Russian disinformation actors active in the 2016 campaign, including both the Internet Research Agency (IRA) in St. Petersburg and Military Intelligence in Moscow (GRU), indeed boosted the Ukraine-interfered narrative. But they did so rather late in the game, about half a year after it had first appeared, IRA activity released by Twitter shows. “Where’s the outrage over Clinton and her campaign team’s collusion with Ukraine to interfere in the US election?” tweeted @USA_Gunslinger on July 13, 2017, one of the IRA’s main fake-conservative accounts. None of the IRA’s Facebook ads mention Ukraine. One known GRU front, CyberBerkut, attempted to promote the Ukraine-interfered narrative with a blog post in June 2017. It would appear that Russian actors did not “concoct” this version of the theory; they parroted the American far right.
The Ukraine-hacked narrative has a murkier origin story. In a document release last month, the FBI revealed one notable detail: During an interview with the FBI, Rick Gates, Manafort’s former deputy, recalled that Konstantin Kilimnik, one of Manafort’s business partners with alleged links to Russian intelligence, advanced the narrative that Ukraine had a role in the DNC hack. “Gates recalled Manafort saying the hack was likely carried out by the Ukrainians, not the Russians, which parroted a narrative Kilimnik often supported,” according to an FBI document, which then adds, confusingly, that “Kilimnik also opined the hack could have been perpetrated by Russian operatives in Ukraine.” It is unclear from Gates’s recollection when exactly this statement was made, and how persistently Manafort in turn repeated it.
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The Ukraine-hacked conspiracy theory is usually combined with a version of the CrowdStrike conspiracy theory, in which the cybersecurity firm somehow engineered the DNC leak while framing Russian intelligence. Kilimnik, notably, does not appear to have advanced this far more common version of the theory.
Of all the Ukraine conspiracy theories, the Ukraine-owned narrative received the most attention early on. It appears to have originated in the first days of January 2017, both on the far right and the far left, almost at the same time—in response to a Ukraine-related Department of Homeland Security intelligence release and a Ukraine-related CrowdStrike report from late December.
In the wee hours of January 3, Washington’s Blog, a popular, now defunct alt-right site, ran a rambling, 5,600-word piece titled: “Why Crowdstrike’s Russian Hacking Story Fell Apart.” The piece quoted a litany of rumors, and then homed in on Dmitri Alperovitch, a founder of CrowdStrike: “He isn’t serving US interests. He’s definitely a Ukrainian patriot. Maybe he should move to Ukraine.”
That same day, The Nation published its own article focused on CrowdStrike. The magazine pointed out that Alperovitch is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and that the D.C. think tank was funded in part by “the Ukrainian World Congress, and the Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk,” thus insinuating that CrowdStrike was somehow linked to Ukrainian money and secret influence. Washington’s Blog picked up the Pinchuk allegation two days later, and Breitbart News also started looking into CrowdStrike.