The Donetsk leak. Emails between separatists in eastern Ukraine and advisers from Russia offer insights into the Kremlin’s media manipulation.

 A Pro-Russian separatist close to Gorlovka, Donetsk area © Alexander Ermochenko/epa/dpa
A Pro-Russian separatist close to Gorlovka, Donetsk area © Alexander Ermochenko/epa/dpa

The evidence of the extent to which Russia is engaging in psychological warfare against the West is now available in black and white. ZDF’s Frontal21and DIE ZEIT gained access to more than 10,000 emails from the “Information Ministry” of the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. The leaders of the “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, which are not recognized internationally, want to join the Russian Federation. So far, the Russian president has consistently denied that the rebels have taken their orders from Moscow. But the email leak from the ministry in Donetsk reveals actual command structures between Russian advisers and the rebels.

The emails, which took several months to analyze, expose the high-level organization and systematic manner in which Moscow is spreading an image of the West as the enemy in eastern Ukraine.

The Battle Plan

Two authors, one using the pseudonym “Artem” and the other using his presumed real name, Andrey Godnev, wrote an extensive paper in August 2015. The document, titled “Internal Information Policy Strategy in the Luhansk People’s Republic,” (German translation here) was intended to serve as a manual for the rebels in control of portions of eastern Ukraine. According to the cover page, the 41-page document was written in “Luhansk-Moscow.” In it, the authors use many examples to explain how the separatists should control reporting in newspaper editorial offices and at TV and radio stations.

According to the document, all reporting should follow the underlying narrative that the allegedly pro-fascist United States is the root of all evil: “After the Maidan [uprising], power in Ukraine fell into the hands of an oligarchic, pro-American junta – murderers and thieves, villainous, unprincipled people who will stop at nothing to achieve their goals. (…) In reality, power in the Ukraine lies in the hands of the Americans. They (…) control the situation through their agents, which include all important politicians in Ukraine, such as the president and the prime minister.” This is how the document describes what happens in the media in eastern Ukraine: “Experts analyze the situation in Ukraine on television, evaluate the Poroshenko regime, and draw parallels to known radical right-wing regimes, including fascist and puppet dictatorships controlled by the United States.”

At the end of the document, there is a three-page list showing the email addresses and telephone numbers of experts who can be consulted: nationalist politicians and thinkers in Moscow. They include neo-imperialist Alexander Dugin, who once said: “liberalism is an absolute evil,” the chairman of the foreign policy committee of the Russian parliament, Alexsey Pushkov, and Sergey Glazyev, one of President Vladimir Putin’s presumed advisers during the Ukraine crisis.

The strategists behind the “Internal Information Policy” devote special attention to the climate of opinion in social networks, and they note that changing moods on Facebook and its Russian counterpart VK, as well as on Twitter, should be carefully monitored. The strategy document also points out the need to react, if necessary. “A commentary group for the Internet will be established from within the ranks of young activists,” the document reads.

The Strategists

Among other things, this group is supposed to “respond operationally to challenges that arise and intersperse the necessary information and the ‘system of argumentation’ as quickly as possible.” The large number of comments posted by members of this group is intended to create the impression among ordinary Internet users that “a majority thinks this way.” In addition, the strategy document recommends, “projects” should be initiated that show “how tolerant Moscow is toward dissidents, and how much more comfortable it is to live within Moscow’s sphere of influence.”

The Strategists

On January 25, 2016, the strategy document was received in the email inbox of Elena Nikitina, the “Information Minister” of Donetsk. The sender was a Russian email address, [email protected], owned by someone calling himself “Andrey Afrika.” About four weeks later, one of the “advisers,” as the Moscow masterminds call themselves, made a mistake that probably exposed their real names. The mishap occurred in an email a certain “Kashalot74” sent to the information minister at 12:13 a.m. on February 21, 2016.

The attachment to the email contained the agenda items for an upcoming meeting. The subject was: “Media Planning, Report on the Work of the Mass Media in the Region.” Four names were mentioned at the beginning of the document: Andrey Tolmachev, Yevgeny Morus, Andrey Godnev and Alexander Pashin. The men are described as “technologists and media managers.”

Half an hour after Kashalot74 (Russian for “sperm whale”) pressed Send, he realized what he had included in the email. “I advise you to delete our last names and forget them!” he wrote in another email to the minister.

Kashalot74 was usually more careful. His presumed real name, Alexander Pashin, appears only a few times in the 10,000 emails. Another email from [email protected] to the Donetsk interior minister includes as an attachment an airline ticket from the nearby Russian airport in Rostov on Don to Moscow, for a flight at 11:45 a.m. on February 24, 2016. Minister Nikitina’s name is listed as a travel companion on the booking confirmation.

According to research by the pro-Ukrainian website InformNapalm, Alexander Pavlovich Pashin worked as a journalist in Murmansk in the early 2000s. He later became director of public relations in the administration of the northern Russian naval port city. After the war in eastern Ukraine began, Mr. Pashin accompanied an aid convoy from Murmansk to the city of Sloviansk in July 2014, and he brought along his camera. He didn’t hide, and he gave interviews about the trip, even posting pictures of himself posing next to armed separatists on his profile page on the Russian social network, VK. In May 2016, Mr. Pashin posed for a photo with Donetsk rebel leader and “Prime Minister” Alexander Zakharchenko.

Andrey Godnev is another name the Donetsk information minister was asked to delete and forget. His name also appears in several of the leaked Donetsk emails. Mr. Godnev calls himself a “political adviser” and, according to his VK profile page, is from the Russian city of Nizhniy Novgorod. The strategy document names him as a co-author. In August 2013, Mr. Godnev gave seminars for the Young Guard, the youth organization of Russia’s ruling party, United Russia. This emerges from reports on the websites of the two organizations.

Another adviser to the Donetsk information ministry is a person who calls himself “Kosake,” or Cossack. The minister consulted with him to discuss the public portrayal of separatist leader Zakharchenko. The “Cossack’s” digital trail leads to the name Alexander Kazakov. The Russian online newspaper calls Mr. Kazakov an “ideological curator” whose job is to improve the rebel leader’s image. In interviews, Mr. Kazakov describes himself as a political scientist and representative of various Russian think tanks. Eastern Ukrainian propaganda station Newsfront introduced him in 2015 as the deputy director of the Center for the Political Economy (ZPK). This coincides with information from the Russian official newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, which also lists Mr. Kazakov as a deputy director of the ZPK. The consulting firm has its offices in a modern office tower in downtown Moscow. On its website, the ZPK boasts about its “collaboration with the presidential administration,” abbreviated as AP. The AP is a well-known and powerful institution in Russia, Moscow’s counterpart to the Federal Chancellery in Berlin, but with more clout. It is President Putin’s power center.

The abbreviation “AP” appears in an email sent by the Donetsk information minister on February 9, 2016, at 2:11 p.m. In it, she instructs an employee of her ministry to organize a meeting for the purpose of “cooperation in the media planning and implementation of special projects.” The meeting is to include representatives of the separatist Ministry of State Security (MGB), the defense ministry and the editors-in-chief of the region’s most important media organizations. A man called Andrey Federovich is also listed as one of the attendees. His position is stated in square brackets next to his name: Advisor from the AP. Mr. Federovich could be the person calling himself Andrey Afrika, who had emailed the strategy document to the minister a few weeks earlier.

Paint ammunition

DIE ZEIT and ZDF’s questions to the Russian Embassy in Berlin about the possible relationships between the holders of the Russian email addresses and the presidential administration in Moscow remained unanswered. Direct inquiries about the email addresses were also not answered.

Paint ammunition

A few weeks after the announcement of the coordination meeting that included the ministry and intelligence agents, military officers and editors, the cooperation between the Muscovites and the separatists became established. One of the advisers, the alleged Alexander Pashin, wrote in an email to Minister Nikitina on March 16, 2016, at 11:45 a.m. (again using the email address [email protected]): “A lively day. Instructions from Moscow. Urgent!” The subject line reads: “Fwd: Itinerary.” The email related to a ceremony scheduled to take place in Donetsk a few days later, when the fiftieth aid convoy from Russia for the Donetsk People’s Republic was expected. The advisers wanted the arrival of the convoy to be staged properly, portraying the aid deliveries as a symbol of unity with Russia, which was helping to defend the separatists against the supposed fascists in Kiev.

At this time, the information ministry in Donetsk had already sent a detailed program for the event to the Moscow advisers. “Children, teachers (2-3) and doctors (2-3)” were to be made available to welcome and thank the drivers, and a retiree from Donetsk was going to write “an open letter of gratitude.” The information ministry had also given instructions to television stations and newspapers on how they were to report the festival of gratitude to Russia.

But adviser Alexander Pashin was still missing a few details. In an email to the minister, he wrote that “specifically retirees, mothers with many children, and so on, need to be added – the people who received the aid supplies.”

The information minister sent Pashin a link to a music video about the white aid trucks, saying that it too could be broadcast. But Mr. Pashin felt that the video with the white Kamas trucks was “bad,” and he asked the minister to send the people who had made the video to his office. Apparently the Russian’s office was not in Moscow but in Donetsk, at the Information Ministry. The information minister passed on Mr. Pashin’s order: “See Alexander Pavlovich on the sixth floor at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow to discuss the white Kamas video clip.” The video producers delivered a new version two days later. “Much better,” Mr. Pashin wrote.

The anniversary convoy is also mentioned in the advisers’ strategy document as a possible occasion for a media campaign. In the document, it is named as one of several projects under the heading “Support for the Republics by Russia.” The corresponding, “thematic guideline,” that is, the narrative to be told in connection with such events, extends beyond Ukraine. It is a global story, and it reads as follows: “Russia is a reliable and strong ally of the People’s Republics. (…) Today’s Russia is no longer the Russia of the 1990s, but it is working unwaveringly to reestablish the strength of the Soviet Union, and it is on an equal footing with the West. Of course, Russia has been hard hit by the economic sanctions, but this blow was calmly endured on the whole, its impact was far less severe than assumed by the West, and Russia has emerged from this situation stronger and more independent. (…) Russia is fighting for the Donbass and is suffering political and economic losses as a result. A global diplomatic war is underway. But the West is also suffering in this war, and it is still unclear who will prevail.”

The Russian advisers recommend that the information ministry try to convey the eastern Ukrainian population’s gratitude to the Russian president, using what they call “naïve stories, stories that underscore how grateful the residents of Luhansk are to Putin for what he has done and continues to do. Some examples: ‘A grandmother knits socks for Putin,’ ‘Children paint Putin portraits,’ ‘A sculptor putting the finishing touches on a model for a Putin memorial, which he (…) intends to erect in Luhansk,’ etc.”

Another option, according to the advisers, is to collect signatures from people making a direct appeal to President Putin to do things like provide the people of the Donbass region with Russian passports. If the signature campaign materializes, they add, it should praise the Kremlin for its strong ties to the people. “Then you can emphasize that the president has obeyed the will of the people.”

Some journalists find it exciting not to remain neutral in their reporting, but to become involved in psychological warfare instead, says Dmitri R., who worked as an independent journalist in eastern Ukraine and was supposed to become a propagandist. He worked for Newsfront, the channel associated with the rebels. He quit his job when he realized how the regime was exploiting journalists. He is unwilling to use his real name, fearing reprisals. When asked how free he was to report on events in the eastern Ukraine war zone, Dmitri R. laughs bitterly: “Whenever I asked if I could use the material to record material independently, I was always given the same answer: This is not the time for journalism. Journalism is something for peace. For the war, which is also an information war, we need information soldiers. We truly regarded ourselves as information soldiers. And it made the work seem very special.”

Those who were not quite as enthusiastic about the party line quickly lost their jobs. “If you write a critical report, and you do it two or three times, they tell you that you’re fired, and they say: We don’t need this sort of work. We will find someone else, someone who can obey the rules. That’s one of the reasons why I stopped doing that work.”

Cultivating allies

Observing the enemy

An order received by the information minister on January 25, 2016, shows how meticulously public opinion was being monitored: “The report on the top 5 news stories (the most important news of the day from the local media) must be submitted daily (including weekends) by 6 p.m.” The minister was also instructed to count the number of stories that conveyed the prescribed message that “things are worse in Ukraine.”

The Russians were especially insistent on careful monitoring of reports on eastern Ukraine in the foreign media. A summary report was to be delivered every Thursday at 4 p.m. It was to contain a list of all journalists located in the separatist territory in that particular week, and their reports were to be rated as being “positive,” “neutral” or “negative.” Journalists who wrote critical stories were to be placed on a so-called stop list and lose their accreditation, which mean that they would no longer be tolerated as journalists in eastern Ukraine. The Reuters and AP news agencies were identified as “enemies of Russia.”

On February 5, 2016, at 9:28 a.m., “Janus Putkonen,” a volunteer for the separatists from Finland, whose job in Donetsk was to handle accreditation requests from foreign journalists, wrote an email to a coworker with the subject line: “ZDF.” In the email itself, Putkonen wrote: “Recommendation: NO.” The Moscow correspondent for DIE ZEIT was given the same classification.

This meant that she and the ZDF team, who had planned to shoot a story in eastern Ukraine to mark the anniversary of the Minsk Protocol, had been placed on the stop list. No reasons were cited in the email, other than a few references to ZDF reports. The sources quoted were: Russia Today, a TV station funded by the Kremlin, and Propagandaschau, a German-language website that claims to be leftist and supports the Kremlin.

After several emails and appeals by the ZDF team, the accreditation office changed its mind and eventually issued the filming permit. Still, the ZDF team was not entirely trusted. Finnish volunteer Putkonen wrote, in an internal email: “At the very least, the group must be carefully monitored.”

The separatists’ press center in Donetsk maintains lists of journalists with green and red markings. Names marked in green are to be given a hearty welcome, while those marked in red are not even allowed to enter the rebel-held territory.

Cultivating allies

One of the names marked in green on the list is Marc Bartalmai, with the words “good friend” next to it. Marc Bartalmai is a pseudonym for Mirko Möbius, a man from the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt. A marketing professional, he has repeatedly attended the “Monday vigils against cuts in social services and warmongering,” rendezvous for right-wing and left-wing radicals. When the war began in eastern Ukraine, Mr. Möbius went to the Donbass region. He began shooting films there – without support from Moscow, as he insists.

In fact, Mr. Möbius’s films portray the everyday routine of war exclusively from the perspective of the pro-Russian separatists. Hundreds of thousands of people have already clicked on his film “Ukrainian Agony” on the Internet. Most of Mr. Möbius’s supporters are people who no longer trust the so-called mainstream media. They believe that Mr. Möbius is portraying a true picture of the war, a war waged by a fascist junta in Kiev against upstanding freedom fighters. When asked about his approach to his work and the censorship policy in the Donbass region, Mr. Möbius replied: “Let’s not kid ourselves. We are in a propaganda war – over there and here in Germany.”

The government of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” was very keen to market the film. The information minister and a member of her staff approved drafts of the film poster, which depicted Mr. Möbius sadly gazing at a dog. The official screenings at the Zvezdochka and Kult movie theaters in Donetsk were included in the ministry’s official schedule. The documentary was also shown on regional television. In a review of 2015, the information ministry and the Moscow advisers described the many screenings of “Ukrainian Agony” as one of the high points of their work. They claimed that five million people had seen the film, making it the most hard-hitting project to date.

Traditional methods

Manuel Ochsenreiter, a representative of the New Right in Germany, was just as welcome in the separatist stronghold of Donetsk. Mr. Ochsenreiter is the editor-in-chief of the “German news magazine” Zuerst!, which praises Vladimir Putin as a strong leader. He was listed as “approved” on the separatists’ list of journalists.

In an email sent on June 26, 2015, at 1:53 p.m., the deputy information minister in Donetsk reported to his boss on the status of a secret project called “Special Reporters,” in which especially loyal journalists were to be recruited as informers for and accomplices of those in power. The journalist-agents’ job was to portray the separatist government in a favorable light. The ministry official who wrote the email invoked an example from Soviet days: “The attention garnered by the special correspondent with the Pravda newspaper could lead to career advancement or dismissal. (…) We also recommend the establishment of a corresponding institution of special reporting in the Donetsk People’s Republic.”

Fog shells

A team of international observers with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is stationed in Donetsk. Their mission is to monitor the ceasefire between Ukraine and the pro-Russian rebels outlined in the Minsk Protocol. But there is no ceasefire. In many cases, the OSCE experts can hardly tell who is firing at whom with missiles or shells. When a fire broke out in the OSCE motor pool on August 9, 2015, the rebel leadership in Donetsk reacted quickly, claiming that it was an arson attack against the observers by Ukrainian intelligence. A fabricated report was posted online – surprisingly quickly, according to the propagandists. This follows from an internal ministry email sent at 6:57 p.m. on August 10, 2015, under the subject line: “Analysis of the burned OSCE vehicles.” The attachment contains a protocol, according to which the “Department of International Resources” had distributed the story of alleged Ukrainian arsonists in social networks. The protocol lists about two dozen blogs that picked up this version of the story and distributed it. According to their analysis, the story reached up to 1.3 million users through the Russian VK social network alone.

This is the sort of manipulation the Moscow strategy document supports, suggesting that media reports convey the following underlying message: “‘Ukraine is intentionally undermining the Minsk Protocol.’ All reports (…) on violations by the Ukrainians against the agreed ceasefire must contain this assertion. The aim is to clearly imprint on the social consciousness that the Luhansk People’s Republic, the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Russian Federation are in favor of observation of the agreements, while Ukraine is opposed.”

Traditional methods

In 1951, American social psychologist Solomon Asch published the results of an experiment on perception. He showed groups of students lines of different lengths and asked them to determine the lengths. Each group, with the exception of one group member in each case, was instructed to consciously name a line that was shorter than the longest one. In the test series, three-quarters of all subjects who had not received the special instructions followed the majority opinion, even though it was obviously wrong.

Ms. Asch’s experiment demonstrates how incredibly powerful group opinions are. The KGB used these reality-bending effects in its propaganda during the Cold War. The Internet offers completely new possibilities to politicians who are trained in this method. Large user groups can be enticed to reach false conclusions if they feel that these conclusions are validated by everyone else.

In addition to being a former KGB agent, President Putin has also brought many of his former KGB colleagues into the presidential administration. The persistent characterization of the regime in Kiev as fascist; the aggressive accusation that third parties were to blame for shooting down the MH17 passenger jet over eastern Ukraine; the ongoing false claim that Lisa, an ethnic German girl from Russia, was raped by refugees, even when it had already been established that this was not true; the discrediting of critical journalists as US-controlled agents; and, finally, the dissemination of contradictory versions of the shelling of a United Nations aid convoy in Syria – all of these obfuscation attempts follow a pattern that goes back to the Soviet Union. The Donetsk leak now offers proof of how it is being used in eastern Ukraine.

By Jochen Bittner, Arndt Ginzel und Alexej Hock, Zeit

ZDF is airing the Frontal21 documentary “Putin’s Secret Network – How Russia is Dividing the West,” on Tuesday, October 4 at 9 p.m.

Translated by Chris Sultan