The FSB's Fifth Service has launched a disinformation campaign in Africa. Among others, the agency is spreading the conspiracy that Western pharmaceutical companies and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates are conducting biological experiments in Africa under the cover of vaccination programs. The FSB is misinforming the population both through newly created media channels and through a network of “political technologists” affiliated with the former head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Among them is a man who served five years in prison for a racist-motivated murder in the Moscow subway.
On August 23, 2023, the Embraer Legacy 600 carrying Yevgeny Prigozhin blew up shortly after take-off above the Tver region west of Moscow, leaving behind a wake of abandoned multibillion-dollar ventures ranging from the infamous St. Petersburg “troll factory” to the gruesome private military company Wagner. In the lead-up to his assassination — which few in Russia doubt was orchestrated by the Kremlin — Prigozhin's focus had zeroed in on Africa. The expansive continent had become enmeshed in a web of interlinking political operatives, mercenaries, and resource extraction enterprises — all of them with ties to the notorious Russian “chef.”
In the aftermath of the killing, it swiftly became apparent that Prigozhin’s liquidation would have no effect on the Kremlin’s aspirations across the continent. The top brass of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence arm, embarked on an active charm offensive with African leaders, as Russian generals Alexeyev, Averyanov, and Evkurov reassured continental kleptocrats that the Kremlin’s presence in Africa would endure despite the tragic loss of the man who had done so much to help keep Russia’s authoritarian allies on the continent in power. As flight logs of Prigozhin's various aircraft suggest, Russian mercenaries have continued to travel to African territories previously serviced by Wagner. And as The Insider can now disclose, following Prigozhin's demise the Kremlin initiated a substantial disinformation and propaganda campaign in Africa — one carried out under the supervision of the FSB’s Fifth Service, which has a mandate to operate internationally. Augmenting the network of political operatives and propagandists that Prigozhin’s efforts on the continent left behind, the Kremlin has begun developing its own.
At the helm of this new disinformation campaign stands the seasoned FSB operative Artem Kureev, recently embroiled in a controversy with Latvian Member of the European Parliament Tatjana Ždanoka (who after a separate investigation by The Insider is now under investigation over her ties to Russian intelligence). In 2014, Ždanoka applied to the Belgian Embassy in Moscow to secure a Schengen visa for a visit by Kureev to the European Parliament, but Kureev’s activities cut a far wider geographical swathe than just Europe. In October 2023, two months after Prigozhin's assassination, Kureev launched the “African Initiative” information agency, and a month later, he announced the founding of the RusAfro Media portal, featuring translations of its materials into all major languages spoken in Africa.
FSB Fifth Service operative Artem Kureev
The nascent media outlet swiftly commenced recruitment drives, predominantly targeting African students studying in Russia. As elucidated by Kureev to the Russian farmers’ newspaper “Village Life” (which suddenly showed interest in all matters African), “more than 30,000 African students currently pursue studies in Russia, poised to potentially become journalists in their home countries.” The article added that the African Initiative agency had already opened bureaus in Mali and Burkina Faso, with plans for two more hindered only by funding shortages and a dearth of trained journalists. The extent of Kureev's successful recruitment of foreign students remains elusive, yet it is clear that he has already put some African students to use. In recent months, Kureev has convened meetings with African students’ clubs at Moscow’s famed MGIMO University and at the prestigious Moscow State University.
The rhetoric of the FSB agency's publications largely echoes that of Soviet times, albeit substituting the old favorite gripe about “American imperialism” with the trendier term “colonialism.” The information agency focuses on all topics of relevance to the Kremlin's agenda, extensively covering anti-American rallies in the Central African Republic while promoting stories about how “The United States is attempting to conquer Africa with the use of Facebook, dollars, and the LGBT movement.”
At the same time, some of the outlets under Kureev's control have fabricated legends even more outrageous than the old Soviet propaganda lie that the CIA had developed the AIDS virus. A recent campaign that can be attributed to Kureev’s agency propagates a conspiracy theory alleging that Western pharmaceutical companies are using Africa for biological warfare experiments and for illicit trials of various drugs. In many respects, this campaign builds upon a previous conspiracy theory — also attributable to the FSB — that “disclosed” the existence of American-run bio-laboratories in Ukraine. The African campaign adds into the mix concepts of colonialism, the demonization of Bill Gates, and horror stories about the perils of vaccination. An example of this campaign is an article published on the RusAfro Media portal titled “Recipe for Sovereign Medicine: Healthcare and Russia's African Strategy.” The article features the following paragraphs:
“There is also a subjective factor associated with increased attention from society and the national intelligentsia to issues of medical sovereignty, the activities of major Western pharmaceutical companies, and even personally Bill Gates. It is enough to say that the topic of genetically-modified mosquitoes has become widespread in Africa; literally everyone talks about them, from inhabitants of high offices to residents of traditional huts in rural wilderness...
…The conference's particularly acute moments were the discussion of the vicious practice of Western medical companies using the population of African countries as a «free clinical trial base,» as well as the practically uncontrolled (by national authorities) implementation of biological projects and research in West Africa by Western companies.”
The article is illustrated with a photograph of graffiti in Burkina Faso depicting a syringe as a mosquito. Considering that we have found no other source in Africa-focused media for the genetically modified mosquito conspiracy, it appears that the graffiti itself is part of the same disinformation campaign.
A conspiracy mosquito-slash-syringe drawn by a graffiti artist hired by the FSB
Previously, Kureev's agency had claimed responsibility for a series of similar-styled graffiti in Burkina Faso, dedicated to Russian-African friendship and praising the merits of Vladimir Putin.
Portraits of Putin that appeared in Burkina Faso under the careful guidance of the FSB's Fifth Service
The article's purported author, described as “the Africanist and political technologist Viktor Vasilyev”, is, in reality, a St. Petersburg-based white nationalist by the name of Viktor Lukovenko, who served five years in prison for a racism-motivated murder in the subway in his hometown of Moscow. Following his release, Lukovenko resurfaced in Africa and has been running a Telegram channel dedicated to the continent since 2019. Travel logs link Lukovenko/Vasiliev to other “political technologists” employed by Prigozhin’s Africa team.
“The Africanist and political technologist Viktor Vasilyev” is actually convicted murderer, St. Petersburg-based white nationalist Viktor Lukovenko
The Telegram channel run by Lukovenko is part of a vast network of Telegram channels established over the past six years under Prigozhin's auspices. Some of these channels include Smile & Wave (targeting Africa in general, launched June 14, 2019, with 8,000 subscribers), Gaddafi's Tent (focus on Libya, launched April 1, 2021, with 2,300 subscribers), Laying Low in Bangui (targeting CAR, November 9, 2021, with 3,600 subscribers), Catcher in Sudan (launched May 18, 2022, with 3,000 subscribers), Arab Africa (launched July 21, 2022, with 14,500 subscribers), and French West Africa was Here (launched January 26, 2023, with 800 subscribers).
These channels were created under Prigozhin using the same approach he employed to establish a network of pseudo-war correspondent channels, wherein specific individuals presented themselves as war correspondents but were pushing Wagner-friendly coverage of the wars the PMC was involved in.. Despite Prigozhin's assassination, these channels have continued operating, dutifully serving their new handlers.
Meanwhile, new channels continue to emerge, such as Africa Behind the Glass (August 30, 2023, with 1,800 subscribers), created by MGIMO graduate and African Club member Nikita Panin. Valery Zhuchkov, Chairman of the MGIMO African Club, recommended Panin as an expert in an interview with Kureev's information agency, asserting that “Russia and China are currently collaborating against neocolonialism in Africa.”
Assessing the potential success of the Fifth Service of the FSB in spreading disinformation campaigns across Africa proves challenging. On the one hand, the low level of media literacy predisposes the populace to easily accept conspiracy theories. On the other hand, there is no observable evidence that the efforts of propagandists are yielding a significant response. For instance, all publications from Kureev's agency across all languages over the past month have garnered fewer than 20,000 clicks, and RusAfro Media has yet to surpass five thousand.