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The Insider has obtained hacked correspondence from officers of Russia's foreign intelligence agency (SVR) responsible for “information warfare” with the West. The leaked documents, intended for various government agencies, reveal the Kremlin's strategy: spreading disinformation on sensitive Western topics, posting falsehoods while posing as radical Ukrainian and European political forces (both real and specially created), appealing to emotions — primarily fear — over rationality, and utilizing new internet platforms instead of outdated ones like RT and Sputnik. The documents also detail localized campaigns against Russian émigrés, including efforts to discredit a fundraiser for Alexei Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation who had moved to the United States.

RU

This is a joint investigation with Der Spiegel.

The secret operation was codenamed “Project Kylo,” perhaps in reference to the antiquated Russian word for “pick-axe,” or an allusion to the Dark Side warrior from the Star Wars sequels determined to rule the galaxy. Or maybe both. The operation was also intended to be “perfectly traceless — with no links ever connecting it to Russian intelligence services,” but that didn’t stop The Insider and its investigative partner Der Spiegel from tracing it back to the Russian intelligence services, specifically the SVR, which handles foreign espionage. The objective, as outlined in a tranche of leaked emails and documents, was to stoke anti-government sentiments in the West, particularly over liberal democracies’ support for Ukraine. And the key emotions to prey upon, the SVR planners intoned, were “fear,” “panic” and “horror” — a psychosocial manipulation campaign straight out of the Cold War playbook of the Soviet KGB’s First Chief Directorate’s Department D. The D stood for disinformation.

The architect of Kylo was Mikhail Kolesov, a pudgy, bald, 45 year-old SVR officer who was previously stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan. On May 23, 2022, Kolesov emailed himself a Word document titled simply, “Propaganda.” It appeared to be the outline of a presentation Kolesov was set to give three days later at a private roundtable discussion in the Russian Senate concerning “information warfare with the West.” That forum, headed by former Soviet diplomat turned hawkishly anti-Western senator Alexei Pushkov, featured recognizable mouthpieces of Vladimir Putin’s regime including Maria Zakharova, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, psychological warfare specialists from the Ministry of Defense, and loyalist journalists. Pushkov was gravely worried about how pro-Ukrainian sentiments were dominating on Western internet platforms, just six months into Russia’s faltering war of conquest, which was meant to take no more than three days.

The Kremlin was losing on two battlefields: physical and informational. Using “old” state-controlled media organs such as RT and Sputnik “have demonstrated near-zero effectiveness for decades, not years;” and attempts to cultivate friendly social media platforms, such as Telegram channels, “does not live up to the expectations placed on performers and demiurges. Lack of creativity, hypocrisy and moralizing aggravate the current situation.”

  • Mikhail Kolesov in FSB uniform

Kolesov’s fresh proposal, crafted in a stilted language — equal parts critical theory, pseudo-science, and marketing jargon — was therefore designed to inject a new scheme into the Kremlin’s propaganda approach: “systematic, targeted and active, offensive in nature.”

Kolesov’s fresh proposal, crafted in a stilted language — equal parts critical theory, pseudo-science, and marketing jargon — was therefore designed to inject a new scheme into the Kremlin’s propaganda approach: “systematic, targeted and active, offensive in nature.”

Rather than propounding straightforward pro-Russian arguments, he suggested, the SVR should now aim to “deepen internal contradictions between the ruling elites” in the West by creating a fake NGO — in reality a cut-out funded and run by agents of the Kremlin — to whip up anti-establishment demonstrations on the territory of the glavnyi protivnik, or “main adversary,” as the United States is known among the Russian special services, and within its “satellite” nations.

Fake advertisements disguised as news headlines, all crafted by SVR recruits, would be visible on most any desktop computer screen or mobile device used by target audiences in the West, luring them to click-through and land on “internet resources controlled by us.”

Fake advertisements disguised as news headlines, all crafted by SVR recruits, would be visible on most any desktop computer screen or mobile device used by target audiences in the West, luring them to click-through and land on “internet resources controlled by us.”

One strategy Kolesov advanced was to appear more stridently pro-Ukrainian than legitimate civil society groups, making outsize demands for Ukrainian refugees so that advocacy on their behalf would come across as unreasonable or alienating to native electorates.

“Waging network wars in EU cyberspace based on the increasing demands of Ukrainian migrants and the new waves of irritation of the local population provoked by this, according to preliminary estimates, will have a very high efficiency both now and in the foreseeable future.”

This method of hijacking and then discrediting a cause from within through extremist posturing is hallowed tradecraft to the Russian special services.

The most notorious example was Operation Trust, an early and unmitigated success of Felix Dzherzinsky’s Cheka, the forerunner of the KGB, which used much the same strategy with respect to the anti-Bolshevik White Russian diaspora in Europe. Agents sent by Moscow to infiltrate the ranks of this exile movement sowed discord within it and offered false assurances of widespread support back home, leading to the leadership being lured into Chekist-constructed traps in Russia and, ultimately, the delegitimization of White Russian organizations abroad.

The SVR’s exploitation of the refugee question wasn’t merely theoretical. German authorities have identified over two dozen legitimate-seeming news websites catering to exactly these fears, with articles headlined (in fluent German), “How Ukrainians are robbing Germany of economic prosperity.” The portals are part of a vast Russian influence operation, Berlin has determined, as are hundreds of thousands of accounts on social media that post photo tiles with sensationalistic slogans straight out of the Weimar era — “Germany is sinking into homelessness,” “Even bread is a luxury” — linking back to the fake news sites.

European politicians had already been clamoring about Ukrainians fleeing the war and becoming burdens on state resources. For instance, in September 2022, Friedrich Merz, the leader of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany, the country’s conservative party, had accused Ukrainian refugees of “welfare tourism,” an allegation for which Merz later apologized.

Kolesov shared his draft proposal with a fellow SVR officer, Mikhail Kulemin, whose WhatsApp avatar, in a caricature version of untraceability, is a picture of James Bond. In fact, between May 2022 and September 2023, they exchanged over 10 iterations of Project Kylo, in one instance forwarding a copy, on May 29, 2023, to Eduard Chernovoltsev, the head of the technical-scientific service of the FSB, Russia’s domestic security agency. This service supervises, among other things, the FSB’s principal hacking unit and the Institute of Forensic Science, the body that manufactures poisons such as Novichok, the military-grade nerve agent used in the attempted assassinations of Sergei Skripal and Alexey Navalny.

  • Mikhail Kulemin's WhatsApp avatar is a picture of James Bond

The most fleshed-out version of Project Kylo was dated January 9, 2023 and came branded with a bizarre-looking insignia that spelled “SVR-Project” in a combination of Cyrillic and English, where the Russian letter В (“V”) is the Bitcoin logo, and the O in “project” is a globe untraceably borrowed straight out of the SVR emblem.

According to this document, the SVR would recruit teams to work in various target countries. A website would be created and falsely labeled an “independent investigations agency” as a clearinghouse for the manipulative content, which wouldn’t just include print but also audio and video hosted by YouTube or other social media platforms.

Video would be spliced into “shorts” published once or twice a day, presumably for more digestible consumption as on TikTok. Links to the SVR-generated content would be “embedded into the target audience’s electronic communication means using a unique algorithm based on the new ‘Storm’ platform module and special software.”

In 2012, the SVR's Military Unit No. 54939 awarded tenders for private sector research whose task was the “mass dissemination of information messages in specified social networks with the aim of shaping public opinion.” One of the research programs, designed by the company Iteranet, was code-designated “Storm-12.”

According to Kolesov, the SVR would even develop metrics as to user activity: click-through rates, time spent reading SVR-generated material, and comments posted.

The “leitmotif of our cognitive campaign in the [Western] countries is proposed to be the instilling of the strongest emotion in the human psyche — fear,” the document states. “It is precisely the fear for the future, uncertainty about tomorrow, the inability to make long-term plans, the unclear fate of children and future generations. The cultivation of these triggers floods an individual's subconscious with panic and terror.”

The “leitmotif of our cognitive campaign in the [Western] countries is proposed to be the instilling of the strongest emotion in the human psyche — fear,” the document states.

The project’s aim would be cumulative, yielding initial results in as few as four to five weeks and “medium-term comprehensive goals” in about three to six months. The SVR measures the former as the rejection of the status quo in liberal democracies and the European Union, complete with popular protests — no more than 100 people, each compensated by 100 euros each — against state and supranational institutions, all of them filmed and recorded for “subsequent media dissemination.” The medium-term goals consist of the discrediting of Ukraine and “the Nazis oriented towards it in the eyes of the collective West.”

The cost of such an influence operation is listed as pretty cheap: $3 per user per month.

Curiously, 2023 saw its fair share of Russian-sponsored provocations seemingly aligned with Operation Kylo all across Europe. Research by a European media consortium revealed that a roving troupe of Russian hirelings kept turning up at protests in major cities such as Paris, Brussels, Madrid, and The Hague denouncing Western arms shipments to Ukraine. The men, the consortium concluded, had likely been hired by Russian special services. One was even found to be a student from St. Petersburg, who, as if taking literal instruction from Kolesov’s playbook, went searching online for volunteers who would be photographed for 80 to 100 euros. The images were meant to be used on social media to telegraph that anti-Ukraine protests were a mass phenomenon in Europe.

Other stunts have followed. In October, not long after Hamas’s attack on Israel, hundreds of Stars of David were spray-painted on the walls of Jewish institutions all over Paris, images of which went viral online. The culprits were actually a Russian-speaking couple from Moldova who were caught in the act and explained they had been recruited to do this false-flag operation via the Telegram messenger. This campaign is redolent of a former KGB Directorate D operation in the 1950s in which Soviet and East German agents desecrated Jewish cemeteries and synagogues in West Germany in order to exaggerate the threat of recrudescent Nazism.

More recently, three men placed coffins in front of the Eiffel Tower with French flags and the phrase “French soldiers of Ukraine'' scrawled on them — a reference to French President Emmanuel Macron’s suggestion that French troops might one day be deployed to safeguard the port city of Odesa. The men are reported to have received up to 400 euros for the campaign.

So as not to leave any doubt as to the insidious nature of the SVR project, Kolesov and Kulemin agree that morality and ethics should play no part in this covert form of psychological warfare, owing to the fact that Russia’s enemies evidently brook no such considerations in their own methods.

So as not to leave any doubt as to the insidious nature of the SVR project, Kolesov and Kulemin agree that morality and ethics should play no part in this covert form of psychological warfare, owing to the fact that Russia’s enemies evidently brook no such considerations in their own methods.

A “truly final version” of the project was sent by Kulemin to his father, General Alexander Kulemin, a retired senior officer of the 12th Main Directorate of the Ministry of Defense, which oversees nuclear weapons. This version clarifies that a core objective will be “mass protest actions in NATO countries, followed by the dissemination of content in the enemy’s media field. We have the necessary capabilities to attract a special contingent permanently residing abroad for such events,” perhaps referring to SVR “illegals,” or spies stationed in the West without diplomatic cover. Kolesov in fact works in the SVR military unit 33949 (a unit within Department S), which deals with servicing illegals.

Judging by the correspondence between Kolesov and Kulemin, their activities were coordinated with the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence arm. For example, the correspondence shows that Kulemin's father forwarded a version of the project to FSB technical-scientific service head Chernovoltsov on May 30, 2023. Chernovoltsov's billing records indicate that a series of calls with Gen. Andrey Averyanov — the leader of GRU Unit 29155, notorious for its work conducting assassination and sabotage operations abroad — began immediately after receiving the version. One of Kolesov's letters to Kulemin explaining the cognitive aspect of the project is titled “Response to AA” — possibly referring to questions about the project raised by Averyanov.

“Security issues for the proposed events have been thoroughly worked out, ensuring their near-complete untraceability and eliminating the possibility of detecting Russian involvement,” the “truly final version” continues. “Special attention is given to the funding of overseas actions. To achieve the set goals, we possess the necessary next-generation tools that allow for international covert transactions outside the operational control of foreign intelligence services.”

While there is no mention in the email exchanges between Kolesov and Kulemin as to when Operation Kylo was officially approved, by March 2023 the two SVR officers began fielding dozens of resumes from prospective candidates for all sorts of positions — all of the candidates having some prior history in intelligence work and at least one foreign language capability. “Would you like an interesting new job? :) :)?” Kolesov at one point writes to a former colleague in the SVR.

Kolesov’s own résumé is among the attachments leaked from his mailbox — or rather, résumés, as there are two, a public and private version. The public states he is the department head at Peacemaker, a Russian “security think tank and services holding” whose web address is peacemaker.ru. (The site is currently under construction). The private c.v. states that Kolesov has worked for the SVR for the last 19 years and was awarded the Order of Merit for the Fatherland, 2nd Degree, in 2019. Among his specialties: the “development and promotion of agitation and propaganda campaigns in order to support Russia’s foreign policy in the international arena (more than 1,500 events have been carried out).”

While the authors of the project are terse about the exact technology that that Russian intelligence agencies claim to have developed that can mass-target individual residents in the West while bypassing the curation of Western media platforms, some clues to what that may be comes from a different side project that Kolesov and Kulemin appear to be working on. That project is named “Ledorub,” the contemporary Russian word for Icepick, and a none-too-subtle reference to the murder weapon used by Ramón Mercader, the NKVD assassin dispatched on Stalin’s orders to liquidate Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1940. The “Icepick” operation of today appears to involve destroying Kremlin enemies in exile, albeit reputationally. (The SVR is said to have discontinued its assassination program in the 1990s under the leadership of its former director Evgeniy Primakov.)

The “Icepick” operation of today appears to involve destroying Kremlin enemies in exile, albeit reputationally.

The email exchange between Kulesov and Kulemin contains three “Icepick” character assassination schemes, each targeting dissidents living overseas. The most thorough case file is on an ex-banker from Russia who currently resides in Boston and is involved in fund-raising for the deceased Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. (Because this person is on a kill list, The Insider is withholding his name.)

The Icepick brief on this target involves his “utter discrediting” among his social circle such that “even the neighbors will stop greeting him.” The approach is similar to that of Project Fear in that it involves manipulating people at the psycho-emotional level and creating a pariah effect around a subject: in this case, not a country such as Ukraine, but an individual. Kolesov proposes leaking fake stories about the former banker suggesting that he had been the financier for rogue FSB officers and for Chechnya’s warlord president Ramzan Kadyrov. Moreover, the target should be accused of embezzling Kadyrov’s money.

“We would spread the rumor that Kadyrov is looking for him around the world,” Kolesov noted, “and remind the target audience that the last time Chechens came to Boston this ended up with the 2013 marathon bombing.”

In the technical implementation section of this proposal, Kolesov wrote:

“The most effective method of impact seems to be the targeted reach of the electronic communication tools, both work-related and personal, of the target audience based on geographic criteria (the neighborhood where the target lives, the school district, the prosecutor's office, the FBI, immigration services, city hall, etc.) or informational criteria (relevant search queries on the internet). Externally, this activity resembles targeted contextual advertising—a bright banner with a loud slogan in the flow of electronic pages viewed by users. At the same time, the developed algorithms allow for fully tracking the reaction of the targeted individuals to the content offered to them (click-through rates to main pages, viewing time of the material, expression of opinion about the content, quick surveys, etc.)”

A further forecast of the expected reach of the discrediting campaign provided by Kolesov is close to 600,000 people. “Wow, with a Boston population of 646,000,” Kulemin replied in March 2023, “that will mean we have reached practically everyone! We rule!”

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