In October-November 2016, something major happened in Ukraine – Ukrainian hackers published a dump of emails from Vladislav Surkov, the aide of Russian President Vladimir Putin. It appears it is thus far the largest hack of a Kremlin top official and provides unique insight into the Kremlin’s hybrid war operations in Ukraine, a major part of which were media operations. In its media influence, the Kremlin followed the main objectives of war propaganda directed at the enemy: demoralizing Ukrainians who are de facto at war with Russia.
The dumps, hacked by a coalition of Ukrainian “hacktivists” calling themselves the “Cyberalliance” and publicized by Informnapalm on 25 October and 3 November 2016, immediately became the epicenter of speculation regarding their origins and veracity of their contents. Some suggested that the CIA lent a helping hand as a retaliation for the DNC hack, something that the hacktivists deny pleading the self-sufficiency of Ukrainian capacities for these operations.
Authenticity of the emails
Others have questioned whether the contents are authentic. Without going into detail, there is yet nothing to suggest that they aren’t. The sheer bulk of emails from the two accounts run by Surkov’s assistants, [email protected] and [email protected], and ratio of interesting/mundane information already suggest the contents would have been extremely hard to forge. The fugitive Russian businessman Chichvarkin and Reuters confirmed emails that they had sent in the batch. Events mentioned in the emails actually took place, like Robbie Williams performing for Surkov. Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Lab stated the headers of the emails they analyzed appeared to be authentic.
However, the separate publication of an alleged screenshot of a pdf that was not included in the leak on cyberhunta’s website depicting a plan called “shatun” to destabilize Ukraine’s government raised questions regarding its authenticity. As it is impossible to independently verify the origins of this document, we will not analyze it, instead focusing on the documents that can be verified.
In the following analysis, we have done additional fact-checking by verifying the timestamps of the creation date of the documents that were attached in the emails, assuming that if a document was planted in the leak, its metadata would differ from the date of the sent email. All documents that we analyzed in the leak had metadata showing they were created either on the date the email was sent or a few days earlier.
The Kremlin’s soft power
Many observers were disappointed with the absence of “bombshell” proof of the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine in the two dumps of Surkov’s emails.
I beg to differ. The proof is all there. The leaks expose the day-to-day mechanics of an unconventional, hybrid war, in which soft power extended through media, political influence, and civic actors, combined with a covert military presence and puppet “republics,” work towards achieving Russian military goals in Ukraine.
Reaching the “Ukrainian soul”
Interestingly, it started before Euromaidan, on 17 October 2013, when Surkov received a document from Vitaliy Leybin, chief editor of the journal Russian Reporter outlining the “entry points” to Ukraine’s public opinion. Leybin lists a number of journalists, PR experts, historians, and business executives operating in Ukraine with whom either “all types of interaction were possible” (meaning they displayed a strong interest in promoting the pro-Russian position), with whom “interaction was possible (partially, interaction has been achieved with different Russian counteragents),” and with whom common points were “theoretically possible.”
It looks like the goal behind this probe was to provide public support for the sudden change of policy that Yanykovych would make a month later. Under pressure from Russia, on 21 November 2013 he postponed the signing of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, meaning Ukraine was swapping its pro-European course for the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union. The Ukrainian people decided otherwise – three months later, Yanukovych was ousted by the Euromaidan revolution and Ukraine is now headed by a pro-EU government.
Whoever wrote this memo had an insider’s view into the Ukrainian psyche. The suggestions for propagandizing the Ukrainian soul with a desire for Russia contain statements like “we need to understand that the national character contains pride and stubbornness, we need to create at least an illusion of a free choice, equal partnership, and not subordination.”
Infiltrating Ukrainian media
On 16.07.2014, Surkov got a letter authored by Pavel Broyde, a former PR technologist of the “shadow vertical of power” in south-Ukrainian Zaporizhzhia that escaped to Moscow after Euromaidan. It started with the words:
“The information space has a global role in the question of supporting pro-Russian attitudes and powers in Ukraine. The experience of Crimea demonstrates how strong the factor of the presence of Russian TV channels and sympathy of local outlets to Russia influences public opinion. Achieving mass support is possible upon converting their influence to political positions.”
The failure to spread pro-Russian narratives in mass media is of the reasons Russia’s separatist protests in southeastern Ukraine failed and anti-Russian sentiments grew, Broyde explains. However, he continues, it’s possible to have a pro-Russian presence in Ukraine’s information space, by creating new outlets, re-orientating existing outlets which already have a high readership or a combination of both.
Broyde reckoned that the most promising outlet for “an informational pro-Russian breakthrough in the Ukrainian media space” was Ukrainian Media Holding (UMH), the resources of which “wouldn’t be enough to implement the task of dominating in the information field, but could significantly influence the situation in the internet and radio segments.”
UMH is a leader on the Ukrainian media scene belonging to Serhiy Kurchenko, a Ukrainian oligarch that managed Yanukovych’s assets and, like the disgraced ex-President, fled to Russia after the Euromaidan revolution, and was seeking patronage from Russian structures. The editors of UMH’s flagman outlets, korrespondent.net and Forbes, resigned after the 27-year old Kurchenko purchased the holding in June 2013. In announcing his resignation, Forbes.ua chief editor Volodymyr Fedorkin wrote:
“I am sure that the purchaser is going after one of three goals, or all three at the same time: 1) to shut journalists’ mouths prior to the presidential elections; to whitewash his own reputation; to use the outlet for solving issues that have nothing to do with the media business.”
“Outlets belonging to UMH can’t be accused of a direct anti-Russian campaign,” Broyde continues. However, they don’t transmit the Russian message well enough – for instance, when covering the issue of captive Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko, korrespondent.net, UMH’s largest outlet, didn’t quote the Russian position [which was grounded on fabrications that were disproved by Savchenko’s defense, but disregarded by the court. Essentially, that meant that korrespondent.net didn’t use the “side A said, side B said” construction when perceiving that one of the sides is propagating disinformation – Ed.]
While they won’t ever become a platform of the “DNR” or the Russian MFA, it’s possible, Broyde goes on, to reorient their content to moderately promote Russian interests in Ukraine – by selling a control package of actions to Russian structures, moving the editorial office into territories uncontrolled by Ukraine, raising scandals about the “freedom of press” would the content of the outlets ever be questioned from the aspects of national security, and using UMH as a starting point for developing other, more distinctly pro-Russian outlets.
While it’s unclear what happened with UMH next, korrespondent.net currently seems to be meeting the goals of the Kremlin’s policymakers in Ukraine. A data analysis conducted by liga.net during July-September 2016 showed that korrespondent.net was #4 in mentions of ex-Ukrainian officials from Yanukovych’s circle (#1 and 2 are outlets associated with oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk and Kurchenko respectively), meaning they were giving them a platform for voicing their pro-Russian positions with no ostensible news pretext.
The ease with which Kremlin messages were planted in Ukrainian media is illustrated by a document Surkov received on 18.02.2016 for the preparation of a round table of the so-called “Committee for the Salvation of Ukraine,” during which on 25.02.2016, fugitive Ukrainian politicians such as ex-PM Azarov, ex-MPs and other Russian and pro-Russian actors discussed how the two years that passed after Euromaidan “have placed Ukraine on the brink of an economic, demographic, and social catastrophe.” The Kremlin organizers of this event established the price for getting Ukrainian media to cover this event as $7,000.
Creating new media outlets for Russian propaganda in Ukraine?
Apart from plans to subvert UMH, Broyde urged that opening dedicated Russian outlets would allow maintaining a steady Russian influence on Ukrainian audiences, and it would be cheaper, too. “In today’s situation, an effective all-Ukrainian PR campaign using central media outlets costs $400,000-450,000 a month, plus costs for PR specialists,” he says; but a large internet outlet can have the same result with a budget 4-5 times smaller.
But a news site is only one possible solution. There could be specialized sites: a political analysis site (“it should appear objective,” “shouldn’t create the impression of a ‘pro-Russian’ site”), a military news site (goals: “to form a negative attitude in Ukrainian society towards the ‘anti-terrorist operation’; to form a negative attitude towards the Kyiv regime”), regional portals promoting separatism in southeastern Ukraine, anti-war site (goals: “to demoralize the Ukrainian population and servicemen”), “enough of feeding Donbas” site (goals: promoting the idea that Ukraine should abandon Donbas among nationalist-minded audiences).
Unfortunately, it is not known if any of these plans that Surkov received came to fruition.
“Political network” for planting Kremlin messages into Ukrainian media
A curious document dated 18.07.2014 forwarded to Surkov gives unique insight into the technology of how Russian propaganda messages are being disseminated in the Ukrainian mediaspace, which work towards achieving all the goals that the specialized sites were called to do – demoralize Ukrainians in a de-facto state of war with Russia.
Titled “Thematic lines for working with the political network for 20-27 July 2014,” it contains a list of thematic lines to be pushed by the Kremlin’s network of agents during the week. That week, they included topics such as: MH17 (lines: “It was a provocation of Kyiv directed against the ‘republics’; Kyiv is trying to blame Putin personally; MH17 could have been shot down by a Ukrainian Buk” and other conspiracy theories), criticism of Ukrainian President’s amendments to the Constitution (lines: “Constitutional amendments proposed by Poroshenko are a disguise for creating a dictatorial regime”), necessity of making peace with “Novorossiya” (lines: “Kyiv should recognize the Kremlin-backed ‘republics’ as subjects of the negotiation process”), “how long will the Ukrainian army last?”, “deteriorating socio-economic situation”, “war of the oligarchs.”
These instructions are apparently sent to a list of Kremlin-backed (and probably paid) influencers from the journalist or political scenes, which promote them in the outlets of their choice and ability. The email split the influencers into several categories: “ineffective persons,” “averagely effective persons,” “highly effective persons,” “status persons” and included journalists, historians, editors, political scientists, politicians, including an MP from the Communist Party, and civic actors like coordinators of the far-left movement Borotba, which had previously been accused of being a Kremlin pawn.
The catastrophe of flight MH17, which was shot down by what turned out to be Russian troops inside Ukraine, was to be compared with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, a supposed provocation by the Ukrainian government to provoke a new world war. Former Kremlin Advisor Alexander Nekrassov planted this conspiracy into CNN. And journalist Viktor Rudnev planted it into a Korrespondent.net article with the title “Who benefits from the provocation with the Malaysian Boeing?”
Mikael Chagalyan, a “non-status effective person,” according to the Kremlin’s classification, plants the Kremlin message of “5 thous. Ukrainian servicemen were surrounded by the militias,” letter for letter, into rian.com.ua, and Yuriy Lukashyn, a journalist from the Kremlin’s “reserve” list, succeeds in inserting 7 strategic Kremlin messages into an article titled “ATO on the verge of collapse” into the already familiar Korrespondent.net
Surkov’s pet political technologists
In the second Surkov leak, a series of letters stands out. All sent from the same secured address,[email protected], they arrange a meeting for roughly the same list of political technologists and journalists (like this one), and then follow up with an overview of the publications that the pundits produce in roughly the same outlets, the majority being in politnavigator.net, directed at the Russian audience. These articles were promoted in social media, at least, that’s what one report from 2.11.2015 suggests.
The agenda pushed through these overviews is rather interesting. Largely, they are a regurgitation of the same old background Kremlin propaganda lines such as “a good [Ukrainian] fascist is a dead fascist,” hagiographies of the leaders of the puppet “republics” and horror stories about the Ukrainian army, assurances that Ukraine is crumbling, controlled by western powers, and that the social situation there is on the verge of erupting, deriding Ukrainian politicians, historical propaganda denigrating the independence of the Ukrainian state and glorifying the supposed emergence independence of the “republics.” But along with that, they also push the Kremlin’s urgent talking points, conveniently highlighted in yellow.
The talking points basically run down to:
- Kyiv must succumb to Kremlin demands on Donbas (constitution reform to provide “special status” for Donbas, federalization, total amnesty to participants of the conflict, elections)
- The EU leaders are pressing on Kyiv to succumb to those demands
- Ukraine sabotages the Minsk agreements
- Donbas wants to be part of Russia
- The West has abandoned Ukraine
In order to stress some of those points, round tables were held. For instance, this one on 4.02.2016 stressing that “Ukraine will fall apart if it doesn’t federalize,” which was covered in 27 outlets, all in Russia. Sometimes, it was enough to ensure the proper media coverage by press releases and expert comments. When Russia introduced Russian passports to the occupied territories, like in the occupied territories of Georgia, on 16.07.2015, Surkov received two reports (1, 2) of media coverage in mainly Russian media with the talking points “Donbas is Russia” and “Russian passports are an act of mercy,” possibly to distract from the undeniable reality of Russia’s involvement in the war.
Operation “Eurorealism,” or “Ukraine should forget about the EU”
Ostensibly, Surkov’s political technologist team participated in the development of the “eurorealism” concept that is now propagated by a “Ukrainian policy fund.”
“The EU isn’t ready to view Ukraine as a full-fledged partner; therefore, other paths of development must be searched for,” it says, calling to “discard the pink glasses of eurooptimism,” as well as a media monitoring after a round-table on 6.07.2015 dedicated to its opening containing headlines such as “Germany is starting agitation in Kyiv: Ukraine has no chances of becoming an EU member,” “The EU policy of good neighborship failed,” “Ukraine is heading towards an economic crisis” etc, all describing how it’s useless for Ukraine to dream of becoming part of the EU and how the Euromaidan revolution failed.
All this seemingly became the ideological foundation for the successors of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, the Opposition Bloc, whose leader in parliament Boris Kolesnik appeared in TV shows using the topic of “Eurorealism” to promote Surkov’s overarching goal – to secure changes in Ukraine’s Constitution guaranteeing a special status for the puppet “republics” in Donbas, and hence, the possibility to endlessly interfere in Ukraine’s politics. “Experts and politicians… insist on making changes in the Constitution, which should be a guarantee of peace in Donbas and a realistic way to save the economy,” commented the host on TV Ukrayina on 6.07.2015.
Basically, “Eurorealism” was the Kremlin’s way to demoralize their opponent, i.e. post-Euromaidan Ukraine: by disseminating messages saying that Ukraine will never reach their goal and dream. The Ukrainian policy fund continues working on this today.
“European friends will help with the topic of freedom of speech in Ukraine”
The collision between journalistic standards for a time of peace, which Ukraine is in de jure, and for a time of war, in which Ukraine is in de facto, has been going on for more than two years, since the armed uprising of Kremlin-backed militants in Donbas after the Euromaidan revolution. The abovementioned Kremlin instruments for manipulating public opinion undermine Ukraine’s national security, but neutralizing them is sure to provoke a backlash of accusations of encroaching upon the freedom of press.
Surkov’s pet journalist Vitaliy Leybin, chief editor of the Russkiy Reporter outlet and long-time advisor for plans to conquer Ukraine, offers solution for this unfortunate conundrum. In a letter from 21.05.2015, he tells of meeting with Ihor Huzhva, then chief editor of Vesti, a free daily newspaper with about 200,000 daily circulation, with the Vesti.Reporter, affiliated to Russkiy Reporter.
Huzhva offered some insider tactical advice on what Russia can do to destabilize Ukraine. Ukraine’s establishment isn’t scared of war and losing additional territories until troops don’t enter Kyiv or Odesa – it would be good to make them scared. It is necessary to work with internal Ukrainian politics if the Minsk agreement is serious, and Huzhva is ready to help. He suggests placing not only the local elections in occupied Donbas on the agenda of Minsk negotiations but also to push for preliminary parliamentary elections in Ukraine overall and try to get a larger quota of Kremlin-controlled representatives from the “LDNR” to the Ukrainian parliament.
Apart from that, Huzhva stood ready to assist the Kremlin in exercising their influence on local elections in Kyiv. “Vesti has a circulation of 200,000 free copies in Kyiv, it’s a very influential paper. Theoretically, we can even win or start working with some party or leader for the future,” Leybin advises Surkov.
In Ukraine, Vesti’s anti-Ukrainian content had elicited protests of experts and activists alike, who called it an instrument of Kremlin propaganda in Ukraine. Kyiv’s prosecutor’s office had criminal proceedings opened against the newspaper for promoting separatism, and Ukraine’s Security Service accused it of shady financing and made several searches of Vesti’s offices, on 22 May and 11 September 2015. Moreover, Ukraine’s parliamentary committee for national security declared Vesti to be a national security hazard in May 2015.
During the meeting, Leybin promised the editor of this outlet-under-fire that they [the Kremlin] will “facilitate acquiring help from European friends on the topic of media freedom in Ukraine.” It’s unclear whether Kremlin interference was the reason, but after the 11 September SBU searches of Vesti’s office, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović called on the Ukrainian authorities “to refrain from any measures which could intimidate members of the media and impede the work of media outlets,” adding that “National security concerns related to the current challenges in Ukraine should not justify disproportionate restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of the media.”
Vesti was also included in the Freedom House 2015 report as an example of the violation of the freedom of press. Today, the SBU is investigating the accounts of Vesti Holding for illegal financing, Huzhva left the post of Vesti chief editor, and runs the portal strana.ua.