NB: The character, background and role of Alexey Navalny in Russian politics is controversial. I am not going to attempt to assess his role – positive, negative, “Trojan” or mixed – in this post. This is a post about how the Kremlin creates controlled “leaks” and then uses them for their immediate goals.
Over the past month, the Russian hackers’ group Anonymous International, also known as “Shaltay-Boltay”, has leaked a huge archive of emails from and to Timur Prokopenko, head of the “Internal Politics” department at President Putin’s administration, and the de facto Kremlin spin-master. The expansive mail archive shows the extent of sophistication that the Kremlin applies in attempting to control every single aspect of Russian media, and as much as possible international media as well. The hack makes us privy to a daily sequence of media “road maps”, reviews of existing publications, instructions to an army of “guards” and paid bloggers/trolls, etc. We also see the extent of direct intervention that the Kremlin has over Russian media (as a curious example, an internal memo notes
“Ensure that [a TV cooking show] put back the photo of [dissident rocker] Makarevich to the studio set…It being removed may create more sympathy for him”.
One of the key focuses of the spin-doctor’s department is the media assassination of political opponents. This is achieved via a variety of media and social-media tools such as “discrediting information”, “ridicule”, and “demotivators (rhymes, collages, caricatures etc)”.
And of all opposition figures, the one that the Kremlin seems most obsessed about, is Alexey Navalny. Literally, without exaggeration, we find a daily reference to Navalny in the media reports and/or road maps. This is only somewhat odd, given that Navalny is not a hugely popular figure amongst Russian society and does not pose any electoral risk to the establishment. Still, he is a somewhat outspoken opposition leader and has been known to gather a few thousand people at rallies, so the fact that he is in the cross-hairs is not sufficient to conclude a possible special linkage between Navalny and the Kremlin.
However, now it appears that in November 2014 the Kremlin did something unusual; something that stepped out of the traditional toolbox they use against opposition figures.
On November 6th, 2014, vehemently pro-Kremlin website/TV station LifeNews published a leaked document, “proving” that Navalny’s anti-corruption organization has been continuously funded by the Kremlin itself. The story remained on LifeNews’s site only one hour, and following an unprecedented Kremlin reaction of “indignation”, multiplied via hundreds of social-media posts and mainstream media comments, the story was taken down. A few hours later on the same day, ostensibly to counter implications of censorship, LifeNews re-published the story. (In summary, the story goes that the wife of a key Navalny aide has suspiciously won over RUR 100 mln in government tenders since 2012),
The story was arduously denied by the Kremlin. Here is the comment from a “Kremlin source”, quoted by TASS on November 6th:
“The information about the alleged financing by the Kremlin is complete nonsense and a ratings-chasing trick, with all my respect to Lifenews”, said a TASS source at the Kremlin. “Regarding the authenticity of the documents, that must be checked into..”
I found this draft comment in Timur Prokopenko’s email box. And nothing too surprising there – who else would be the most likely “Kremlin source” for TASS than the Kremlin spin-doctor, communicating with all key media on a daily basis. Nothing odd.
Nothing odd until you compare the dates of the “comment” and the initial news publication.
At 5:54 pm on November 5th, 2014, the day BEFORE the story was broken by LifeNews, Propokenko sent this cryptic email to himself (a consistent review of his email habits show that he sends himself reminder messages, sort of “thoughts in progress”, or things to work on further).
The email reads:
“Non-sense by a crazy person – with all my respect to LifeNews. The authenticity of the documents must be verified”
So, the day before LifeNews is to break a story, and then take it off due to the Kremlin’s (unexpected?) reaction, and then republish it as a sign of “absence of censorship in Russia”, the Kremlin spin-doctor already sends himself the comment to tomorrow’s news. And at 7:24 the next morning, an hour and a half BEFORE the story is broken by LifeNews, Prokopenko sends himself another version of the comment: this time coinciding with the TASS quote word for word.
Now, let’s consider the null hypothesis for a second. It is theoretically possible that LifeNews shared the story with Prokopenko the previous day, and he prepared the statement in anticipation of the morning’s leak. Suspicious, unlikely (as he could have stopped the story, given the rest of evidence we see in the mail hack), but still theoretically possible.
Let’s see what happens AFTER the story was broken, though.
At 9:07, 10 minutes after the story is originally posted, Prokopenko received a detailed report of the coverage of the story by all Russian media, including quotes from key social-media reactions. The report was compiled and sent to Prokopenko by his closest (secret) assistant, Kristina Potupchik, who combines here online persona as an independent blogger and her offline persona as a Kremlin media adviser, working under the code name Irina Veduta.
The confidential report from Potuptchik to Prokopenko includes a “hastily written blog post” by…Kristina Potupchik where she calls for “an immediate investigation” of the claimed funding stream, and is reporting “in real time the refutation from a Kremlin source just being published by TASS”. Thus, Potupchik is reporting to the source what she reported in her blog that the source reported to TASS.
The end of Potupchik’s report to Prokopenko murders the null hypothesis with a single point-blank shot. The closing paragraphs reads:
“As replies to posts from opposition figures and journalists, the following messages have being posted by auto-bots:
Kremlin secretly financed Navalny http://lifenews.ru/news/144351
Lifenews discovered proof of support by the regime to Navalny
Proof of the financing of Navalny by Kremlin found their way to the Internet
Now this >> Kremlin pays to Navalny!
Shocking information: opposition sponsored by the very “top”
Why does the Kremlin benefit from paying the opposition? A discouraging investigation
In other words: bots flared up the story by adding these “promotional” lines to any related post in social media by opposition figures. (Here is the full original report to Prokopenko: Lifenews).
The next morning, Kristina Potupchik sends Prokopenko a comprehensive report of the coverage of the leak. The report includes the following, apparently self-congratulatory summary:
The story was placed in the morning on LifeNews. Then the press published a rebuttal. Then the story was deleted. And ultimately, it was restored. All of this provoked several waves of debate and made this the main news story of the day. The word “Navalny” became a top-trending term on Twitter. Navalny himself chose not to comment the leak on the merit, and chose to make jokes about it.”
If this is not enough, a later report from Kristina Potupchik from 11 December boasts that “our guards planted the following infographic, showing the funding of the opposition by the regime”
What does all this mean? Clearly it means, at the very least, that the Kremlin itself engineered and leaked this “story”. But why would they do that – at the cost of loss of at least certain credibility of the Kremlin itself? Is Putin’s team so sophisticated as to risk losing its tail in order to hurt the enemy?
If so, this would imply the Kremlin has fully “internalized” any cost to its reputation. And if so, this is a serious threat to the rest of the world. Because there is no more dangerous regime than the one that has accepted that it is crooked. (Just watch the “So what are you doing to do about it?” end-game scene from any mafia movie). With the reputation cost being set at zero, no crazy plan at world domination is inconceivable. Just ask Hitler.