Treasury Sanctions ‘Russian-Backed’ News Outlets For ‘Advancing False Narratives’ That ‘Undermine Covid Vaccines,’ Paint Ukraine As ‘Aggressor’

Treasury Sanctions ‘Russian-Backed’ News Outlets For ‘Advancing False Narratives’ That ‘Undermine Covid Vaccines,’ Paint Ukraine As ‘Aggressor’

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Thursday sanctioned a host of Russian-backed news outlets for allegedly “advancing false narratives” and spreading “false information” to “undermine COVID-19 vaccines” and paint “Ukrainian government officials as the aggressor in the Russia-Ukraine relationship.”

Yellen’s sanctions hit the Strategic Culture Foundation, Odna Rodyna, Rhythm of Eurasia, Journal Kamerton, InfoRos, SouthFront, United World International, New Eastern Outlook, Oriental Review and Geopolitica.

Yellen provided no evidence or specific examples of any “false information” the various websites allegedly spread to “undermine COVID-19 vaccines” in her press release announcing the sanctions.

The sanctions freeze the websites’ assets and ban Americans from donating to them.

Anonymous “US intelligence officials” last month accused ZeroHedge of “amplifying Kremlin propaganda” for sharing content from the Strategic Culture Foundation and there was language in Yellen’s press release which appeared to allude to ZeroHedge being in her sights as well.

FURTHER ACTION AGAINST RUSSIAN INTELLIGENCE-DIRECTED DISINFORMATION OUTLETS

On April 15, 2021, OFAC designated Strategic Culture Foundation, InfoRos, NewsFront, and SouthFront for propagating Russian intelligence services-directed content. Since designation, these online media sites have attempted to evade sanctions and continue advancing false narratives against a variety of topics, including the COVID-19 pandemic. Russia’s disinformation and propaganda machine is a network of official and unofficial communication channels and platforms that Russia uses to create and amplify false narratives. Russia invests massively in these propaganda outlets to support their disinformation efforts, and it leverages outlets that pose as news sites to spread these false and misleading narratives. These media outlets repeatedly republish content from each other in an attempt to legitimize and popularize the disinformation narratives they propagate. The propaganda they collectively generate then is available to be cited by slightly larger, slightly more credible outlets, which filters their Russian intelligence-directed propaganda to a larger readership. This approach also allows Russia to be opportunistic, such as with COVID-19, where it has used the global pandemic as a hook to push longstanding disinformation and propaganda narratives.

Note, the Treasury has a link at the top of their page urging everyone to go “visit Vaccines.gov” and get vaxxed.

Russia sought to downplay Western concerns about a (then) potential further Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russian intelligence entities target Ukrainian and Russian citizens with disinformation attempting to label Ukraine and Ukrainian government officials as the aggressor in the Russia-Ukraine relationship. Russia’s disinformation playbook employs specifically placed propaganda at the behest of Russian intelligence services to manipulate and weaken perceived adversaries.

SVR-DIRECTED STRATEGIC CULTURE FOUNDATION (SCF)

SCF is an online journal registered in Russia that is controlled by the SVR’s Directorate of Active Measures and is closely affiliated with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. SCF was designated pursuant to E.O. 13848 on April 15, 2021, for having engaged in foreign interference in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

Since then, SCF has continued to make attempts to reach an audience, despite being banned on many social media and payment platforms following U.S. sanctions. SCF has created additional media outlets to promote its narratives, including Odna Rodyna and Rhythm of Eurasia. In 2021, SCF used Odna Rodyna to reach Ukrainian audiences. In 2021, SCF posted content alleging that the United States was supporting Ukraine in order to “debilitate Russia.” The SVR and SCF work to promote another affiliated media outlet, Journal Kamerton, which hosts a litany of articles denigrating Ukraine. Svetlana Georgiyevna Zamlelova (Zamlelova) is the Chief Editor of Journal Kamerton. One of the SCF’s main tactics is to publish Western fringe thinkers and conspiracy theorists, giving them wider reach, while trying to obscure the Russian origins of the journal. This tactic helps the site appear to be an organic voice within its target audience of Westerners. SCF affiliates Odna Rodyna, Rhythm of Eurasia, and Journal Kamerton are being designated pursuant to E.O. 13848 for being owned or controlled by, or for having acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, SCF. Zamlelova is being designated pursuant to E.O. 13848 for having materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, or technological support for, or goods or services to or in support of, Journal Kamerton.

ADDITIONAL SVR-DIRECTED DISINFORMATION NETWORKS

Russia’s SVR directs two additional disinformation outlets, New Eastern Outlook and Oriental Review. Both media outlets spread many types of disinformation about international organizations, military conflicts, protests, and any divisive issues that they can exploit. Recently, both outlets spread false information to undermine COVID-19 vaccines. New Eastern Outlook is a pseudo-academic publication of the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Oriental Studies that promotes disinformation and propaganda focused primarily on the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. It combines pro-Kremlin views of Russian academics with anti-U.S. views of Western fringe voices and conspiracy theorists. In 2022, Oriental Review shared content that denigrated the United States’ handling of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. New Eastern Outlook and Oriental Review are being designated pursuant to E.O. 14024 for being owned or controlled by, or for having acted or purported to act for or on behalf, directly or indirectly, the GoR.

Today, OFAC is targeting seven SCF employees that have helped perpetuate their false narratives. Vladimir Ilich Maksimenko (Maksimenko) and Andrey Grigoryevich Areshev (Areshev), served as Directors for SCF. Irina Sergeyevna Bubnova (Bubnova) and Anton Sergeyevich Bespalov (Bespalov), worked in editing and social media operations. Sergei Ivanovich Saenko (Saenko) monitored SCF’s social media operations. Natalya Petrovna Skorokhodova (Skorokhodova) worked to recruit and pay U.S. contributors to SCF. Yuriy Anatolyevich Prokofyev (Prokofyev) served as SCF’s president. Maksimenko, Areshev, Skorokhodova, Bubnova, Bespalov, Prokofyev, and Saenko are being designated pursuant to E.O. 13848 for having materially assisted, sponsored or provided financial, material or technological support for, or goods or services to or in support of, SCF, a person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to E.O. 13848.

GRU-DIRECTED INFOROS

InfoRos is a news agency that is primarily run by the GRU’s 72nd Main Intelligence Information Center (GRITs). GRITs is a unit within Russia’s Information Operations Troops, which is identified as Russia’s military force for conducting cyber espionage, influence, and offensive cyber operations. InfoRos operates under two organizations, “InfoRos, OOO” and “IA InfoRos.” InfoRos has used a network of websites, including nominally independent websites, to spread false conspiracy narratives and disinformation promoted by GRU officials, to include spreading disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 15, 2021, InfoRos, OOO and IA InfoRos were designated pursuant to section 224(a)(1)(B) of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) , E.O. 13694 as amended, and E.O. 13382, for acting or purporting to act for or on behalf of the GRU, a person designated under section 224(a)(1)(A) of CAATSA, and pursuant to E.O. 13694, as amended, and E.O. 13382.

Around 2012, InfoRos reportedly began branching out throughout Russia registering over 1,000 online sites, effectively creating a network of networks that secretly distributes the Russian government’s preferred account of events. In early December 2021, a Ukraine-based InfoRos contributor submitted an editorial for publication on the InfoRos website, intended for Russian readership, blaming Ukraine for provoking Russia.

Today, OFAC is targeting nine InfoRos employees. OFAC is designating InfoRos General Directors Andrey Vitalyevich Ilyashenko and Anastasiya Sergeyevna Kirillova, InfoRos Executive Editor Maksim Borisovich Krasovskiy, InfoRos Director Nina Viktoronova Dorokhova, InfoRos web master Yevgeniya Vitalyevna Nezhdanova, InfoRos editors Aleksandra Aleksandrovna Kamyshanova, and Denis Sergeyevich Tatarchenko, InfoRos Project Director Maksim Iosifovich Krans, and InfoRos employee Valeriy Ivanovich Pogrebenkov, for acting or purporting to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, InfoRos, OOO, pursuant to section 224(a)(l)(B) of CAATSA, E.O. 13694, as amended, and E.O. 13382.

FSB-DIRECTED NEWSFRONT

NewsFront is a Crimea-based disinformation and propaganda outlet that worked with FSB officers to coordinate a narrative that undermined the credibility of a news website advocating for human rights. NewsFront was also used to distribute false information about the COVID-19 vaccine. With the self-proclaimed goal of providing an “alternative source of information” for Western audiences, Newsfront is particularly focused on supporting Russia-backed forces in Ukraine. Newsfront was designated pursuant to section 224(a)(l)(B) of CAATSA, E.O. 13694, as amended, and E.O. 13382 on April 15, 2021, for being owned or controlled by, or for having acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, the FSB.

Today, OFAC is targeting four NewsFront Employees. Konstantin Sergeyevich Knyrik (Knyrik), the director and founder of NewsFront, has written and published articles at the behest of FSB officers and obtained funding for NewsFront from its financial sponsor, Yuriy Sergeyevich Fedin (Fedin). NewsFront cofounder Mikhail Anatolyevich Sinelin (Sinelin) and NewsFront deputy director Yevgeniy Eduardovich Glotov (Glotov) have supported NewsFront’s attempts to establish alternate mediums in order to evade sanctions. Glotov has also written an article falsely alleging U.S. interference in Ukrainian mass media.

Knyrik is being designated pursuant to section 224(a)(l)(B) of CAATSA, E.O. 13694, as amended, and E.O. 13382, for acting on or purporting to act for or behalf of, directly or indirectly, the FSB and NewsFront. Sinelin, Glotov, and Fedin are being designated pursuant to E.O. 13694, as amended, and E.O. 13382, for having materially assisted, sponsored or provided financial, material or technological support for, or goods or services to or in support of, NewsFront.

FSB-DIRECTED SOUTHFRONT

SouthFront is a disinformation site that receives taskings from the FSB. Following the 2020 U.S. presidential election, SouthFront sought to promote perceptions of voter fraud during the 2020 U.S. presidential election cycle, and was designated pursuant to E.O. 13848, E.O. 13694, as amended, and E.O. 13382 on April 15, 2021, for having engaged in foreign interference in the 2020 U.S. presidential election and being owned or controlled by, or for having acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, the FSB.

Since its designation, SouthFront has struggled to generate revenue and attract contributors. Attempting to evade sanctions to keep its platform alive, SouthFront solicited donations and attempted to conceal its identity from payment processors. SouthFront and its employees remain focused on attempting to influence U.S. elections through the spread of false information. Although it previously focused on the 2020 U.S. presidential election. SouthFront has also spread information suggesting that Ukraine or NATO could use chemical weapons within the country with hopes to blame it on Russia.

Today, OFAC is targeting four SouthFront employees. Denis Yakovlevich Gafner (Gafner) is involved in running the website and soliciting funds from readers. Aelita Leonidovna Mamakova (Mamakova) is responsible for soliciting financial donations from readers to SouthFront and publishing material. Aleyona Anatolyevna Chuguleva (Chuguleva) is a SouthFront employee. Valeriya Kalabayeva (Kalabayeva) produced content for SouthFront. Gafner, Mamakova, Chuguleva, and Kalabayeva are being designated pursuant to E.O. 13382, E.O. 13694, as amended, E.O. 13848 for having materially assisted, sponsored or provided financial, material or technological support for, or goods or services to or in support of, SouthFront.

ADDITIONAL DISINFORMATION SITES

In 2020, media influence organization Project Lakhta, owned by Prigozhin, developed a new website, United World International (UWI). Since at least 2014, Project Lakhta has used among other things, fictitious online personas that posed as U.S. persons to interfere in U.S. elections, as the IRA did during the 2016 U.S. election. In 2022, UWI suggested that Ukraine would “perish” if it is admitted to NATO. UWI’s chief editor, Darya Aleksandrovna Dugina (Dugina), sought contributors to write articles on UWI. Dugina’s father, Alexander Dugin (Dugin), was first designated in 2015 pursuant to E.O. 13660 for being responsible for or complicit in actions or policies that threaten the peace, security, stability, or sovereignty or territorial integrity of Ukraine. Dugin was a leader of the Eurasian Youth Union, which actively recruited individuals with military and combat experience to fight on behalf of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and has stated that it has a covert presence in Ukraine.

Dugin controls Geopolitica, a website that serves as a platform for Russian ultra-nationalists to spread disinformation and propaganda targeting Western and other audiences. For example, on February 8, 2022, Geopolitica published an article falsely accusing the U.S. and NATO of provoking war with Russia, in order to “further terrorize the American people in all sorts of malicious ways.”

UWI is being designated pursuant to E.O. 13661, E.O. 13694, as amended, and E.O. 13848 for being owned or controlled by, or for having acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, Prigozhin. Dugina is being designated pursuant to E.O. 13661, E.O. 13694, as amended, and E.O. 13848, for acting or purporting to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, UWI. Geopolitica is being designated pursuant to E.O. 13660 for being owned or controlled by, or for having acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, Dugin.

SANCTIONS IMPLICATIONS

As a result of today’s action, all property and interests in property of the individuals and entities above that are in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. persons are blocked and must be reported to OFAC. In addition, any entities that are owned, directly or indirectly, 50 percent or more by one or more blocked persons are also blocked. All transactions by U.S. persons or within (or transiting) the United States that involve any property or interests in property of designated or otherwise blocked persons are prohibited unless authorized by a general or specific license issued by OFAC, or exempt. These prohibitions include the making of any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services by, to, or for the benefit of any blocked person and the receipt of any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services from any such person.

No one has spread more disinformation on the Russia-Ukraine conflict than Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and the controlled media outlets which report all his blatant lies as though they’re proven facts.

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