Thursday, April 25

Russia’s online operations focus on aid to Ukraine and are harder to detect

Russia has stepped up its online efforts to derail Ukraine’s military funding in the United States and Europe, largely by using harder-to-trace technologies to amplify arguments for isolationism at home. The U.S. election is approaching, according to disinformation experts and intelligence assessments.

In recent days, intelligence services have warned that Russia has found better ways to hide its influence operations. The Treasury Department imposed sanctions last week against two Russian companies that it said supported the Kremlin campaign.

The intensified operations, led by aides to President Vladimir V. Putin and Russian military intelligence agencies, come at a critical time in the debate in the United States over supporting Ukraine in its war against Russia. Although opposition to additional aid may have started without Russian influence, the Kremlin now sees an opportunity.

Russian operatives are setting the stage for what could be a stronger push to support candidates who oppose aid to Ukraine or call for U.S. withdrawal from NATO and other alliances, US officials and independent investigators say.

Investigators say companies working in the “Doppelgänger” network – and Russian intelligence agencies replicating their tactics – use these techniques to replicate and distort legitimate news sites to undermine continued aid to Ukraine .

These techniques are subtle and far more skillful than what Russia attempted in 2016, when it created Facebook posts or tweets on behalf of nonexistent Americans, and used them to fuel anti-immigration protests or other burning questions.

The loosely related “Doppelgänger” creates fake versions of real news sites in the United States, Israel, Germany and Japan, among other countries. It often promotes websites previously associated with Russia’s military intelligence agency, known as the GRU.

The result is that much of the original speech is protected by the First Amendment – ​​as one congressman says resources sent to Ukraine should instead be used to patrol the US southern border. But the amplification is designed in Russia or by Russian influencers.

Mr. Putin has placed responsibility for a growing number of influence operations on a key lieutenant, Sergei Kiriyenko, according to U.S. and European officials. The Treasury Department imposed sanctions last Wednesday on people associated with Mr. Kirienko’s operations.

Researchers at Alethea, a counter-disinformation company, identified a GRU-affiliated group that uses hard-to-detect techniques to spread similar messages on social media. An Alethea report echoes a recent assessment by US intelligence agencies that Russia continues to “better hide its hand” while conducting influence operations.

“The network demonstrates an evolution of Russian objectives in its information operations,” Lisa Kaplan, the company’s founder and chief executive, said in an interview. “Where the Russians previously sought to sow chaos, they now seem focused solely on influencing democracies to elect candidates who do not support sending aid to Ukraine – which in turn supports isolationist and protectionist candidates and policies. »

“This long-term strategy, if effective, would lead to a reduction in support for Ukraine around the world,” she said.

U.S. officials note, however, that these techniques make it particularly difficult to identify – and expose – Russian operations.

During the 2016 election, the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm that waged information warfare against the United States, released thousands of social media posts claiming they were from Americans. During the 2020 election, the National Security Agency learned how to disrupt operations in Russia.

Moscow decided to close the Internet Research Agency after its founder, Eugene V. Prigozhin, staged a short mutiny against the Russian army last year. People affiliated with the group remain active. But U.S. officials and experts say it is no longer Russia’s primary influence effort.

“The Internet Research Agency, in many ways, was just a placeholder for what has become a much larger information effort in traditional media and social media,” said Clint Watts, executive director from the Microsoft Threat Analysis Center.

The latest efforts are more directly controlled by the Kremlin. Before the Treasury sanctions last week, the State Department described what it said were efforts by the two Russian companies, Social Design Agency, a public relations firm, and Structura National Technologies, a technology company information, to create disinformation campaigns.

U.S. intelligence agencies do not believe the Kremlin has launched a real influence effort. Mr. Putin will likely at some point abandon his anti-Ukraine message to influence operations that more directly support the candidacy of former President Donald J. Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee.

Mr. Putin is unlikely to order a bigger effort in the presidential election before party congresses this summer, officials and experts said.

“What we have observed is that the Russians and a number of other adversarial countries are thinking about how and when they could influence the election,” said Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat and senior member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Mr. Putin says the United States has sought to influence Russian politics, including during this month’s presidential election, in which, unsurprisingly, he was re-elected by an overwhelming majority. It is unclear to what extent Mr. Putin views the U.S. sanctions imposed after the death of opposition leader Alexei A. Navalny as some kind of interference in his politics.

“Putin believes in his heart that we are interfering in his elections,” Mr. Himes said. “Things like contact with dissident groups or amplifying Navalny’s message. Putin sees all this as interference by the United States. He considers senators and congressmen criticizing his election as election interference.”

Russian activity that captures American attention is not limited to influence operations. Russia’s SVR, the most active intelligence agency during the 2016 elections and behind the “SolarWinds” hack that allowed access to numerous government agencies and major US companies, has been carrying out an attack since several months against Microsoft. The effort appears to be aimed at gaining access to company emails and data.

And U.S. officials say ransomware attacks continue to emerge from Russian territory.

A wave of such attacks prompted the only summit between President Biden and Mr. Putin in 2021. Efforts to work together to stem these attacks failed when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began. ‘Next year. Today, hacking campaigns bring millions of dollars to criminal groups, while often furthering the Kremlin’s agenda of disrupting American health care, government services, and utilities.

In their annual threat assessment, intelligence agencies said Russia was trying to sow discord among voters in the United States and its allies around the world, and that the war in Ukraine “will continue to feature prominently.” in his messages.

“Moscow views the US elections as opportunities and has conducted influence operations for decades,” the intelligence report said. “Russia is considering how the results of the 2024 U.S. elections could impact Western support for Ukraine and will likely attempt to influence the elections in ways that best support its interests and goals. »

Russia will likely be the most active foreign power seeking to influence the presidential election, although China and Iran have also stepped up their efforts, Himes said.

“It’s important to remember that the nature of election interference is very different when we talk about the Russians,” Mr. Himes said. “The Russians are an order of magnitude more intense and more focused than we have seen from the Chinese, the Iranians and others.”

After the 2016 vote, Democrats and Republicans fiercely debated whether Mr. Putin simply wanted to sow chaos in the American electorate or whether he was actively supporting Mr. Trump. Intelligence agencies concluded in that election, as well as in 2020, that Russia was seeking to support Mr. Trump.

Intelligence agencies believe the Russian government is once again favoring the election of Mr. Trump, largely because of its skepticism about aid to Ukraine. But according to U.S. officials, it is unclear to what extent Russian influence operations will support Mr. Trump or denigrate Mr. Biden.