Join 10,000+ Kyiv Independent members todaySupport our reporting
Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Investigation: Where does Russian disinformation incubate in US?

by Igor KossovDecember 14, 2022 10:30 pm
Share

Investigation: Where does Russian disinformation incubate in US?Even when they don't consider themselves to be Moscow's shills, many people who push forward pro-Kremlin misinformation have clear connections with people and organizations that are linked with the Kremlin directly. The Kyiv Independent mapped some of these connections. (Illustration: Karolina Gulshani)

The war in Ukraine is being decided on the battlefields in the south and east of the country. 

But how it’s discussed in America helps shape those battlefields. Military aid from the West has helped Ukrainian forces turn the tide. Economic aid has allowed the Ukrainian economy to cling to life after a third of it was ripped away by the invasion. 

The Kremlin prepared for this. Over the years, it has done its best to cultivate a discordant chorus of pro-Russian and anti-establishment voices. They slander Ukraine, vindicate Russia's imperialism, and blame NATO for Russia’s war of aggression.

Many of these voices spread false or misleading information.

The Kremlin’s hand isn’t necessarily behind every bit of fake news. But many who write misinformation also interact with people and organizations linked with the Kremlin who use cultural events and diaspora outreach as a guise for lobbying and spreading propaganda. 

These organizations don't go unnoticed by the law. For example, the U.S. government accused one Russian-American, Elena Branson, of leading ”a years-long campaign to identify the next generation of American leaders, cultivate information channels, and shape U.S. policy in favor of Russian objectives. This case highlights the breadth of Russia's relentless intelligence and malign influence activities targeting the United States.” 

People who interact with these kinds of organizations and publish misleading information aren’t necessarily Kremlin agents or think of themselves as such. They may be sincere in their beliefs. But it’s instructive to know where they appear and with whom. 

The Kyiv Independent mapped these connections to allow readers to draw their own informed conclusions about the credibility of these people and organizations.

This article profiles several people and groups with alleged ties to the Kremlin. The visual map that accompanies the article displays the people in their orbit and how they’re related. Click on the icons to read a brief dossier of a specific commentator or organization. 

Alleged spies

In March, the U.S. announced criminal charges against Elena Branson — failing to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), conspiring to commit visa fraud and making false statements to the FBI.

U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said that Branson allegedly communicated directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin and a high-ranking Russian minister before founding “a Russian propaganda center in New York City,” called the Russian Center New York. 

She also chaired the Russian Community Council of the United States, known by its Russian acronym KSORS. 

Branson is a Russian-American dual citizen who reportedly married Princeton University economist William Branson. His daughter accused Elena of using William for a green card and infiltrating his sphere of influence, then blowing through all his money. Elena often followed the professor into conferences with world leaders, according to media reports. William has since died.  

Branson was photographed talking to Maria Butina, who earlier pleaded guilty to spying for Russia. Branson and two associates who rallied Russians for Former U.S. President Donald Trump, received Silver Archer awards in 2015 for advancing Russia-U.S. business relations. The man who created this award, Igor Pisarsky, is a Kremlin-linked PR expert, who was Butina’s point of contact for money she received from a Russian oligarch named Konstantin Nikolaev, according to the Daily Beast.

Branson has denied the accusations that her organizations have ever meddled in U.S. politics. In an interview with Russian media in March, she said FBI agents had visited her home and that she faces many years in prison because of a “witch hunt.” 

But both KSORS and Russian Center New York have been under FBI scrutiny for years. Recently, their activities have dribbled to a standstill. A number of staff members appear to have left the U.S. based on some news reports and comments to Kyiv Independent by people in the know.

According to Igor Baboshkin, who chaired KSORS in the U.S. from 2008 to 2014, a large reason for the FBI’s interest in KSORS was a Russian spy that was active in its ranks. 

“Let's say a new consul arrives (in New York). The same day, (the spy) is in his office, that's how they receive instructions. We all saw it,” Baboshkin told the Kyiv Independent. KSORS members complained to Russia’s Foreign Ministry about the spying but nothing changed. 

Weaponizing compatriots

KSORSes are Russian diaspora organizations in many different countries. They are branches of a single global council, the executive body of the World Congress of Compatriots living abroad. This world congress was created by Russian state policy to “ensure the interaction of compatriots with the state authorities of the Russian Federation.” Members told the Russian newspaper Kommersant they consider themselves elements of Russia’s soft power. 

The U.S. chapter of KSORS received direct funding from the Russian embassy, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. An article in Russian news outlet RIA Novosti confirms it, describing how the embassy paid for a World War 2 victory commemoration event. 

“(KSORS)... is funded at least in part by various Russian government-run entities,” the justice department stated. “When Branson sought financial support from a Government of Moscow official for the KSORS website, Branson reported that the purpose of the KSORS website was to spread information ‘about the activities of organizations created by Russian compatriots to form a positive image of Russia and Moscow among Americans.’”

Among other post-2014 activities, the group organized an “I love Russia” campaign in the U.S.; held youth forums promoting Russian culture; and lobbied Hawaiian officials not to change the name of the last formerly Russian fort on the islands. It threw celebrations of Russia’s World War 2 victory, parading around in Soviet military uniforms.

Baboshkin said KSORS was once much more focused on outreach and unity among the multi-ethnic diaspora. But, he continued, the tenor of the organization began to change after 2012, when Putin returned to being president of Russia. The Russian embassy increasingly demanded to be in control of KSORS’ events, messaging, and spending. 

Move the interactive map to get the full view of the network of people and organizations spreading pro-Kremlin narratives in the U.S. Press on the icons to learn more.

Scroll infographics

Things came to a head in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and members of KSORS were asked to sign a document pledging support for the annexation. Baboshkin said he refused to sign it and was soon rotated out as chairman, despite having the organization’s popular vote. He said uncooperative members such as him were replaced by those who would carry Russia’s water. The organization was retooled from outreach to information war.

Indeed, Kommersant reported in 2016 that KSORS’ parent organization was given a special mission to promote Russia in “the sanction war.” Yelena Sutormina, head of the commission for the development of public diplomacy, told diaspora reps that they are “on the front line” of this information battle. 

“It’s very important to distinguish ‘innocent’ events dedicated to the popularization of Russian literature, language, a commemoration of dates from the common history of nations, and so on — and destructive ‘information operations’ begin,” said Ksenia Kirillova, an expert with the think-tank Jamestown Foundation. “One example of such… are the letters from the Congress of Russian Americans (to the White House) asking for sanctions to be lifted.”

Some KSORS members were linked with disinformation outlets. For example, according to his LinkedIn profile, board member Sergey Gladysh used to edit for The Duran, a Cypriot news outlet with ties to Russian state media RT and possibly Russia’s intel apparatus. 

Branson and Gladysh were among the administrators of a Facebook group called Russian Speaking Americans for Law and Order, which once had thousands of members. This group promoted a pro-Trump rally in Portland, Oregon in 2020. It encouraged violence towards protesters against police brutality. The group appears to be gone from Facebook.

Russian Center New York

Branson’s Russian Center New York threw a variety of events. Archived guest lists and banners reveal some attendees.

One banner displays the photo of Charles Bausman, creator of the disinformation outlet Russia Insider, which ran pro-Russian narratives and fascist rhetoric. He was listed as one of the Russian Center’s VIP speakers, along with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. 

At another forum, Bausman shared billing with writers Michael Averko and John Varoli, both of whom have written misleading things about Ukraine and Russia. For example, Varoli wrote “Zelensky’s regime has shut all opposition parties, shut all independent media and wages a terror campaign against anyone who speaks freely and wants peace.” Averko played up the role of "neo-nazis" in the Ukrainian government and blamed Kyiv for the “killing thousands and displacing hundreds of thousands" in Donbas — Russia’s doing.

Meanwhile, the center's advisory board included political scientist Sergei Markov, who once advised Putin himself (and won an award for it). He has commented that Russia was coming to “liberate Ukraine” from the pro-Western government that took power in 2014, adding “a military operation now would prevent a wider war in future.” 

According to the DOJ, Branson’s center was funded and directed by the Russian government, state officials and government-run NGOs. For example, the center hosted an annual youth forum, funded in part by an entity controlled by Moscow. 

Branson allegedly tried to hide this activity and instructed her co-conspirators to do the same, according to the justice department. She allegedly told people to be careful when describing the center’s events, to avoid drawing attention to the need for FARA registrations. The center has yet to reply to a request for comment. 

Edward Lozansky

One KSORS board member — and regular guest of Russian Center New York — was Edward Lozansky, whose career is even more intriguing than Branson’s. 

Lozansky is a former Soviet physicist who fled to the United States but then spent much of his life cozying up to both the Kremlin and the political right in the U.S.

He published pro-Kremlin articles on platforms including RT. But that’s only a fraction of his work. He founded the club Russia House and the annual World Russia Forum event, both of which brought together Russian VIPs and U.S. political movers and shakers. In earlier years, it attracted many American lawmakers but its star faded as Russia ramped up militarism in the 2010s. 

Lozansky would come to know many important conservatives. He knew conservative icon Paul Weyrich, who founded a huge number of powerful organizations, including the Heritage Foundation and Free Congress Foundation. Through his many organizations and events such as Russia House and World Russia Forum, Lozansky would get to know even more. 

Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation sponsored Lozansky’s American University in Moscow and the World Russia Forum. Weyrich once wrote an angry letter slamming the FBI for not granting enough visas to participate in the World Russia Forum in the early 2000s. He mentioned that some of these people are Russian businessmen, lawmakers and other government servants. 

Wikileaks in 2009 released a hacked email from Stratfor consultancy’s Eurasia analyst Lauren Goodrich saying Lozansky “has a crazy reputation to where ppl say they aren’t sure exactly who he works for. Americans say he is part of the Putin disinformation club and Russians say he is CIA conspiracy… lots of rumors on both sides. I haven’t met him yet, but hear among the inner circles that he is owned by Surkov. His info is too…. pro-Russian underneath.”

Lozansky was active in the lobbying space. He wrote a book in Russian entitled “Ethnic groups and lobbying in the United States,” which was published by International Relations, a  publisher launched by the Soviet Foreign Ministry. He once sued then-U.S. President Barack Obama in an effort to get certain sanctions removed from Russia. 

His name also appears on a list of contacts in a FARA filing by the Mark Saylor Company lobbying firm in 2010. The company was registering to work for the republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway states created by Russian military meddling in sovereign nations, much like what it’s done in the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. 

The former physicist is acquainted with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. They both graduated from the prestigious National Research Nuclear University and Kislyak was a regular at Lozansky’s events. 

Lozansky now heads the American University in Moscow, whose fellows included many disinformation writers, including the creator of The Duran, Alexander Mercouris. Through the university, Lozansky also hosted events in Moscow.

Lozansky also contributed to the Russian think tank Strategic Culture Foundation (SCF), which is directed by Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service and is closely affiliated with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs according to the U.S. State Department. SCF was sanctioned by the U.S. for allegedly interfering in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

It regularly publishes misleading articles in English. 

Lozansky has not replied to a request for comment about him or his university.

More Russia ties

Lozansky’s American University in Moscow appears to have no specific course descriptions or faculty listed on its site. It says the institute is focused on “conference, research and publishing” and has one online course in U.S.-Russia relations. People who send 600-word essays on the subject will get a “Certificate of Achievement” in U.S.-Russia relations. 

An archived version of the site from 2017 contains a list of the university’s fellows at the time. They include people who have written misleading information about Russia or Ukraine, such as Gilbert Doctorow, James Jatras, Sergei Markov, Alexander Mercouris and others. The university has yet to reply to a comment request. 

The university also once appeared to have the same official address as the Russian think-tank Center for Liberal-Conservative Politics. Its director is Russian political operative Alexander Kazakov. 

After Russia invaded Donbas in 2014, Kazakov became a PR adviser to the head of the occupation authority, Aleksandr Zakharchenko. After Zakharchenko was killed in an explosion, Kazakov returned to Russia. On at least one occasion, Kazakov reported to Putin’s adviser Vladislav Surkov, according to a study of Surkov's leaked emails. 

Kazakov was also a deputy head of the Russian political party For Truth, which has since merged with other political parties. For Truth’s other deputy was Alexander Babakov, another prominent Russian politician. 

Babakov was charged in the U.S. in April for allegedly making an international influence ring by using U.S. lawmakers. Babakov and two co-suspects, using their think-tank, Institute for International Integration studies, allegedly schemed to affect the U.S.’s Russia policy through staged events, paid propaganda and trying to recruit an unnamed Congressperson. 

The pro-Russia information space

Entities like Russian Center New York or the World Russia Forum interact with certain kinds of people — those eager to take Russia’s side and fight against what they call mainstream delusion or hypocrisy in the West. Their content ranges from biased to outright untrue. 

There are the more “respected” experts like political scientist John Mearsheimer who blamed Russia's invasion on the West, blamed Russian execution of civilians on Ukrainians and said it was “not feasible” for Ukrainians “to choose their own political system and... their own foreign policy,” but must “accommodate the Russians.” Mearsheimer’s work is funded by libertarian billionaire Charles Koch, whose companies refused to pull out of Russia until April. 

These more “credible” experts also included the late Russian studies scholar Stephen Cohen, who launched the American Committee of US-Russia Accord (ACURA). Cohen defended the Kremlin’s actions, while denying being a Putin apologist. He said the 2014 “referendums” in Crimea were “legitimate” and questioned the fact that Russia invaded Ukraine, among other statements echoing Moscow’s false narratives. ACURA opinions avoid direct falsehoods but do downplay Moscow’s imperialism or blame NATO for the war. 

Then there are people like Raymond McGovern, a former CIA analyst who became a political activist with a penchant for conspiracy theories. People like Scott Ritter, a former intelligence officer and weapons inspector, who keeps saying false things about the war to Russian state media, like how Ukraine was losing or that it staged the Bucha massacre. 

There is James Jatras, who had done PR work for ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and the Russian far-right political party Rodina. Russian platforms that host Jatras’ work also publish misleading content by a variety of Westerners.  

And finally, there are people like Bausman, the editor of Russia Insider, which ran pro-Russian lies and anti-semitic screeds while asking Kremlin-linked oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev for money, according to leaks. His associate, Gilbert Doctorow, helped found ACURA but later left the organization and started defending Russia Insider’s content. 

These are only some examples of many. Presenting skewed or false information muddles the public discourse and obfuscates Russia’s crimes. Some works whitewash Russia’s responsibility or call for inaction or appeasement in the face of Russia’s attempt to erase an entire country, an entire national identity, from existence. 

To defend against this, it’s critical to know two things. One: the facts about what’s actually going on in Ukraine. And two: whose company a writer keeps when crafting their ideas. 

Anastasia Malenko contributed reporting and research for this story.

____________________

Note from the author:

Hi, this is Igor Kossov, I hope you enjoyed reading our investigation. 

I consider it a privilege to keep you informed about one of this century's greatest tragedies, Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. With the help of my colleagues, I will continue to bring you in-depth insights into Ukraine's war effort, its international impacts, and the economic, social, and human cost of this war. But I cannot do it without your help. To support independent Ukrainian journalists, please consider becoming our patron. Thank you very much. 

Igor Kossov
Igor Kossov
Reporter

Igor is a reporter at the Kyiv Independent. He has previously covered conflict in the Middle East, investigated corruption in Ukraine and man-made environmental damage in Southeast Asia. He has a Master’s in Journalism from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and was published in the Kyiv Post, USA Today, The Atlantic, Daily Beast and Foreign Policy.

Independent journalism
for an independent Ukraine
Independence is an expensive currency. Both Ukraine and its journalists are paying a high price to preserve its independence. Support Ukraine's trusted journalism in its darkest hour.
visamasterCardpaypal