Russia Laundering Propaganda Through Western Media

The US government is fighting back, albeit subtly.

CNN (“Newly declassified US intel claims Russia is laundering propaganda through unwitting Westerners“):

Russian intelligence is operating a systematic program to launder pro-Kremlin propaganda through private relationships between Russian operatives and unwitting US and western targets, according to newly declassified US intelligence.

US intelligence agencies believe that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) is attempting to influence public policy and public opinion in the West by directing Russian civilians to build relationships with influential US and Western individuals and then disseminate narratives that support Kremlin objectives, obscuring the FSB’s role through layers of ostensibly independent actors.

“These influence operations are designed to be deliberately small scale, the overall goal being US [and] Western persons presenting these ideas, seemingly organic,” a US official authorized to discuss the material told CNN. “The co-optee influence operations are built primarily on personal relationships … they build trust with them and then they can leverage that to covertly push the FSB’s agenda.”

The campaigns have sometimes been effective at planting Russian narratives in the Western press, according to the intelligence. Maxim Grigoriev, who heads a Russian NGO, made multiple speeches to the UN presenting a false study that claimed the humanitarian group the White Helmets – which operates in Syria – was running a black market for human organs and had faked chemical attacks by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with whom Russia is allied. Those claims eventually found their way into a television report on the far-right OANN in the United States, according to open-source materials provided by the official.

CNN has reached out to Grigoriev and OANN.

Given the weird shift in support by many on the right to become Putin apologists, if not outright admirers, one might reasonably jump to the conclusion that they were willing dupes. But the report suggests otherwise.

But the official stressed that the Western voices that eventually became mouthpieces for Russian propaganda were almost certainly unaware of the role they were playing.

“At the end of the day, this unwitting target is disseminating Russian influence operation, Russian propaganda to their target public,” the US official said. “Ultimately, a lot of these are unwitting people — they remain unaware who is essentially seeding these narratives.”

Of course, this doesn’t dismiss the effects of being eager to believe Russian propaganda to begin with. Regardless,

The intelligence provides several examples of Russian civilian “co-optees” doing the bidding of the FSB.

One man, Andrey Stepanenko, founded a media project in 2014 that sponsored journalists from the US and the West to visit eastern Ukraine and learn “the alleged truth” about what was happening in the region. In fact, the FSB directed his efforts and “almost certainly financed the project,” according to the declassified intelligence.

CNN was not able to locate Stepanenko to ask for comment.

The US official also cited Natalia Burlinova, the founder of a Russian NGO who routinely coordinated FSB-funded public diplomacy efforts aimed at influencing Western views. In 2018, she visited, had meetings and hosted events at multiple US think tanks and universities in New York, Boston and Washington – work that was funded by the FSB, according to the intelligence. Her conduct was already public: She was indicted earlier this year on charges of conspiring with an FSB officer to act as an illegal agent of Russia inside the United States, although she remains at liberty in Russia.

CNN has reached out to Burlinova.

The official declined to offer specifics to back up the intelligence community’s assertions that the FSB is funding this kind of operation but noted that once officials were able establish FSB backing, it is easy to trace the narratives they are pushing in open-source materials.

“Once you’re aware of who these people are and their association with the FSB, by nature of what they’re doing, they have very, very public personas,” the official said. “And so I would just say it’s not really difficult to kind of follow the strings.”

The US official declined to say whether Russia has used these same tactics to try to influence US elections.

The FSB does use similar tactics to influence political opinion within Russia, according to the intelligence. In one instance, a Russian media figure named Anton Tsvetkov organized protests outside of embassies in Moscow — including the US Embassy — at the FSB’s behest. The protests pushed Russia’s narrative of the war in Ukraine, “promoting the ‘Ukrainian Nazi’ narrative and blaming the U.S. and its allies for the deaths of children in the Donbass,” while hiding the Russian government’s role, according to the declassified intelligence.

“The purpose of those protests really was … designed to sell it to the Russian people,” the US official said.

It has long been a criticism of US foreign policy that we’re much worse than our adversaries at public diplomacy and information operations more generally. There has been a marked improvement on this score under the Biden administration.

Most notably, the selective release of intelligence in the run-up to and the early days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine gained control of the narrative and denied Putin the fig leaf of deniability that he enjoyed during the 2014 invasion of Crimea. This release is more subtle but it should serve to make American media outlets—and think tanks—less credulous and perhaps a little more resistant to Russian influence operations.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I rather doubt they will learn.

  2. steve says:

    It won’t have much effect. When faced with facts that differ from their beliefs people will just double down on what they believe. There has always been a bit of this in both tribes but it’s now near universal on the right.


  3. walt moffett says:

    What NGO or nation is not washing propaganda thru our media?

  4. DK says:

    This is ‘water’s wet’ type of reporting. We been knew about Putin’s puppets in politics and the press and Russian trolls on social media.

    Fortunately, journalists seem to have learned some from their Emailghazigatepalooza 2016 debacle. Fewer are following OANN’s Kremlin-tinged lead, while still allowing room for contrarionism and “just asking questions.”

  5. Gustopher says:

    This release is more subtle but it should serve to make American media outlets—and think tanks—less credulous and perhaps a little more resistant to Russian influence operations.

    Subtlety doesn’t cut it. It’s ineffective, and it’s creepy.

    Russia has been weaponizing Freedom of Speech in the US, and we should be countering it, but our government should be as forthright and transparent as humanly possible while doing so, so it doesn’t look like our government is trying to manipulate the media (we have enough conspiracy theories as is).

    I think the template should be:
    – provably false claim (or unsubstantiated claim)
    – original reports of claim in Russian media, and Russian backed sources
    – when and where it appears in American media
    – actors (witting or unwitting) between the media outlets propagating.

    Something designed to be read and understood by someone with an 8th grade reading level (you know, Americans) and put out on a government web site. Not in a classified doc written for an internal audience that eventually gets declassified and reported on by CNN.

    There are lots of freedom of the press, freedom of speech and other first amendment issues here, so transparency is key. It should encourage the reputable new sites to double check its work, to prevent the program from being entirely co-opted by a less scrupulous administration or at least be so transparent that it is obvious when/if this is happening.

    (And yes, some pundits who peddle these lies would be very annoyed.)

  6. JohnSF says:

    @walt moffett:

    What NGO or nation is not washing propaganda thru our media?

    Albeit partly depending on how you define “propaganda”.

  7. Ken_L says:

    It goes without saying that many Republicans and their propaganda outlets will dismiss this as a continuation of “the Russia Russia Russia hoax”. Joe Biden is anti-Putin, therefore they are for him.

  8. Matt says:

    The FSB was running social media influencers before it even really became a commercial thing. They are pushing their propaganda on every level they can and have been doing it for many decades now.,