Agents of doubt
How a powerful Russian propaganda machine chips away at Western notions of truth
The initial plan was a Cold War classic — brutal yet simple. Two Russian agents would slip onto the property of a turncoat spy in Britain and daub his front door with a rare military-grade poison designed to produce an agonizing and untraceable death.
But when the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal was botched, the mission quickly shifted. Within hours, according to British and U.S. officials who closely followed the events, a very different kind of intelligence operation was underway, this one involving scores of operatives and accomplices and a scheme straight out of the Kremlin’s 21st-century communications playbook — the construction of an elaborate fog machine to make the initial crime disappear.
Dozens of false narratives and conspiracy theories began popping up almost immediately, the first of 46 bogus story lines put out by Russian-controlled media and Twitter accounts and even by senior Russian officials, according to a tabulation by The Washington Post — all of them sowing doubt about Russia’s involvement in the March 4 assassination attempt. Ranging from the plausible to the fantastical, the stories blamed a toxic spill, Ukrainian activists, the CIA, British Prime Minister Theresa May and even Skripal himself.
The brazenness of the attempt to kill a Russian defector turned British citizen at his home in southwest England outraged Western governments and led to the expulsion of some 150 Russian diplomats by more than two dozen countries, including the United States. Yet, more than eight months later, analysts see a potential for greater harm in the kind of heavily coordinated propaganda barrage Russia launched after the assassination attempt failed.
Intelligence agencies have tracked at least a half-dozen such distortion campaigns since 2014, each aimed, officials say, at undermining Western and international investigative bodies and making it harder for ordinary citizens to separate fact from falsehood. They say such disinformation operations are now an integral part of Russia’s arsenal — both foreign policy tool and asymmetrical weapon, one that Western institutions and technology companies are struggling to counter.
“Dismissing it as fake news misses the point,” said a Western security official who requested anonymity in discussing ongoing investigations into the Russian campaign. “It’s about undermining key pillars of democracy and the rule of law.”
Variations on the technique existed during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union used propaganda to create alternative realities. In the early years of President Vladimir Putin’s rule, Russian officials and state-owned broadcasters promoted false narratives to explain the death of Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian security official who died in 2006 after being exposed to a radioactive toxin in London.
But the disinformation campaigns now emanating from Russia are of a different breed, said intelligence officials and analysts. Engineered for the social media age, they fling up swarms of falsehoods, concocted theories and red herrings, intended not so much to persuade people but to bewilder them.
“The mission seems to be to confuse, to muddy the waters,” said Peter Pomerantsev, a former Russian-television producer and author of “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible,” a memoir that describes the Kremlin’s efforts to manipulate the news. The ultimate aim, he said, is to foster an environment in which “people begin giving up on the facts.”
Moscow has repeatedly rejected such accusations, while suggesting that Britain is responsible for any confusion over what happened in the Skripal case. “Nine months has passed and so far we have not been presented with any official results of the investigation,” Russia’s London Embassy said in a statement to The Post. “The Embassy still has no access to our Russian citizens,” a reference to Skripal and his Russian daughter, Yulia Skripal, who was also sickened in the attack.
Yet the same tactics that were observed in the wake of the Skripal poisoning have been employed multiple times since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, in each case following roughly the same script. When pro-Russian separatists shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, killing 298 passengers and crew members, Russian officials and media outlets sought to pin the blame on the Ukrainian government, suggesting at one point that corpses had been trucked to the crash site to make the death toll appear higher.
State-controlled Russian media unleashed a fusillade of falsehoods after the assassination of reformist politician Boris Nemtsov in Moscow in 2015 and after at least three deadly chemical weapons attacks against civilians by Syria’s pro-Russian government.
And apart from these concerted campaigns, there is a daily churn of false or distorted reports that seem designed to exploit the divisions in Western society and politics, especially on issues such as race, violence and sexual rights, and that are pushed by droves of operatives posing as ordinary citizens on social media accounts.
While many of the individual stories are easily debunked, the campaigns have had a discernible impact, as measured by opinion polls and, occasionally, public statements by Western politicians casting doubt on the findings of the intelligence agencies of their own governments. In October 2015, months after U.S. and European investigators concluded that Flight 17 had been brought down by a Russian missile fired by separatists, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump told CNN that the culprit was “probably Russia” but suggested that the truth was unknowable.
“To be honest with you, you’ll probably never know for sure,” he said.
Results such as these have encouraged what private groups say is a massive and ever-increasing investment by Moscow, which has placed numerous news outlets fully or partly on its payroll and operates at least one troll factory in which scores of employees disseminate pro-Kremlin messages using thousands of fake social media accounts.
The cost of this matrix is about $1.3 billion a year, according to Russian budget documents — a modest sum, considering the benefits, said Jakub Kalensky, until recently an official with the East StratCom Task Force, a rapid-response team created by the European Union to counter Russian disinformation. Unlike the covert operations used by Russia to influence foreign elections, Russia’s distortion campaigns rarely invite retaliation, he said.
“For Russia, they are a cost-effective method for disrupting and undermining us,” Kalensky said. “You can have quite a good result for the money spent.”
A botched ‘hit’
By any objective measure, the assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal was an unalloyed disaster, the kind of intelligence-agency face plant that might have toppled a government if the operation had been carried out by a Western democracy. For the Kremlin, however, the bungled killing was quickly seized on as a public-relations opportunity.
A Russian military intelligence officer who was released to Britain as part of a spy swap in 2010, Skripal was the object of special scorn for Putin, who would publicly deride him as a traitor and a “scumbag.” Skripal had been convicted in Russia in 2006 of treason for spying for Britain and was serving a 13-year sentence at the time of the swap.
British investigators say two operatives from the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, were dispatched to Skripal’s adopted hometown with a perfume bottle filled with Novichok — a deadly nerve agent developed by Soviet scientists in the 1980s — with the aim of quietly poisoning the 67-year-old pensioner.
Almost nothing went according to plan. The operatives came up short in their quest to kill Skripal. He fell gravely ill along with his daughter, but both recovered after being aggressively treated by doctors for exposure to a suspected nerve agent. Moreover, investigators say, the Russian agents compounded their failure with the inadvertent death of a British woman who became ill after her boyfriend stumbled upon a discarded vial of Novichok and gave it to her, thinking it was perfume.
British investigators quickly identified the toxin as a Russian nerve agent and then publicly identified the suspected hit men, who were repeatedly caught on camera as they wandered around in Salisbury on March 4. Their cover story — the two claimed to be tourists visiting the city’s 13th-century cathedral — was riddled with holes. Surveillance camera footage showed the men walking not toward the cathedral but in the opposite direction, toward the residential neighborhood where Skripal lived. The exiled Russian was poisoned the same day.
“They failed to kill their target, and they failed to be covert,” said retired Rear Adm. John Gower, who oversaw nuclear, chemical and biological defense policy for Britain’s Defense Ministry. “Because of those failures, Russia had to pivot really quickly.”
And so, when the real facts became problematic, Gower said, Russia quickly manufactured new ones. Dozens of them.
A parade of false stories
The Kremlin’s propaganda machine swung into action in the immediate aftermath of the assassination attempt. Following a playbook already honed in response to events in Syria and Ukraine, Kremlin-controlled outlets produced a plethora of possible explanations. On March 6, two days after the poisoning, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti was already quoting an anesthesiologist saying that the manner of Skripal’s poisoning suggested he was a drug addict and had overdosed.
On March 8 alone, pro-Kremlin news outlets published five phony narratives about the events in Salisbury, offering explanations for Skripal’s illness that included an attempted suicide by Skripal and his daughter and a chemical-weapons leak at the nearby military laboratory at Porton Down.
Dmitry Kiselyov — the host of the program “Vesti Nedeli” (“News of the Week”) on the Rossiya network and a leading figure in the country’s propaganda hierarchy — picked up the baton on March 11. He said that because Skripal was already “completely wrung out and of little interest” as a source, his poisoning was only advantageous to the British to “nourish their Russophobia” and organize a boycott of the summer’s World Cup soccer tournament in Russia.
Then it was the Skripals’ pets turn in the spotlight — two guinea pigs and a fluffy Persian cat named Nesh Van Drake. The lack of information about their condition, Russian officials said in remarks that were broadcast on state TV, showed the British were surely covering something up.
“Where are these pets now?” Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vasily Nebenzya, asked at a Security Council meeting on April 5. “What has happened to them? Why has nobody said anything about them? Their condition is very important evidence.”
The theories kept coming: Was it someone from the Baltics? Was Skripal poisoned on MI5-sponsored trips to chemical labs in the Czech Republic and Spain? Could it be a British government plot to distract attention from Brexit — or even from a pedophilia scandal in the western English town of Telford?
The Skripal affair, RIA Novosti columnist Ivan Danilov wrote, “will continue as long as the government of Theresa May needs it to resolve its own internal problems.”
British officials and experts who studied the events say the false narratives emerged from a Russian information ecosystem in which news outlets and social media networks are increasingly intertwined with the country’s intelligence apparatus and official communications organs. While independent media voices flourished briefly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Putin years have been marked by assassinations of prominent journalists and the silencing or muting of dissent. In recent years, the control over many of the largest news outlets has become nearly absolute, officials and analysts say.
Putin brought Russia’s privately owned, freewheeling TV networks to heel in one of his first major moves as president. The Kremlin now controls all of Russia’s main national television channels — and half of all Russians say television is their most trusted source of news. The channels deliver a strident, conspiratorial, pro-Kremlin message in hours of lavishly produced talk shows and newsmagazine programs every night.
That domestic propaganda machine is backed up by state-owned news agencies, RIA Novosti and Tass, and a stable of pro-Kremlin newspapers and websites. The government expects to spend $303 million on state broadcaster VGTRK and $293 million on RT, the international broadcaster, this year, according to the latest official figures.
Although the Internet in Russia is mostly uncensored and reporting critical of Putin is widely available in print, online and on the radio, the government’s voice is by far the loudest in Russia’s media landscape.
Providing further amplification are social media “troll” factories — including one in St. Petersburg known as the Internet Research Agency, described in a Justice Department indictment earlier this year — where hundreds of workers are paid to disseminate false stories on the Internet, under official direction, U.S. officials said. After a crisis, Russia’s information network lurches into action, promoting stories and theories favored by the Kremlin, often with remarkable creativity, say officials and analysts.
“Different parts of the system echo each other, so the stories build momentum,” said Ben Nimmo, a British-based researcher with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which analyzes government disinformation campaigns.
Russian politicians and diplomats then chime in, often ridiculing any official investigation and denouncing claims of Russian involvement, Nimmo said. Russian diplomats — and on multiple occasions, Putin himself — publicly scoffed at Britain’s claims that Russian operatives were behind the Skripal poisoning. The Twitter account of the Russian Embassy in London echoed several of the false stories from social media, suggesting that Skripal was a British spy and theorizing that British military scientists had synthesized their own batch of Novichok, with help from a Soviet chemist who defected to the West.
“In absence of evidence, we definitely need Poirot in Salisbury,” the embassy tweeted, in an allusion to Hercule Poirot, the fictional detective created by novelist Agatha Christie. Some British officials regard such denials as beyond cynical, as the use of Novichok in the poisoning was widely seen as deliberate — a subtle, unspoken claim of responsibility intended to warn other dissidents not to cross Moscow.
Some of the attempts to reshape the Skripal narrative backfired. After British officials on Sept. 5 released surveillance photographs of a pair of Russians suspected of carrying out the plot, RT aired an interview in which the two men claimed that they had been mere tourists in Britain. Their story began to unravel days later when a report by the investigative news site Bellingcat assembled compelling evidence that both men were GRU officers.
The men made no effort in the RT interview to explain the traces of Novichok police discovered in their hotel room and instead made an awkward attempt to explain why they made two quick trips to Salisbury over a wintry March weekend. One of them described a desire to see the Salisbury cathedral’s “123-meter spire” and ancient clock, two features that appear on the cathedral’s Wikipedia entry.
Pro-Kremlin media also started pushing the story line that the two men might be gay — and, by implication, could not possibly be part of Russia’s military intelligence service. The “Vesti” news show ran a segment depicting Salisbury as imbued with a spirit of “modern European tolerance” and full of gay bars. In fact, a local newspaper said the town’s sole gay bar had closed three months before the Skripal poisoning.
Yet, even as the alibi attempt turned into farce, Russia’s Foreign Ministry continued to claim that Britain had concocted evidence to frame the men for a crime they could not possibly have committed. “There is no proof,” spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote in a Facebook posting on Sept. 26, asserting that Britain was seeking to divert the public’s attention from the real story of “what happened in Salisbury.”
As the false stories began to be picked apart, Russia responded with “a mixture of defiance and desperation,” Nimmo said. “You can see the Russian propaganda machine struggling over what to do.”
And yet by then, it no longer mattered. By multiple measures, Moscow had mostly succeeded in achieving the outcome it wanted most — doubt.
A bewildered public
Last month, an independent pollster set out to measure how ordinary Russians viewed the events in Salisbury. The result: Despite lab reports, surveillance photographs and a detailed criminal complaint by British investigators, Russians overwhelmingly rejected the notion that their government was involved in the attack.
Nearly 3 in 10 of the Russians surveyed said they believed Britain was behind the poisoning, while 56 percent agreed with the comment “It could have been anyone,” according to the Levada Center poll, conducted during the third week of October. Only 3 percent were willing to attribute the assassination attempt to Russia’s intelligence agencies.
Indeed, the Kremlin managed to turn the botched assassination and the ensuing Western uproar to Putin’s political advantage. The Russian presidential election was on March 18, and Putin was looking for high voter turnout to legitimize another six-year term. The Skripal affair allowed the Kremlin to turn the public’s attention away from domestic problems and back to the confrontation between Russia and the West — a winning issue for Putin.
By quickly accusing Russia of being behind the poisoning, Britain’s May gave Putin a “pre-election present,” Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser turned prominent Putin critic, said at the time. “She angered the voters a little bit and gave him another three to five percentage points of turnout.”
Levada sociologist Denis Volkov said the result showed the compelling nature of the us-vs.-them narrative constructed by the Kremlin and state media over the past two decades. In that reality, the West is bent on stopping Russia from returning to great-power status after it brought the country to its knees in the 1990s. The story line builds on many Russians’ memories of chaos, violence and poverty in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In focus groups, Volkov said, people sometimes acknowledged the likelihood of Russian involvement in the Skripal poisoning after initially rejecting it. After all, the respondents said, Russia was in a new Cold War with the West, and since the United States and its allies were lying, cheating and killing, Russia had to as well.
“They’ll say, ‘Sure, yeah, we might’ve done it,’ ” Volkov said. “ ‘But what’s the problem? Everyone’s doing it. There’s a war going on, even if it’s a cold war, between Russia and the West. So it’s okay to do it. The main thing is to deny everything.’ ”
Russia’s propaganda organs targeting foreign audiences — the television network RT and the web of radio stations and websites called Sputnik — also promote an anti-American narrative. While Russia’s domestic messaging builds on Russians’ bitterness stemming from the instability after the Soviet collapse, Moscow’s foreign propaganda message capitalizes on an aversion to what is seen as U.S. hegemony and hypocrisy in many parts of the world.
It’s less clear how effective RT and Sputnik are in pushing Russia’s message abroad. In Britain, the Kremlin’s version of the events in Salisbury has been widely debunked by independent news media. But in central and eastern Europe, where Russian channels in multiple languages are part of the standard cable-TV lineup, the contradictory claims have left viewers confused and bewildered — precisely what the designers of the propaganda campaign intended, said Kalensky, the former E.U. investigator.
“The strategy is to spread as many versions of events as possible and don’t worry that they sometimes contradict themselves,” Kalensky said. “It’s not the purpose to persuade someone with one version of events. The goal for Russia is achieve a state in which the average media consumer says, ‘There are too many versions of events, and I’ll never know the truth.’ ”
Even in the West, government agencies fear that Russia’s efforts are contributing to a growing distrust in traditional sources of information and blurring the line between fact and fiction. While RT’s viewership is relatively small in the West, its stories are frequently recycled on right-wing websites and media outlets.
Just as often, the stream flows in the opposite direction. False stories that first appear on obscure conservative news sites become fodder for Russian TV talk shows. Since the start of the Trump era, Russian channels regularly echo the U.S. president’s allegations about an American “deep state” and his depictions of the mainstream media as “fake news.”
The resulting muddle was highlighted by Putin himself, who, while standing next to President Trump during their July summit in Helsinki, seemed to distill the Kremlin’s approach to the news while responding to a question about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“As for who to believe, who you can’t believe, can you believe at all?” Putin mused, before answering his own questions: “You can’t believe anyone.”
Troianovski reported from Moscow. Natalia Abbakumova and Amie Ferris-Rotman in Moscow contributed to this report.
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