Nothing is true and everything is possible

Lene Wetteland

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee

Screenshot 2021 06 17 21.55.27

Russian cyber-trolls and useful idiots are employed in networks and advocacy operations so extensive that it is difficult to believe that it is true. But the desire to preserve a great power or a billion fortune is a strong motivation for powerful men with a number of tools at hand.

Two Russian oligarchs with a long career from mafia activities in Russia and money laundering in Europe apparently buy a company in Norway without major problems. The company maintains defense technology for several NATO countries. Several independent sources show that the two are closely linked to the Russian regime and businessmen who are wanted internationally for organized crime. Legislation on safeguarding national interests is initially not seen as relevant in connection with the purchase, but is a sign of strong reactions in the opposition. A few months earlier, the Storting was hacked by Russian forces. An engineer in an oil company became aware of the peach when he had one of several meetings with an intelligence officer from the Russian embassy.

At the same time, in a penal colony in Russia, a Russian corruption activist is imprisoned. He has uncovered and published parts of this extensive network of corruption, nepotism and money laundering all the way up to the president. The verdict is from a case that the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) victory is unfounded and politically motivated. He has been found guilty of failing to comply with the duty to report when he was in a coma after being poisoned with a nerve agent that the Russian intelligence is known to use. The married man had someone placed in his panties.

It is difficult to separate facts from speculation when writing about Russian intelligence, writes Lene Wetteland.

It could have been plotted in a slightly too imaginative episode of the Netflix series about the Soviet agents in "The Americans", or in a Hollywood movie. But there are events from a few weeks in the beginning of 2021 in Norway and our neighboring country Russia. Røynda can really surpass the imagination when it comes to Russian organized crime and intelligence, and the conspiracy theories do not stand by any of them either. The British journalist and author Peter Pomerantsev sums it up well with the title of his book from 2014: "Nothing is true and everything is possible." [I]

It is not without reason that countless books, series and films are about Russian espionage and organized crime. Spectacular killings and assassination attempts, coup attempts and allegations of influencing the US presidential election with the help of magic factories and social media are both tragic and inspiring for creative souls. Of course, this does not make it easier to distinguish between what are facts and what are speculations. Perhaps the worst thing is that far too much of it is true.

High risk, high profit
Today's Russian intelligence has a long history and a tradition dating back to the Soviet Union. Although the name has changed from KGB [ii] to FSB [iii], Lubjanka's headquarters are the same, much of the content is the same, and a former KGB agent is now president of the country. In addition, he has brought with him many so-called siloviki [iv] from his own network to key positions in intelligence, government, federal administration and business. Soviet intelligence was closely linked to the Communist Party at the time, and crucial to the maintenance of Soviet society based on propaganda, fear, punishment, and denunciation both at home and abroad.

Russian experts Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov have written several books and articles on Soviet and Russian intelligence. They have a striking description of how the intelligence reacted when the rest of society opened up after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the nineties. The head of the KGB's foreign intelligence service is quoted as saying in their book Compatriots [v]: «[…] Section A generates and formulates ideas, produces false articles and publishes literature and media reports under a false name. Shebarshin had been persuaded that the KGB (editor's note) could only be saved by bringing the public behind the light, in other words by using the methods that the KGB's Division A had used abroad for several decades. "

In many ways it can be said that they are closed, and the situation is the same both abroad and at home. It is both external, internal and not least personal gain and motivation that form the basis for such a scheme.

All states have the public task of protecting national interests internationally. The Soviet Union, with all its shortcomings, was, after all, a great power, feared and respected internationally. Russia as a successor state has lost much of this and put much of the blame on Boris Yeltsin's conduct as president in the nineties. Russian powers, with Putin in the driver's seat, will now rise from their knees, as it is called - and restore respect for the great power in several areas, through both military force, economic muscle and value war in world opinion. Russian language and popular culture are still important elements in the near abroad, what was formerly the Soviet Union. Intelligence and influence are important tools within all these areas.

External and internal enemies
External relations are often primarily governed by internal affairs, and the Russian authorities have their say in governing at home. The economy has failed, Russia is lagging behind in several areas, and the COVID-19 pandemic has seriously shown the major challenges facing infrastructure, social services and health care. More and more Russian citizens have become aware of their rights and demanded them in word and deed, through protests online and in the streets even before the pandemic struck. Even through elections in various cities and counties, candidates who have not been given prior approval by the regime have been voted for a position of power. Criticism is also beginning to be leveled at the almighty Vladimir Putin. Under such conditions, it is always useful to have a common enemy, often one who can be blamed for cooperating with the international community - who does not show the respect they think is deserved.

Organizations that receive funds from abroad and conduct so-called political activity, have since 2012 been forced to stick the label "foreign agent" on their activities. As a consequence, they must submit to unreasonable reporting requirements and limitations in activity. The label dates from the days of the Cold War. At that time, everyone who had contact with the outside world was counted as a foreign agent who helped to undermine the Soviet paradise. Today, the label evokes such associations. He is meant to build on the assertion that no Russians would have criticized their own regime, if it were not for the fact that they were bought and paid for by foreign states and interests. The same is the case with the law on unwanted international organizations. It puts a Russian citizen at risk of imprisonment and fines if he or she has contact with such an international organization.

The claim is, of course, in stark contrast to all that these activists risk and exposed themselves and those closest to them. Their purpose is to make Russia better for all citizens, not just for those with money and the right contacts. Opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was killed in an open street in Moscow on February 27, 2015, said that his only goal was to live in a country that his children did not want to leave. For such statements, he was shot four times in the back just outside the Kremlin's walls, and the perpetrators have not yet been punished. Dozens of journalists, activists, opposition politicians and others who have spoken out have been assassinated or killed in recent years, both in Russia and in other countries such as Britain, Austria and Sweden. [Vi]

Millionaire network
Last but not least, it is personal gain that underlies the desire to conduct advocacy work both abroad and at home. The revelations of, among others, Alexei Navalny and his team show that Vladimir Putin and his closest circle are among the richest men in the world. In January, Navalny and his team released a video [vii] that, shortly after its launch, was viewed nearly 100 million times, with detailed depictions of Putin's palace on the Black Sea coast. Former leaders do not have Putin and Russian state media take Navalny's name in their mouths. But here they felt the need to deny Putin's relationship with the property, and instead explained that the owner is one of his best friends from childhood - Arkady Rotenberg. [Viii]

But the attempt at explanation is rather a revelation. It is precisely this network of rich, corrupt men that facilitates large-scale embezzlement, huge government contracts with others, and the exchange of sensitive information. They are rich men who register property and wealth on each other, on spouses and children, in countries with better justice and banking than they have in their own homeland. "Rich Russians have as much financial wealth abroad as the entire Russian population has in Russia itself," it says, among other things, in a report from 2017 with, among others, the well-known economist Thomas Piketty as co-author. [Ix]

Those involved have become accustomed to a dizzying wealth and luxury and risk heavy penalties if they are ever prosecuted. This wealth is due to the fact that the network of people who are mutually dependent on each other exists. It is these close ties between Russian investors, organized crime and the Russian regime that make it as disturbing for national security interests with acquisitions as that of Bergen Engines in January. Several credible sources show that the funds that the two key buyers in Transmashholding, Iskander Makhmudov and Andrej Bokharev have, come from gross corruption, international crime and mafia activities, in understanding with the Russian government. This understanding entails the exchange of sensitive information to other Russian companies as well as to the Russian state, and is a clear security challenge.

It took far too long before the Norwegian government saw this issue, despite the fact that Norway's own threat assessments point to the danger of the close link between politics and the economy, state and private sector, and between civilian and military spheres in countries such as Russia and China. "The Intelligence and Security Services' intervention in all sectors is extensive," [x] writes the Intelligence Service in its ungraded security assessment, Fokus, from January this year.

In addition to this direct insurance policy danger, there is also a human rights aspect to such a purchase. In the wake of this type of transaction, there are many fates that do not get justice in their respective courts. At the same time, the oligarchs go free and invest their funds in other countries with better justice and property rights. Whistleblowers and grave journalists are imprisoned and persecuted in various ways. Anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny was assassinated with nerve agent in his panties. But it is he who is now in prison. Tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was killed in prison in 2009 and subsequently convicted of embezzlement in the same case that he had taken a great risk to warn against. The acquisition of Bergen Engines is in effect money laundering of dirty money in countries such as Norway, and helps to maintain a system that is hostile to human rights.

Much is at stake for the Russian political and economic elite. The threshold will then be low to undermine democratic rule of law elsewhere in the world, black-painted activists in their home country and get critical voices to be silenced. At the crossroads between wounded great power and personal wealth, several methods have been perfected over decades to ensure the status quo for the initiates.

Propaganda and discord
The Norwegian threat assessment Focus for 2021 already mentions "impact" on one of the first pages. It is a real threat that has already had consequences both in Norway and other countries. Influence in other states' political decision-making processes can take the form of divisions over existing dividing lines, doubts about basic democratic institutions and values, and the collection of different information for use in different influence processes.

The smart thing about many of these methods is that it is particularly difficult to find concrete evidence that points to concrete impact. The people in charge have not directly got people to vote for this or that candidate, for example. At the same time, pointing out that they have closed down, in itself helps to undermine the society that has been exposed to the attempt to influence, the institutions and their democratic values. Does it take as little as a few messages on social media for an inexperienced candidate to be elected in a traditional democratic society that is proud of analytical education and critical thinking? And as if this were not enough: If there is sufficient evidence, and one finds the culprits, they just smile wisely and continue with their activities. It is not clear how they will be punished, as it is difficult to prove that it is a hostile state that has engaged in organized acts, and the activity falls between the various categories of legislation. And last but not least, it is not illegal either to lie, to share false information or to be naglyj, a Russian adjective that is particularly apt for someone who is really up front and stands his ground, knowing that everyone knows he is lying.

The risk is small and the profit is high. There are always useful idiots who are willing to contribute in exchange for attention or money. And existing conflicts to build on are everywhere. If these methods are not effective enough, other available tools are attempted murder, coup or occupation.

Trolls that confuse
Today's international relations and warfare are moving further and further away from the conventional methods regulated in existing conventions and protocols. Different types of influence of internal processes in other countries, propaganda, unclear responsibilities, and the struggle for world opinion take over. The events in Ukraine from 2014 onwards are clear examples of such a gray area. It will be cold hybrid war [xi]. The wars in Eastern Ukraine continue. 10,000 people have been killed and two million on the run [xii], but Russia denies that there are Russian soldiers and material present. The annexation of the Ukrainian Crimean peninsula and the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines plane the following summer are serious incidents and violations of international law. But responsibilities are unclear, and Russia is blocking solutions in international forums. Both official and unofficial Russian sources close in creating confusion and doubt with ever different versions of the events in traditional media and especially on social media. The main purpose is to present so many different versions and ask so many questions about all the facts that the reader gets lost in what is proven, and what is propaganda.

There are serious abuses on the ground. At the same time, the struggle for world opinion has in many ways shifted to social media. A clear goal is the influence of the political decision-making processes. The scope of these online campaigns is so large that it is difficult to grasp, and the organization likeins. In basements and large office buildings, troll factories call their thousands of people with multiple user profiles on various social media, so-called online trolls. Their task is to write paid posts on various social media. According to the Norwegian intelligence service's security assessment Focus 2021, Russian magic factories were responsible for posts that reached 126 million Facebook, 20 million Instagram and 1.4 million Twitter users to influence the US presidential election in 2016. [xiii]

In 2017, US intelligence revealed such a center in St. Petersburg, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), run by Putin's close friend Yevgeny Prigozhin. [Xiv] In addition to running such factories, he is known for sending mercenaries to conflicts abroad. through his private company Wagner. He is also Putin's chef. His fortune as a catering mogul with deliveries to the Kremlin depends on the regime's survival. There is a strong motivation to contribute to advocacy work that serves the regime.

Sergej K., a former troll who gave an interview to Radio Free Europe [xv], said that several of his colleagues worked in the factory because they were convinced that many of the problems in the world originated in the United States. They simply wanted to contribute. Others knew well what they were going for, and just wanted a job. The demands were not too high. The salary was ok, in excess of 500 USD per month. It was expected that one would produce around 120 comments during an 11-hour shift. Did you produce more, did you light more.

The factory was made up of several departments with around fifteen people left, with different areas of responsibility. He was to write in the comments section of the websites of various Russian-language media houses, such as Radio Free Europe. The vast majority were to comment on Russian websites - either positively on government doctors or negatively on independents. A large department had English-speaking trolls. Others would create memes, or lists of mediums that would be under attack.

He himself was surprised at how well-organized the organization was. There were piles of SIM cards for registering profiles, strategic use of fake accounts and pictures, and discussions between trolls in the comment fields to give the impression that they were real. After about a year, he had had enough and left the factory. He used over 100 different profiles during his career. What he thinks best is when he was contacted by a woman who wrote that he used the Facebook profile of her sister, who had just died in a car accident. "My karma is ruined for three lives to come," he told Radio Free Europe as an explanation for why he chose to defy the duty of confidentiality and tell about his experiences.

Sergej K. worked at the troll factory in 2018 and 2019, several years after the factory's influence in the US presidential election campaign had become known. In early 2015, journalist Ljudmila Savchuk infiltrated a magic factory in St. Petersburg in collaboration with the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Her task was to run a blog about zodiac signs and romance and trick comments on politics from time to time. Only at the end of February 2015 could she identify a link between the work on the blog and the Russian regime. When opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was shot in the street, the troll received direct instructions from the bosses about what to write. «Trollfabrikken worked in step with the entire state disinformation complex. […] The IRA, the agency that had obscured bands to the Kremlin, had to say enough to obscure the Kremlin's bands to a murder ", writes Peter Pomerantsev in the interview with Ljudmila in his latest book, This is not propaganda [xvi].

Ljudmilla took great chances and closed in on publishing unique information from the factory. She was soon disappointed with the follow-up. She chose to be open about what she had done. While she gained a lot of interest internationally, she also experienced threats and harassment. The most shocking thing was that no one seemed surprised by the revelations. Few, if any, were punished, despite the fact that in 2018 it became known that thousands of fake offices had been set up that continued with the subversive activity in the United States even after the election. Over thirty million Americans shared this content with friends and family, writes Pomerantsev with reference to a thorough research project at Oxford [xvii].

Divide and Conquer
The interesting thing is that even though several magic factories have been revealed and the practice is widely known, they continue with the work to influence political processes. And the result is no less effective. Much of the recipe for success lies in the fact that they feed on already existing conflicts and dividing lines in society. Then the credibility, commitment and arguments are already in place. One only needs an army that is willing to spend several hours a day online, with different languages, profiles and platforms, to create a bigger fire out of this smoldering usemja. Perhaps neither side of the conflict is directly in favor of Russian interests. But when the ultimate goal is to sow discord in society and doubts about democratic institutions and values, it is only an advantage.

The Oxford report, which researched the election campaign in the United States and the time after, concluded that the attacks were aimed at general disinformation and polarization of society. Particular emphasis was placed on provoking the dissatisfied voices of right-wing, gun-loving Trump supporters. But one also focused on highlighting the voices of black civil rights activists who warned against voting for Trump's opponents, and for Latin Americans who did not trust the institutions at all. [Xviii] The United States will struggle with these lines of conflict for a long time to come.

In Europe, disinformation campaigns were intensified ahead of the European Parliament elections in May 2018. Here, the main goal was to undermine the very cohesion of the EU and the legitimacy of the parliament. There were plenty of topics to deal with: negative consequences of immigration, the rise of Islam, imposing tolerance for so-called non-traditional values ​​in the former Eastern Bloc countries, and so on. A report prepared by the European Commission [xix] identified over 400 different types of disinformation in 2018, and more than twice as many the following year.

In the autumn, there are elections in this country. The safety assessment warns about similar operations here as well. The Storting has been hacked twice since August. It was just before Russian oligarchs with close ties to the Russian regime bought a strategically important Norwegian company. There are plenty of dividing lines to draw on before the election here as well. It can be vaccine distribution as part of the traditional city-and-country conflict, Islam and immigration or what kind of relationship Norway should and should have with Russia. In the latter discussion, another category of auxiliaries emerges in the advocacy work of the Russian regime, the so-called useful idiots [xx].

Useful idiots
The reason why the influence campaigns on social media are so effective is not only that the Russian trolls with false profiles can participate in the existing conflicts. It also helps that citizens in the countries in question do so with real profiles and in the process defend Russia or Russian interests. The intelligence services in all countries operate with different types of resources, assets, depending on the person's motivation and the intelligence services' interest in them. There are agents and confidential contacts who are either threatened or paid to share particularly interesting information. But there are also so-called useful idiots who help to polarize debate, harass opponents of opinion and defend a Russian view of values. Some of them receive funding from the Russian side. Others are genuinely enthusiastic about the Russian model. Still others receive much-awaited publicity and attention in the Russian-backed medium, while they may complain about being silenced and silenced by the eels in their home country because of their views.

A target group for such an activity is Norwegian readers who may be influenced by the many different versions to forget what is true and what is not. Another target group is the local inhabitants who are exposed to constant propaganda that they can just as well come to terms with the situation, no one cares about their situation. For example, a useful idiot could be a marginal Norwegian local politician who writes travel letters from occupied Crimea in Norwegian newspapers to confuse readers about what actually happened there, and what the conditions are like. At the same time, the person in question receives broad coverage as a member of a Norwegian public delegation in the Russian-language medium. In this way, the person in question contributes to the influence campaign, which presents it as if the Norwegian authorities accept Russian control over the area. [Xxi]

There may also be Norwegian academics who write articles in Russian government media in which they praise Putin and condemn the West. Furthermore, they present a legitimate Norwegian debate about, for example, clarification of roles as an attempt to make them tease or lose their jobs. There may be others who participated in debates on social media with extensive use of straw men to polarize the tone. Others ask unreasonable questions in order to have less time for the actual topic at open events. In this way, they help to take advantage of the free debate that democratic societies like Norway offer, at the same time as they criticize the same debate and society.

What they do not win, or see, is that participation in a similar debate in Russia could lead to arrest, fines, blackmail, shots in the back or nerve poison in the panties. And if anyone points to the paradox in their play, they resort to yet another widespread method: "whatabout-ismar". What about Saudi Arabia? What about the United States and Guantanamo? What about NATO's abuses? All are important and interesting topics for discussion, but not when the topic for today's debate is assembly freedom in Russia.

The abundance of information demands more of the readers. Many of us are not aware of the information bubbles we live in, or how many tracks we leave behind on social media and the internet. We can not imagine how cynically such information can be used. Nor can we imagine the extent of advocacy campaigns for various purposes. We begin to doubt established truths, fundamental values, and whether there is any point in it all. But it is possible to become more aware of one's own and others' activity online. Some facts are facts. And it pays to do something. We do not want the satire profile Darth Putin on Twitter to be right: "Dictators do not engage in propaganda to make you believe in anything. We do it to make you not believe in anything. And more importantly: to do nothing. ”[Xxii]

Excerpts from the book Compatriots and quotes from Twitter have been translated into Norwegian by the editors.

[i] Pomerantsev, Peter. «Nothing is true and everything is possible. Adventures in modern Russia. » Faber & Faber (September 21, 2017)

[ii] Gosudarstvennoj Besopasnosti Committee, State Security Committee

[iii] Federal’naja Sluzjba Bezopasnosti, Federal Security Service

[iv] Persons with backgrounds from the security services and the military

[v] Soldatov, Andrei, Borogan, Irina. The Compatriots: the brutal and chaotic history of Russia’s exiles, emigrants, and agents abroad. New York, Public Affairs, 2019.

[vi] See, for example, Bellingcat investigations into who was behind not only the assassination attempt on Navalny, but also other activists: https://www.bellingcat.com/news/uk-and-europe/2021/01/27/navalny -poison-squad-implicated-in-murders-of-three-russian-activists /. Or TV 2 about the series of murders and attempted murders of exiled Chechens in Europe: https://www.tv2.no/a/11249686/

[vii] Putin's Palace: Video with English subtitles available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ipAnwilMncI

[viii] See, for example, the Russian excavation journalists in Proekt.media: https://www.proekt.media/guide/arkadiy-rotenberg-krym/

[ix] Report: Russian Offshore Wealth Likely Equal To Country's Entire Household Wealth (rferl.org)

[x] The Intelligence Service's ungraded threat assessment Focus 2021, p. 16. Retrieved from: https://www.forsvaret.no/aktuelt-og-presse/publikasjoner/fokus/rapporter/Fokus2021-web.pdf/_/attachment/inline /b9d52b53-0abe-4d1c-9c51-bf95796560bf:8dd66029b7efb38aab37d13e8b387d2e6ed0bd05/Fokus2021-web.pdf

[xi] See for example: http://www.nupi.no/Skole/HHD-Artikler/2016/Hybrid-krigfoering-hva-er-det

[xii] See for example: https://www.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/eastern-europe/ukraine

[xiii] Focus 2021, p. 24.

[xiv] Inside the “Propaganda Kitchen” - a former Russian Troll Factory Employee speaks out: https://www.rferl.org/a/russian-troll-factory-hacking/31076160.html

[xv] "Our standard - 120 comments per day". Name of the Crimean Troll: https://www.svoboda.org/a/31065181.html

[xvi] Pomerantsev, Peter, “This is Not Propaganda” (London, Faber & Faber, 2019.)

[xvii] Howard, Philip, Bharath Ganesh et al, “The IRA, Social Media and political polarization in the United States, 2012-2018” https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/senatedocs/1/

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Joint Communication to The European Parliament, The European Council, The Council, The European Economic and Social Committee and The Committee of the Regions: Report on the Implementation of the Action Plan Against Disinformation. Brussels, 14.6.2019: https://eeas.europa.eu/sites/default/files/joint_report_on_disinformation.pdf

[xx] According to Wikipedia, a useful idiot is someone who is perceived as being manipulated by a political movement or other power group to, without even understanding it, go about their business. Many say Vladimir Lenin first used the term about the Soviet Union's supporters in the West, but there is still heated debate. https://no.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nyttig_idiot#:~:text=I%20Norge%20blir%20begrepet%20brukt,nyttige%20idioter%20for%20jurist%2Dstanden.

[xxi] See, for example, grave case in Vårt Land March 2021: Norwegian politician makes controversial trips for Russia's case - Vårt Land - Norway's largest Christian daily newspaper (vl.no)

[xxii] Twitter satire profile @darthputinkgb: https://twitter.com/DarthPutinKGB/status/1197885617218215943

Source: https://www.synogsegn.no/


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