News Brief

How the Kremlin Used Skype To Run a Baltic Disinformation Campaign

A trove of Skype messaging chats between an employee of a Russian state media company and a Russian citizen based in the Baltic states has provided a rare window on how the Kremlin funds and controls its efforts to influence public opinion abroad.

The conversations were obtained as part of a joint investigation by regional and international media groups into three websites that were purportedly offering independent coverage of the Baltic region but which were actually funded by the Russian government.

Documents seen by the investigative news outlet Re:Baltica, BuzzFeed News and the Estonian newspaper Postimees also show how the Kremlin tried to hide its funding using offshore banks and shell companies.

The three “Baltnews” sites were launched four years ago in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, a key battleground between Russia and the West.

But a criminal probe in Estonia into the sites’ Russian publisher revealed that they were ultimately controlled and funded by “Rossiya Segodnya”, the Moscow-based state media company which runs the Sputnik news agency and is also connected to the RT network.

The launch of the Baltnews sites followed Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014. With their large ethnic Russian population, the Baltic states fear they could become Moscow’s next target, in effect replaying their history of Soviet occupation. All three states are members of NATO and the European Union—which they see as guaranteeing their sovereignty and economic well-being—a fact that has long rankled Moscow.

The thousands of Skype messages uncovered by the investigation show how Alexander Kornilov, the publisher of Baltnews, was ordered by his Kremlin handler to highlight divisive stories about the region and the West on the websites. Sometimes daily lists of “mandatory” subjects were sent over this way from Moscow.

The joint investigation also revealed the secret network the Kremlin used to channel thousands of Euros in funding to the Baltnews operation, with money passing through Serbia and the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.

Although the Russian publisher Kornilov is no longer involved—after being charged with fraud in Estonia—the three websites continue to operate. And when the investigation team recently contacted the Latvian Baltnews site for comment, they were told to direct their questions to the press office of Rossiya Segodnya.