It’s one thing encountering fakes and disinformation online, it’s quite another when someone fabricates a fake that strives to destroy your own life and career. In the former case you might give the source, however obscure, the benefit of doubt. But in the latter case you immediately know what you are facing.
This is what has just happened to me – a journalist with 20-year experience of covering Russian and Ukrainian politics for major Western media, originally from Russia, but currently based in Latvia.
The Ukrainian infowar outfit Informnapalm released a hit piece suggesting that I am a Russian intelligence asset. In a long-winded piece, the anonymous authors look for signs of my “recruitment” by going through biographical data and mixing it up with wild conjectures and insinuations.
Much more disturbingly, they share personal data, which endangers my immediate family in Moscow, old and vulnerable people. It also poses risks for random people, whose address was doxxed in the piece because it used to be mine.
On the day before Informnapalm’s piece was published, in ten European languages, Google warned me that a government agency was trying to hack my account. Eerily, in the preamble to the piece, the authors brag about the group’s success in hacking emails of various Russian officials. Later, I also received an unusual security warning from Facebook.
Even so, it all may seem like a personal matter unworthy of public exposure, but the story is not really about myself. It pertains to a big political intrigue unfolding in Ukraine as we speak. It also highlights the malign influence of the radical far right on East European politics. Finally, it illustrates the dubious role played by organisations, which claim to counter Kremlin misinformation and propaganda, but in reality disseminate their own. This is why I believe it’s worth unpacking.
Informnapalm’s article is largely based on short bios that appeared under my articles in Western media over many years. Perhaps unbeknownst to its anonymous authors, who describe themselves as OSINT (open-source intelligence) experts, all of these were penned by myself. Yeah guys, you are working with material fed to you by the *enemy*.
Then come the conjectures. I studied English language at the Moscow State University in the early 1990s – a sure sign that I was recruited. I worked in the travel business (sold Interrail tickets and Lonely Planet guides) – that, too. Finally, I was employed by the BBC and spent 12 years working for this media organisation. Bingo! Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy.
Debunking all of it would make for a tiresome read, but here is one of numerous examples of pure disinformation contained in the piece. The authors suggest that a frequently circulated photo of my arrest during the clampdown on anti-Putin protest on May 6, 2012 in Moscow is a fake. The authors probably don’t realise how many people saw it happen.
It was British journalist Howard Amos who took this picture (I didn’t know him before that incident). The person I was talking to literally one minute before my arrest on Pyatnitskaya Street was Julia Ioffe, a famous American journalist. Once I was thrown into a paddy waggon, I befriended Pavel Elizarov – an associate of the slain politician Boris Nemtsov and currently the fiancé of Nemtsov’s daughter Zhanna. Standing next to me, with his face pressed against the wall, was Maksim Gvozdev, now the manager of Kis-Kis, a popular feminist girl band. Now try to fit all of these people into one giant GRU plot focusing on my modest figure.
Wagner and trolls
So what is Informnapalm? Born at the time of Russian attack on Ukraine in 2014, the group describes itself as an “international intelligence community” specialising in OSINT. Its founder “Roman Burko” doesn’t show his face and claims to be a journalist from the Russian-occupied Crimea. There are no traces of his pre-war publications whatsoever.
Russian and Belarusian military propaganda outlets identify him as a specific officer of a psy-ops unit of the Ukrainian army (a description of their OSINT investigation can be found online), but of course the authors of that investigation are also experts in fusing truth and lies, just like Informnapalm. But if this identification is true, then we are talking about an attack by the non-NATO military on a legal resident in a NATO country.
What becomes abundantly clear from looking at social media accounts associated with the group is that members of Informnapalm belong to a part of Ukrainian security community, which is vehemently opposed to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. It is in turn a part of a broader coalition of hawks and nationalists that has coalesced around former president Petro Poroshenko.
The hit piece about me came completely out of the blue, as I haven’t done any stories about Ukraine since last winter. But the authors made sure that I understand the peg. The piece begins and ends on something that is being peddled by anti-Zelenskiy opposition under the brand of Wagnergate.
This pertains to a foiled operation, which envisaged luring dozens of Russian mercenaries from the notorious Wagner group into Ukraine via Belarus, to be arrested and put on trial. The opposition and part of Ukraine security community accuse Zelenskiy’s chief of staff of revealing the plot to the Russians in what they peddle as an act of high treason.
The magnitude of the rift between Zelenskiy’s administration and security top brass became apparent last month when Zelenskiy fired the head of military intelligence, Gen Vasyl Burba, who had announced that he would testify to a parliamentary commission investigating the Wagner affair, defying orders from Zelenskiy’s defence minister.
Mind you, I didn’t report on this story, apart from a couple of tweets, including the one which Informnapalm chose to begin their hit piece with. In that one, I subtweeted Elliot Higgins, the founder of award-winning investigative outfit Bellingcat, who was denouncing a fake curtain-raiser of Bellingcat’s investigation in Wagner affair.
Ever since Bellingcat made it clear that it was working on that story, Ukrainian media outlets, linked to both the opposition and security circles, kept issuing sensationalist reports promising the imminent release of Bellingcat’s investigation with the implication that its contents would be mortally damaging for Zelenskiy. Bellingcat keeps refuting these claims and refusing to announce the date of the publication.
I have no idea why, but people at Informnapalm tend to conflate my work with Bellingcat’s. Informnapalm’s “Roman Burko” even suggested in a tweet that I might have a love affair with one of Bellingcat investigators, whom I have never met in person, just like any other member of that organisation.
I have nothing to do with Bellingcat, an organisation I highly respect for its investigations into the downing of MH17 airliner and the poisoning of Aleksey Navalny. All I’ve done is share Higgins’ tweet denouncing fake Bellingcat video and supplied it with a comment, in which I called for journalists to look more attentively into the toxic misinformation and online manipulation industry that roots for Poroshenko and against Zelenskiy. This industry is widely known in Ukraine by the collective term of porokhoboty or Poroshenko’s bots.
The reason for me saying that at this particular moment was that I closely followed Russian State Duma elections, which happened in September and were accompanied by widespread rigging in favour of Kremlin’s candidates. One hard-to-ignore feature of Twitter discourse regarding this subject was a co-ordinated campaign waged by a network of popular anonymous satirical accounts, which simultaneously attacked President Zelenskiy and Navalny’s strategic voting campaign, known as Smart Voting. I have tweeted about this weird phenomenon more than a few times.
For good or bad reasons, this group of accounts is known among Navalny’s supporters on Twitter as “Golub’s network”. This refers to Mikhail Golub – the owner of TLFRD, a major strategic communications company operating on the Ukrainian market. The attribution has never been solidly proved, so for now Golub’s personal involvement is a thing of online legends. The activities of this network was thoroughly researched by an online investigator who goes by the nickname of @antibot4navalny.
What’s undeniable, however, is that a prolific and popular Twitter account run under Golub’s real name has been churning out industrial amounts of smear tweets about me ever since Informnapalm published its story. These tweets are typically backed up by a bunch of anonymous trolls supporting his point. Golub spells out his goal quite clearly – it is to get me “cancelled” out of Ukraine and Russia discourse, to silence me in other words.
Prior to Maidan revolution, Golub worked for the Ukrainian daughter of Kremlin-linked stratcom company, Mikhaylov & Partners, in which Mikhaylov stands for Sergey Mikhaylov, the current head of Russia’s main newswire ITAR-TASS. A key Russian propaganda figure, he was once even eyed for Putin’s chief of staff. In 2013, Golub left M&P Ukraine, reportedly with its entire staff, to form TLFRD, which he owns.
It is the stories of online troll armies, their puppeteers and their sophisticated political agendas, which I called upon journalists to have a closer look at, when I posted the tweet that triggered Informnapalm’s publication.
There is another reason for a partisan outfit like Informnapalm to be interested in my character assassination and it has to do with the Ukrainian far right. The article dwells for a considerable amount of time on two of my other investigations, which I’ve done for Latvia’s top investigative outfit Re:Baltica, together with its editor Sanita Jemberga.
In a ridiculous lie, evident to anyone living in Latvia except for a bunch far right lunatics, Informnapalm branded Re:Baltika as a pro-Russian outlet, even though it is heavily involved in debunking Kremlin’s disinformation and happens to be Facebook’s official fact-checking partner in the Baltic.
Informnapalm proceeded to describe a group of politically active bodybuilders from our first joint investigation with Sanita as “athletes supporting a national party”. You’d think we had offended some hardcore Latvian nationalists, but these guys are Russian-speakers and the party in question happens to be known in Latvia as pro-Russian. Our story may have contributed to the demise of Riga’s Russian-speaking mayor Nil Ushakov, who headed that party.
But it is our other investigation that drew the ire of Ukrainian military propagandists. In that one, we looked into the beautiful friendship that had grown between the far right Latvian party National Alliance, a member of the current government coalition, and Ukraine’s Azov movement. In one episode, a delegation of NA members arrived at a festival of national-socialist black metal in Kyiv.
The event, which also involved a conference titled Pact of Steel (after Hitler-Mussolini alliance), was organised by Russian neo-nazi Aleksey Levkin, the leader of a band called MOLOTH or Hitler’s Hammer and the founder of WotanJugend online platform. The latter was actively propagating white terrorism and circulating manifestos of the most notorious terrorists. Another organiser was his friend and Azov’s ideologist Olena Semenyaka (hello, “Olena Sergeyeva”, who appears as the author of Informnapalm’s piece in its Russian edition).
The Latvians responded in kind, by inviting a delegation from Azov Regiment’s own sergeant school (operating outside the Ukrainian system of military education and indoctrinating cadets into far right ideology) to Riga and organising their visits to the Latvian General Staff and to a Nato military base.
That publication resulted in a campaign for my deportation from Latvia waged by far right MPs, which has continued relentlessly for the last two years. It even involved a National Alliance MP, Janis Iesalnieks, sharing a tweet that featured a photo of a grave and a wish that Re:Baltica journalists end up there. Another MP, Edvins Šnore, known for comparing Russians with lice, produced a smear video about me, whose contents strongly overlap with those of Informnapalm’s piece.
The main character in our story was Raivis Zeltits, who at the time held the position of secretary-general at the National Alliance. He stepped down after our publication and proceeded to form a more radical far right movement, called Rising Sun, in a nod to his friends from the banned Greek neo-nazi party Golden Dawn. Its symbol is a stylized swastika.
While all language editions of Informnapalm’s articles about me were released on the group’s own website, the Latvian version was run by the website of Zeltits’ illustrious organisation. In no time, it was being circulated by a small group of far right MPs who have been harassing me for the last two years.
What’s curious about Informnapalm’s publication is that it completely fails to mention the main (and practically the only) Ukrainian story that I’ve been working on in the last two years. I joined the team set by the Ukrainian outlet Zaborona and Committee for the Protection of Journalists (a global NGO) with the aim of investigating the assassination of journalist Pavel Sheremet. He was killed in a car bomb attack in Kyiv in July 2016.
Poroshenko was then the president. Members of his government pointed fingers at Russia practically the moment the news broke. But the investigation was being stalled for three years until Zelenskiy defeated Poroshenko by a landslide in the 2019 election.
A few months later, the authorities arrested and charged three suspects, who had nothing to do with Russia. All of them belonged to the same “patriotic” milieu as people behind Informnapalm – volunteers and war veterans of nationalist convictions. Indeed, social media accounts associated with Informnapalm are now heavily involved in a campaign demanding their full acquittal in the ongoing trial.
Much of our four-part investigation focuses on the role of Ukrainian security services in the events surrounding Sheremet’s death and their links to the defendants in murder case, which police investigators have chosen to ignore. Another journalistic investigation, led by OCCRP, also pointed at the possible involvement of Ukrainian security agents.
I can’t help thinking that my character assassination is linked to my role in investigating the physical assassination of my colleague, Pavel Sheremet. Twitter comments from anonymous trolls wishing me to be hanged or raped that I am currently receiving can’t help but confirm my suspicion.
Lastly, it’s worth saying a few words about those who circulated or endorsed Informnapalm smear, because they are also a part of a much bigger story, in which I am only playing an episodically role. There are only two notable examples really, while dozens of Western journalists from publications like Time, New Yorker, BBC and Daily Telegraph came to my support and condemn the ones I am mentioning below.
The first one is the controversial Ukrainian anti-disinfo group Stop.Fake. Hilariously, at the time of writing their website was still featuring some of my publications reprinted by them as examples of, well, good journalism countering disinfo.
Much was said in Western and Ukrainian media about Stop.Fake’s whitewashing of the far right and links to them, so I won’t dwell on it except one episode. An article dedicated to those links, which appeared in my partner publication Zaborona last year, triggered a horrific campaign of intimidation and smear against its founders, Katerina Sergatskova and Roman Stepanovych. They had to escape and live outside Ukraine for some time when photos of their child and their apartment block were released by a raving stratcom operative posing as a journalist.
The other one is former Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who endorsed Informnapalm’s publication in a shouty tweet, deriding me as Kremlin’s “shill” and “tool”. llves is a person of global prominence, who I once revered as a digitalisation god, but whose maniac obsession with my Twitter personae is now a household joke among members of the press corps. I am afraid this matter belongs to spheres outside political analysis.
Both Ilves and Stop.Fake are part of a toxic community that has been for years suppressing genuine experts and moderate voices involved in the discussion about the conflict between Russia and the West. They also promote conspiracies and xenophobia. Ilves’ call to ban Russians from getting EU visas – a move that would separate millions of families – is just one recent example. These people benefit from a symbiotic relationship with Kremlin’s propaganda, in which both side feed on each other’s hatred.
I am not an asset of Russian or any other intelligence services and I am not spreading Kremlin narratives. My track record as a journalist is clean and it is largely made of stories exploring different sides of Putin’s authoritarianism and repression as well as Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.
The sole reason for my critical attitude to political processes in Ukraine and other East European countries, which I see as a part of the global rise of illiberalism, is that I watched it all happening in Russia in the early years of Putin’s reign. I don’t want it to relive this entire process of political degradation here.
My story goes to show that journalists need greater protection from malign actors striving to suppress freedom of speech. Talk is not enough – law-makers should create additional barriers against abuse and manipulation by invisible actors from organisations involved in manipulating public opinion, whether they act on behalf of governments or private corporations.
Military psy-ops teams should be explicitly banned from attacking and smearing civilians, especially representatives of the media.