalent support for Ukraine and the informed understanding of our nation’s struggles among the majority of Americans, Russian operatives adept at mimicry and concealment still manage to pinpoint specific groups within the United States that willingly absorb the tailored Russian propaganda meant for them.