What Russian Journalists Uncovered About Russian Election Meddling

A cautionary tale about the importance of independent media abroad

Natalia Sindeyeva (L), general director of Russian television station Dozhd (TV Rain), and Alexander Vinokurov, the station's owner. (REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva)

Much of 2017 was consumed with untangling the political mess that was 2016 and Russia’s role in it. Much of what we learned came from  American journalists, who brought us revelation after revelation about how the Kremlin meddled in the presidential election. Through these reporters’ domestic sources—in the White House, Congress, and the intelligence community—we learned how Russians bought Facebook ads aimed at sowing division; how Russian government agencies hacked the Democratic National Committee and congressional races; how Russians loosely affiliated with the Kremlin reached out to the Trump campaign; and how the Kremlin turned the popular Kaspersky Labs anti-virus software into a spying tool.

Very little information came from the other side—from Russian journalists. Arguably, we learned far more from their stories about Russian campaign interference than from American news stories. Yet you can count on one hand the stories about it published in Russian media.

Here’s a rundown of what we learned from the Russian press this year:

  • In an updated edition of their book, The Red Web, Russian journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan—veteran reporters on the Russian secret services—revealed how and when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the attack on the American election. It happened, according to Soldatov and Borogan, at a meeting in April between Putin and a small inner circle of his national security advisors, most of them former KGB officers. Putin’s decision was also reportedly an emotional, knee-jerk one, in retaliation to the release of the Panama Papers, which implicated him. Because of Putin’s highly conspirological mindset, he apparently blamed Goldman Sachs and Hillary Clinton for the release of the embarrassing information, Soldatov and Borogan reported.
  • An October report from the Russian business media outlet RBC explained in great detail how the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, also known as the “troll factory,” operated during the 2016 election. The report, authored by two Russian journalists, detailed the funding, budget, operating methods, and tactics, of the 100 trolls who spent 2016 populating American social media sites with divisive commentary and imitating civil rights groups. The report showed how the Agency was financed through its owner, Putin’s court caterer Yevgeny Prigozhin. It also detailed the reach of various politically inflammatory posts. It showed, for example, how the Agency produced over 20 Facebook posts that gathered over a million unique views each.
  • That same month, TVRain, Russia’s last independent television network, interviewed “Maxim,” a man who had worked as a troll at this factory. He revealed that the factory was largely staffed by college students from the prestigious St. Petersburg State University, Russia’s #2 university; their majors included international relations, linguistics, and journalism. They were, in other words, young, educated, worldly, and urban—the very cohort Americans imagine would rise up against someone like Putin. Instead, they worked in the factory, making nearly double the average Russian’s salary, sowing discord on Twitter, Facebook, and in the comments sections of various websites. They were instructed not to mention Russia, but instead to focus on issues that divided Americans, like guns and race. They learned their subject matter by reading Americans’ social media posts and by watching House of Cards, effectively weaponizing American culture and openness.
  • Last week, TVRain ran a written interview with Konstantin Kozlovsky, who is currently in a Russian prison for hacking into various Russian banks. He confessed to hacking the DNC and to creating the viruses Lurk and Wanna Cry, the latter of which is responsible for a ransomware attack that paralyzed computer networks across the world. Kozlovsky told the journalists how he had been entrapped and blackmailed into working for the FSB, the main Russian security agency, nearly a decade ago. He said that when he hacked into the servers of the DNC, he purposely left behind a calling card: a data file with the number of his visa to the Caribbean Island of St. Martin, as well as his passport number. Kozlovsky also said that he was arrested now because the FSB wanted “to hide the digital traces” of what he did. (It’s worth noting that many of these claims are unverified.)
  • Earlier this month, the Bell, a scrappy upstart website based outside of Russia, published a detailed exposé by the legendary Russian investigative journalist Svetlana Reiter about the four Russian men—two of them high-ranking FSB cyber warriors—arrested in Moscow last December in connection with the 2016 election hack. Reiter delved into the mystery of why the men were charged with, of all things, passing information to the CIA about the Russian cyber-attack. According to Reiter, they had been set up by a rival faction in Russian military intelligence, the GRU. The rivalry, which Soldatov and Borogan had also reported on, centered on securing both the prestige and budgetary funds that came with penetrating U.S. government cyber-defenses. This had previously been the exclusive domain of the FSB—once run by Putin—and the GRU was trying to muscle in on the FSB’s territory and money. A side effect of this internal rivalry, Reiter concluded, was how the Americans discovered the hack.

Why has there been so little reporting on Russian election interference coming out of the place that perpetrated it? For one thing, the Russian security services and the Kremlin do not leak, at least not nearly as much as their American counterparts, and they are suspicious of Western journalists, of whom there are fewer and fewer these days. Russian government officials also “don’t like talking to independent journalists, but they’re still better to talk to than to American journalists,” said Liza Osetinskaya, a legendary Russian editor who now runs The Bell.

The problem is that independent journalism in Russia has been decimated. Even if those on the inside are willing to talk to a local journalist, there are fewer and fewer of them around. After returning to the Kremlin for a third term, Putin cracked down on the independent press. The Kremlin put pressure on the businessmen who owned these media outlets, as well as on advertisers and cable and satellite networks to squeeze the space in which independent media had flourished during Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency. Several outlets were shut down, and people like Osetinskaya were pushed out by business owners wary of Kremlin pressure, in favor of more loyal, and less enterprising, editorial teams.

Osetinskaya, who oversaw investigations of Putin’s family’s wealth, was pushed out of the more mainstream RBC, and now runs The Bell from the Bay Area with a skeleton crew of reporters and editors scattered all over the world. It’s no coincidence that it was this outlet that produced such a detailed and explosive report. TVRain, which broke two of the stories summarized above, was nearly shuttered under Kremlin pressure in 2014. Instead, it was left for dead as an online-only channel. Its reach, along with its advertising revenue, and, consequently, its salaries, are a fraction of what they were just five years ago.

Facing this kind of political and economic pressure, many of Russia’s journalists—many of them among the country’s best—either left home or abandoned the profession altogether.* What we are witnessing “is the last phase of the death of independent Russian media,” Galina Timchenko said at last summer’s Aspen Ideas Festival. She is another well-known Russian editor forced out under Kremlin pressure. She now runs the independent Meduza from Latvia. It has a fraction of the reach of the outlet she ran for a decade, Lenta.ru.

The squelching of press freedom and the shuttering of independent media abroad is, in other words, not an academic matter. As 2017 has shown, when these voices are silenced, we know far less than we need about vital national security interests. If the violation of an abstract principle doesn’t bother you, its very concrete repercussions should.

* This piece originally stated that the two journalists who worked on the RBC story about the troll factory received threats and left the profession shortly after. In fact, only one of the journalists left journalism, and it is unclear whether the decision had anything to do with the troll factory. The piece has been updated.