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When war strikes, so does disinformation. It’s a vital component of a conflict, especially in these days of social media and hyper-interconnectedness. In the past four weeks, we’ve seen how quickly disinformation can shape the discourse of war. As the Kremlin attempted to legitimize Vladimir Putin’s illegal and brutal invasion of Ukraine, it generated the unsubstantiated allegation that the United States was involved with biolabs in Ukraine that were producing weapons that could threaten Russia. Fox host Tucker Carlson eagerly amplified the accusation, as did such conservative luminaries as Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn. This was more than just own-the-libs trolling, for this propaganda boosts the Russian justification for its war on Ukraine and could even become a rationale for strikes on US targets. Remember when the US government argued that WMDs justified preemptive military action? It didn’t matter whether those WMDs actually existed.
What is with the right when it comes to promoting Russian talking points? Former Trump campaign mouthpiece A.J. Delgado inexplicably claimed that reports of Russian bombs hitting maternity wards and other civilian targets were “probably bullshit.” That was what Moscow propagandists said. Another Trump fangirl, Candace Owens, declared that Ukraine wasn’t a real country and called President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a “very bad character” who was involved in some plot with “globalists” against “the interests of his own people.” This, too, echoed the Kremlin line. Rep. Madison Cawthorn called Zelenskyy a “thug,” and his remarks were all over Russian state television. This noise from the right makes it tougher for the United States to have an honest debate about the vexing issue of the war in Ukraine. Which is what Putin wants. It also provides free content for Putin’s Big Lie machine in Russia.
Russian disinformation has dramatically affected US politics in the Trump and post-Trump eras. The most serious instance was Moscow’s attack on the 2016 campaign, which was mounted to help Trump win the White House. Though cyber experts and the US government fingered Moscow as responsible for the hack-and-leak operation that hampered Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, Putin and the Kremlin said Nyet, it wasn’t us. This fake news was embraced by Donald Trump and his minions who asserted there was no Russian intervention. As president, Trump even said he accepted Putin’s denial. Score that as a big win for Putin.
The Russia-Trump disinformation connection runs deeper. As my occasional co-author Michael Isikoff revealed in 2019, Russian intelligence cooked up a phony conspiracy theory about Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee employee who was murdered on a Washington, DC, street corner in July 2016. The SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, planted with a conspiracy website the false story that Rich had been gunned down by assassins working for Hillary Clinton. Subsequently, this untrue allegation morphed—with the help of Julian Assange, WikiLeaks, and American conspiracy-mongers—into the more extensive conspiracy theory that Rich had been killed because he (not the Russians) had stolen the hacked emails from the Democrats. As Isikoff reported, “the Russian government-owned media organizations RT and Sputnik repeatedly played up stories that baselessly alleged that Rich, a relatively junior-level staffer, was the source of Democratic Party emails that had been leaked to WikiLeaks.”
Moscow’s goal was to purportedly show that Putin had not subverted the 2016 American election. And Trump allies in and outside the White House—including Bannon, longtime Trump adviser and dirty trickster Roger Stone, and Jay Sekulow, a lawyer for Trump—pushed versions of the Seth Rich conspiracy theory. Let’s pause for a moment so that can sink in: Trump aides were peddling a loony conspiracy theory originated by Russian intelligence.
Here’s another example of from-Russia-to-Trump disinformation quite relevant today. Trump landed in his first impeachment mess partly because he accepted Russian disinformation. Recall his famous July 25, 2019, phone call with Zelenskyy. When the Ukrainian president asked for more security assistance, particularly Javelin anti-tank weapons (which have been crucial in the battle against the Russian invaders), Trump replied, “I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike…I guess you have one of your wealthy people…The server, they say Ukraine has it.” Later in the conversation, he pressed Zelenskyy to produce dirt on Joe Biden. But at first he was talking about the nutty conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, had intervened in the 2016 election and had done so to assist Clinton. This batcrap story claimed that the hacked DNC servers had been whisked away to Ukraine by CrowdStrike, a cybersecurity company that had worked for the DNC, and were being hidden in Zelenskyy’s country as part of a cover-up.
It was complete nonsense. The files on the servers had been turned over to the FBI. There was no Ukrainian connection to the hacking and leaking. CrowdStrike was not, as Trump had told others, a Ukrainian company. Where did this junk come from? Take a guess.
This Ukrainians-did-it conspiracy theory appears to trace back to a fellow named Konstantin Kilimnik, who was identified in a 2020 Senate Intelligence Committee report (approved by the Republicans and Democrats on the committee) as a Russian intelligence officer. Last year the US Treasury Department described him as a “known Russian Intelligence Services agent implementing influence operations on their behalf.”
In 2019, BuzzFeed News obtained an FBI report about an interview conducted with Rick Gates, a top Trump campaign aide in 2016, during special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Gates was a longtime business partner of Paul Manafort, who had been chair of the Trump campaign. Both had been business associates of Kilimnik in Ukraine. The FBI report noted, “Gates recalled Manafort saying [in 2016] the hack was likely carried out by the Ukrainians, not the Russians, which parroted a narrative Kilimnik often supported.”
This is the earliest chronicled appearance of the blame-Ukraine cover story. And it came from a suspected Russian intelligence officer. This connection is even more intriguing now that we know, as the 2020 Senate intelligence report disclosed, that the intelligence committee “obtained some information suggesting Kilimnik may have been connected to the [Russian intelligence] hack and leak operation targeting the 2016 U.S. election.” Put it all together and this picture emerges: Manafort’s business associate, a Russian intelligence officer (to whom Manafort passed inside information on the Trump campaign in 2016), was possibly involved in Putin’s operation to subvert the election to assist Trump, and then he told Manafort the Ukrainians were the perps.
The Ukrainian conspiracy theory became more convoluted in the following years, as American conspiracists added evidence-free claims about the servers, CrowdStrike, and a Ukrainian businessman who supposedly was the grand plotter behind all this. But this notion started with a suspected Russian intelligence officer.
It’s not publicly known how Trump came to latch on to this bonkers idea. He raised the issue during an April 2017 interview with the Associated Press. And he discussed it with his advisers. On October 17, 2019, then–White House aide Mick Mulvaney confirmed that Trump’s belief in this theory had prompted Trump to block military assistance to Ukraine. “Did he also mention to me in [the] past the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely,” Mulvaney said. “No question about that. But that’s it, and that’s why we held up the money.”
During the congressional hearings in the fall of 2019 for Trump’s first impeachment—which was precipitated by his phone call with Zelenskyy—his House Republican defenders repeatedly referred to the allegation that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 contest, adopting this line to protect Trump and deflect from his wrongdoing. Fiona Hill, the former White House Russia expert, tried to shut this down when she testified, saying sternly, “Some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did. This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves. I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.”
Her plea didn’t work. The Republicans kept at it—and Trump did, too. The next day, he did exactly what Hill had cautioned against. In an interview with Fox, he prattled on about Ukraine covertly possessing the server: “A lot of it, they say, had to do they say, had to with Ukraine. It is very interesting, it is very interesting, they have the server from the DNC.” In September 2019, Russian state TV had said Trump should keep digging for “the sweetest” kompromat of all: “proving that Ukraine—not Russia—interfered in the US elections.” That’s what he was doing—assisting a Russian disinformation campaign.
Russian intelligence has had a good winning streak in America in recent years. The 2016 attack. The Seth Rich smokescreen. The Ukraine-did-it operation. The latter served Moscow’s strategic interest of harming US-Ukraine relations. Putin’s spies and propagandists have a tougher task now that Russia is destroying cities and slaughtering civilians in Ukraine. But recent days have shown that on the right there’s still a strong market for Putin’s lies.