Russia’s disinformation dirty bomb and spy dramas in the Arctic

Natalia Antelava

 

This week, as Rishi Sunak, Britain’s latest prime minister took office in London, NATO and Russia staged planned annual nuclear exercises, and Russian forces pounded more than forty Ukrainian villages. But in a busy news week, also competing for headlines and our attention was a fake claim made by Russia that Ukraine was about to set off a radioactive “dirty bomb.” 

The roll-out of the dirty bomb story felt highly coordinated: the first mention of it appeared on Sunday morning, in an article on the state-run Ria Novosti website that claimed that the government in Kyiv was preparing to provoke Moscow by using a dirty bomb. RIA Novosti cited “credible sources in various countries, including Ukraine.” Almost immediately the story was picked up and spread across the Russian media and tweeted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Russian Embassy accounts across the world. Meanwhile, piggybacking on the coverage, Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu got on the phone to discuss the matter with his counterparts in Europe, the United States and China. 

Shoigu’s phone calls gave the dirty bomb story another lifecycle outside of Russia. As global media reported the “dirty bomb” story, compelling U.S. and EU officials to dismiss it as a fake, the drumbeats and smoke signals grew stronger. Until finally, on Wednesday night, Putin himself brought it up. Speaking at a security services meeting of six former Soviet states, Putin described Ukraine as a country that has “practically lost its sovereignty and is directly controlled by the US.” According to Putin, “Ukraine is used as a battering ram against Russia.” 

“The plans to use a dirty bomb for provocations are also known,” Putin added

Context: Analysts are scratching their heads: having never mentioned the dirty bomb before, why is Russia making these claims now? The answer varies depending on what you read. Some believe the dirty bomb narrative signals an inevitable escalation on the battlefield; Ukrainians are speculating that Russia is planning a radioactive attack of its own; and the third option being touted is that Russian officials were simply looking for an excuse to establish a conversation with the West.  

“I am sure that the ‘dirty bomb’ is another attempt to come up with an excuse to talk to the West and call everyone. Plan for a dialogue didn’t work out.” tweeted political analyst Fedor Krasheninnikov.

As is the way with stories out of Russia. Putin has us discussing and responding to disinformation as if it were all real when none of us actually believe any of it is real. It sows confusion and doubt, it keeps people guessing and off balance. The disinformation and manufactured panic might have been the Kremlin’s goal all along — the real dirty bomb. 

ARCTIC SPY DRAMA

In Norway, meanwhile, one story dominated headlines this week and it’s like a plotline straight out of “The Americans,” the show about Russian undercover spies in the suburbs of Washington DC. Except in this story, the suspected Russian spy is posing as a Brazilian researcher in the Norwegian Arctic.

Jose Assis Giammaria was on his way to his office at the University of Tromso on Monday,  when he was apprehended by Norwegian police on Monday. “We believe he represents a threat to fundamental national interests,” Hedvig Moe, deputy chief of the Police Security Service, Norway’s domestic intelligence and security agency, told the public broadcaster NRK.

Giammaria, a graduate of Calgary University in Canada, arrived in Tromso in 2021 after securing an unpaid position as a visiting researcher at the University’s well-known center for the study of security risks and hybrid threats. The head of the center, Professor Gunhild Hoogensen Gjørv told the Norwegian media that Giammaria was “a little shy” and “very private” and that he came recommended by a colleague in Canada.  He spoke very good English, was starting to pick up Norwegian and told Professor Gjørv that he wanted to stay in Norway. 

Professor Gjørv, who is a leading security studies academic in Norway, doesn’t believe Giammaria had access to any sensitive information but that he was interested in her “work on security in the North” and in the projects on threats and hybrid warfare that she leads. “He participated in seminars that we had as a group, so he mostly just listened to things, ” she said

Norwegian authorities, who believe Giammaria is a Russian posing as a Brazilian, are concerned that he may have acquired a network and information about Norway’s policy in the northern regions. 

Deja Vu: This is the latest in a series of arrests of suspected Russian spies in Norway. And a third alleged spy using a South American cover identity this year. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • In 2020, a cyber attacker got into the computers of researchers at the University of Tromso. A police investigation concluded that Russians were behind it. 
  • In June, the Dutch intelligence service exposed a “Brazilian” who was trying to intern at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. And there was also the case of Maria Adela, a “Peruvian” socialite exposed as a Russian military intelligence agent in Naples by the Bellingcat and the Insider. 
  • Last week, Andrey Yakunin, son of Vladimir Yakunin, one of Putin’s closest associates and the former president of Russian Railways, was arrested and held for two weeks for flying a drone over Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. Barents Observer reported that in court, Yakunin noted that he should be treated as a British citizen and that his home address was in Italy. But police found his Russian passport onboard a boat that has been sailing around Svalbard and along the coast of Norway for the past several months. His lawyers say he likes nature.  
  • Also in October, four other Russians were arrested on suspicion of photographing classified objects in the north of Norway and three others were stopped using or carrying drones in areas described as “sensitive” by Norwegian police.  

Russian response: “We are concerned about the unfolding hysteria in Norway,” posted the Russian embassy on its Facebook page after the arrest of the two Russians on October 17. The victims of the “hysteria”, the post said, were “common tourists who openly brought their recording equipment to Norway and who were openly filming beautiful Norwegian nature, without hiding from anyone. This isn’t very spy-like, don’t you think?” asked the post.

BEFORE YOU GO:

I am often struck by the utter lack of interest shown by my Russian colleagues — liberal, open-minded and engaged journalists — in any conversation about their country’s history of colonialism. For anyone who has been on the receiving end of Russian colonialism, from Georgia to Kazakhstan and Poland, the colonial patterns evident in the war in Ukraine are obvious. But Russians simply don’t see it that way. After some time exploring this issue, I realized that one reason why the debate about colonialism is missing from the Russian liberal discourse is because Russia is missing from the debate about colonialism in the West. Here’s a piece I wrote for CNN Opinion on how self-imposed limits of Western debate about colonialism have given the Kremlin an enormous propaganda advantage on the global stage. 

Disinfo Matters looks beyond fake news to examine how the manipulation of narratives and rewriting of history is reshaping our world.