GRU on the Internet: Operations and Their Implications During COVID-19

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Russian military intelligence accused of misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic and cyber attacks on international institutions

The operations of people associated with Russian military intelligence began to be closely monitored by Western experts and the media after the poisoning of the Skripals in the UK in 2018. Traditionally called the GRU, the Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Army thereafter «lit up» in a whole series «active events», which were disclosed, and the connection of their performers with Moscow – installed.

On Thursday, the European Union approved a written procedure for imposing sanctions against four Russians who, according to the EU, are involved in a 2018 cyber attack on the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) – Alexey Minin, Alexey Morenets, Evgeny Serebryakov and Oleg Sotnikov. In the explanation to the decision of the European Union, they are named by employees of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, who tried to illegally penetrate the OPCW’s Wi-Fi network in The Hague, and were also involved in cyberattacks on the energy system of Ukraine in 2015-2016..

European sanctions will also be imposed against the Main Center for Special Technologies of the GRU.

A day earlier, two American media – Associated Press and The New York Times – citing anonymous employees of American officials, it was reported that the GRU was involved in a Russian disinformation campaign related to the coronavirus pandemic. Websites run by a Russian agency «Inforos» published articles in English with false information about COVID-19.

Two Russian citizens, Denis Tyurin and Alexander Starunsky, who were in the leadership «Inforos», named in the Associated Press material by former employees of the GRU with preserved links with this department.

Chief Editor «Inforos», journalist Andrei Ilyashenko, for many years was an employee of the state agency RIA Novosti – media, which became part of the holding several years ago «Russia today», run by Russian propagandists Margarita Simonyan and Dmitry Kiselev.

Russian television, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, and the news sites themselves, mentioned in the materials of the Associated Press and The New York Times, deny any connection between these media platforms and intelligence services..

In particular, the English-language website issued a statement in which it was said that the claims of the American media are «libelous», and authors of articles on the site «were not charged with any crimes related to cooperation with foreign intelligence services», and counting them among the employees of the GRU is «essentially slanderous».

Is it possible to say that Russian military intelligence officers are now engaged in what used to be mainly the lot «troll factories» – information war?

Expert of the German Marshall Fund in the USA Bret Schafer (Bret Schafer) speaks in an interview with the Russian Service «Voices of America», that reports of spreading disinformation by the agency «Inforos» on their English-language websites and the alleged connection of the leaders of this media with the GRU testify to the Kremlin’s attempts to improve methods of influence on the Western information space:

«These revelations show that the spread of misinformation is indeed broader than just trolling through hidden social media accounts, and is not limited to the activities of the controversial «Internet Research Agencies». There is a wide network – regular sites, sites with indirect affiliation and sites in relation to which it is generally difficult to determine who is behind them, – but they all disseminate attitudes useful to the Kremlin, reinforcing them and directing them further into the Western information environment».

Bret Schafer also believes that Moscow is cautious in its methods of throwing misinformation about the pandemic, trying to avoid actively spreading it through its official foreign media such as RT and Sputnik: «These media are not at the forefront of the spread of the conspiracy that exists around the coronavirus, this is done from those sites whose connection with the Kremlin is not clear, because Moscow does not want to be seen in active disinformation campaigns.».

That being said, Bret Schafer does not expect to see large-scale Russian efforts to intervene on social media, as it did in 2016, in the upcoming November U.S. presidential election.. «I don’t think that will work this time. People are watching and social media is better prepared, – he says. – But we are not particularly well prepared for yet another hacking operation, a strategic strike at some point during the campaign. So I think if we are talking about potential interference, then I am much more worried about what the GRU and the SVR can do in a narrower sense than about Russian trolling and operations. «Internet Research Agencies».

There are grounds, as the current European sanctions against Russian hackers show, for such concerns, and a Yale University researcher David Schiemer (David Shimer) also fears destabilizing actions by Russia in the upcoming US elections this year..

GRU on the Internet: Operations and Their Implications During COVID-19

The expert raised his concerns during a panel discussion hosted by the Washington «By the Foreign Affairs Council»: «One way – it is to manipulate voters to shape public opinion. This is what Russia did in 2016 using stolen emails and social media propaganda.… The second way can be attempts to undermine the credibility of the voting process itself and the election results.».

David Shimer does not exclude the possibility that Russia may resort to attempts to carry out cyberattacks on the US electoral infrastructure and voter databases, undermining confidence in the elections, as well as questioning the voting process through propaganda and after the elections.

Today, the American public, in particular social media companies, must take a more responsible approach to published information and election coverage, said David Shimer. If, for example, some kind of stuffing of documents appears, but its source is not clear, then finding out who is behind these actions may be even more important than the content of such documents..

Expert Free Russia Foundation Anton Shekhovtsov, however, doubts that Russian military intelligence is directly behind the Internet sites under the auspices of «Inforos». In his commentary for the Russian Service «Voices of America» he emphasizes that it is difficult to assert that there is such a direct connection, because the sites «Inforos» practically do not differ from other resources known for the fact that they make money from readers who click articles from «conspiracy theories»:

«I looked at the English version «Inforos» everything they write on COVID-19, and it is clearly visible that they write everything. It reminds me «garbage sites», which exist in order to earn some clicks and traffic, and not sell some specially created news or engage in propaganda. This is not a very high-quality site, which has everything for catching clicks. There is clearly false information about the coronavirus. – among the mass of other information that they stole from other sites».

At the same time, Anton Shekhovtsov agrees that the official Russian media created for foreign readers – RT and Sputnik – «catching clicks» are not engaged, and in order to throw in obvious misinformation, one might need a media that looks of poor quality, as if it was done by enthusiasts. However, he also admits that a budget could simply have been allocated for such media, which was plundered as the project was implemented:

«In Russia, different services allocate certain money for «information war» with the West, but this money is being stolen. Until they reach the developers of these Internet sites, content managers, the money melts very significantly. And retired intelligence officers do a lot in general. «for check», and it is completely unclear if what they did will work, but they have a report on the work for the money spent». In addition, there are sites that, without being associated with the Kremlin, at the same time are happy to spread conspiracy theories and are its adherents.».

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