Russia-linked alt news sources promote pro-Russian narratives about Ukraine and NATO
Alternative news sites, some with connections
Alternative news sites, some with connections to Russian intelligence, amplified pro-Kremlin disinfo about the Ukraine conflict
By Nika Aleksejeva
Fringe news websites hosted in Russia or registered by Russian organizations published stories suggesting that Ukraine, along with NATO member states, the United States, and Turkey, are provoking the military buildup that is taking place near the Russian-Ukrainian border. These stories were later amplified by websites previously caught in spreading disinformation. Many of the sources participating in this alternative news ecosystem, such as News Front and South Front, have been previously identified as having connections to Russian intelligence by U.S. officials, including in the U.S. Treasury’s recent announcement detailing sanctions on several Russia-linked disinformation outlets. The DFRLab has also reported on Russian-state media promoting similar narratives.
The content spread by these English-language alternative news websites coincides with the recent disinformation campaign that Russia’s state TV channels launched for its domestic audience. This campaign blames Ukraine, the U.S. and NATO in military buildup and conflict escalation on Russian-Ukrainian border.
The narrative that Ukraine is responsible for the escalation of military tensions on the Russian-Ukrainian border ignores the Russian military buildup of the past few months. According to The Insider, an independent Russian media outlet, the first confirmed report about Russian military equipment deployed to Crimea dates back to early February 2021. The equipment was likely deployed as part of the Russian Airborne and Naval military exercises in Crimea. Ukrainian analysts assessed the exercise to be rehearsal for an offense, and Ukraine started enhancing its military positions in the region in early March 2021.
The conflict between Russia and Ukraine started in 2013 with pro-Western protests in Ukraine that resulted in the ousting of the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, and the coming to power of a pro-Western interim government, followed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Alt news with a Russian origin
A fringe English-language news website, BRICS, was one of the websites that spread the narrative about Ukraine and NATO provoking Russia and escalating the conflict. The website is registered by Inforos Ltd., a Russian media company that the U.S. Department of Treasury listed on the Russian sanctions list for meddling in the U.S. presidential elections in 2020. The Department’s press release attributed Inforos Ltd. to GRU’s 72nd Main Intelligence Information Center, “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.”
BRICS published a story on March 16, 2021 suggesting that Ukraine is seeking war with Russia to “unite the country as Ukrainians are frustrated and outraged since major internal problems remain unresolved” and is seeking Turkey’s support. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan indeed expressed support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity on April 10, 2021, during the meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Another story published by BRICS on April 5 was titled, “Kiev leads new escalation of violence in Donbass and Crimea,” the Ukrainian regions that have been under Russia’s control since early 2014.
Both articles were republished by alternative news websites. Some of these sites, like GlobalResearch.ca and Before it’s News, were previously spotted spreading disinformation about the U.S. military reinforcement in Europe as early as in January 2017.
Another English-language news website that spread similar stories as BRICS was South Front. South Front also appeared on the U.S. sanctions list for elections meddling.
The stories about Ukraine and Turkey’s “offensive preparations,” and Ukraine’s preparations to attack Crimea, were not republished by any notable news websites, according to Google Search. But a story titled “Kiev’s forces are primed to attack if they can overcome their own minefields” was republished not only by GlobalResearch.ca, but also ZeroHedge, a financial blog that previously spread the false claim “NATO was thinking about invading in Donbas because of the Boeing MH17 crash,” referring to the 2014 downing of the Malaysian Airlines commercial passenger plane over eastern Ukraine.
Another fringe news website that spread the narrative about Ukraine’s aggression towards Russia was One World. The registrant organization of the website is not visible on the public domain registry, but the registrant’s country is Russia.
One World suggested that COVID-19 “vaccine nationalism” is the real reason behind why the U.S. is supporting Ukraine’s aggression toward Russia, arguing “it can’t be ruled out that the US wants to provoke a crisis in Eastern Ukraine so as to make Russian-EU Sputnik V cooperation politically impossible.”
Another article by One World titled “Why does Ukraine want war?” stated, “Ukraine wants war with Russia due to a combination of domestic and international factors, including its ruling elite’s desire to distract from a slew of domestic crises.”
Other alternative sources
Anti-Bellum, a blog by Rick Rozoff, an anti-NATO blogger often republished by Kremlin-owned outlets like Sputnik International and RT, also contributed to the narrative about aggression from Ukraine and NATO toward Russia. On April 4 Rozoff wrote about Ukraine “dragging” the U.S. and NATO into a conflict with Russia, and on April 9 he reflected on the U.S. warship deployment to the Black Sea, which the U.S. later reportedly canceled.
Besides the GlobalResearch.ca, AntiWar Blog, a website run by Randolph Bourne Institute, a U.S. based organization that advocates against U.S. military intervention abroad, republished Rozoff’s stories.
The website AntiWar Blog reports on the current escalation of Russian-Ukrainian conflict from Russia’s perspective, and shares the same Google Analytics tracking code as LewRockwell.com, a libertarian website that the information trust assessment tool News Guard notes shared “false claims about the 2020 U.S. presidential elections and the COVID-19 pandemic.”
LewRockwell.com, like AntiWar Blog, takes the Russian perspective in reports about the conflict escalation between Ukraine and Russia.
None of these articles received much engagement on social media, and these narratives remained relegated to the fringes of the alternative media ecosystem. The patterns of dissemination uncovered here, however, show a deliberate attempt to amplify pro-Kremlin narratives on the Ukraine conflict by actors linked to Russian intelligence services, as Russia continues to amass troops and equipment along the Russian-Ukrainian border.
Nika Aleksejeva is a Research Associate, Baltics, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Cite this case study:
Nika Aleksejeva, “Russia-linked alt news sources promote pro-Russian narratives about Ukraine and NATO,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), April 22, 2021, https://medium.com/dfrlab/russia-linked-alt-news-sources-promote-pro-russian-narratives-about-ukraine-and-nato-f1a3aba9d6ea.
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