How Russian disinformation works in Europe: Babakov’s hacked emails

Ukrainian hackers claim to have hacked a top Russian politician’s email account and released documents reportedly proving his involvement in money laundering and sanction evasion schemes and disinformation campaigns abroad.

Cyber Resistance, a Ukrainian hacking group, claims to have disclosed emails apparently belonging to Alexander Babakov, a deputy head of Russia’s parliament. Cyber Resistance published 11 GB of Babakov’s communications, which included images of his passport, tax and financial paperwork, and medical data. Ukrainian media published various analyses of this leaked data.

Although Insight News could not immediately validate the claim or check the integrity of the documents, the leak includes scans of Babakov’s passport, tax and financial paperwork, and medical data.

Babakov is closely connected to Putin

Babakov is well-connected with the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin nominated him as a special presidential representative to Russia in 2012, and he was the leader of Rodina, a Russian far-right organization, in 2006. Babkov was sanctioned by the EU, Canada, and Switzerland in 2014 and has been put on the sanctions list by the United States since 2017.

Cyber Resistance’s evidence connects Babakov to many pro-Russian and anti-European disinformation activities. Other emails and attachments “related to the advocacy of Russian interests in Bulgaria, Greece, Georgia, India, Turkmenistan, Croatia, Serbia, and Montenegro” were found in Babakov’s email accounts.

Overseeing Russian hybrid influence overseas

However, as demonstrated by his letters, his primary responsibility is the practical implementation of Russian hybrid influence overseas at the parliamentary level. As a result, he is in charge of inter-parliamentary cooperation and connections with Russian nationals abroad in the State Duma. Mr Babakov is an influential figure at home and internationally, with extensive contacts outside Russia.

Since the start of Russia’s all-out war in Ukraine, Babakov has also begun to strengthen collaboration with African and Asian countries “to minimize Western sanctions,” according to leaked papers.

Babakov allegedly visited India and Iran this year to discuss commercial cooperation and ways to avoid sanctions.

According to the findings of InformNapalm’s investigations, Babakov used his government ties to participate in money laundering, including receiving bribes to authorize illegal construction on protected sites such as a nature reserve and a national park.

Babakov supervised the market of military-industrial complex – hacked emails

An investigative team of the Ukrainian Channel 24 discovered what techniques Moscow employs to influence the Western audience after studying Babakov’s correspondence provided by hacktivists.

According to the media outlet, the top Kremlin official was working on internal economic issues, supervising the market of the military-industrial complex, resolving critical problems with Gazprom’s operations, overseeing the activities of agent networks abroad and generally promoting Russia’s geopolitical interests.

Babakov was instrumental in boosting Russian influence in the world. The Kremlin leadership has learned to manipulate the opinions of millions of people in the West during decades of disinformation and propaganda campaigns using Russian state media and affiliate local news websites.

Read also: Russia’s military unit 54777, disinformation and psychological operations abroad

Babakov was behind Russian propaganda media campaigns in Europe – leaks

According to the emails’ content, the Russians, particularly Babakov, did it simply: they launched their puppet propaganda media in the targeted countries, dispatched a slew of “experts” and lobbyists, and assaulted social media with bots that somehow relayed Russian narratives. Russian officials, including Alexander Babakov, who handled the Kremlin’s links with the agent network, were involved.

Before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and after Moscow started the all-out war, many nations began to respond to Russian disinformation efforts and Moscow’s meddling in elections and the internal affairs of other sovereign countries.

As a result, the United States and the EU shut down the Russia Today network and Sputnik agency to clean up Facebook from pro-Russian bot overpopulation. It helped to combat Kremlin disinformation. However, with affiliate local websites and pro-Russian political voices (mostly far right or far left), the influence of Putin’s propaganda in Europe remained strong.

Read also: Ruptly, Russian international news agency spreading biased reports

Russians tried to acquire three media in the Balkans – leaks

Furthermore, after it started an all-out war in Ukraine, Putin’s regime further escalated its media warfare against Western countries. For example, in April 2022, the Russians suddenly realized they lacked media control in the Balkans, which they swiftly tried to rectify. Babakov discussed purchasing three media outlets in his emails: B92, Pink, and Vijesri.

The total cost is comparable to the cost of several footballers, he wrote in an email. It remains to be identified whether Moscow has successfully extended its influence in the Balkan countries in this way. However, the pro-Russian narratives were present in Balkan media.

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Read also: Russia is waging a disinformation war in the Balkans

Use of International Council of Russian Compatriots

Aside from direct investment and subsequent control over editorial policy, Russians recall manipulating Western audiences in another way – with the assistance of the International Council of Russian Compatriots.

In a report to Babakov, ICRC operatives Mikhail Neborsky and French citizen Peter Sheremetyev argued that Moscow should tap into the potential of Russian diaspora abroad in the face of Western societies’ opposition to Moscow propaganda. The council’s website was transformed into a full-fledged information resource for this aim, through which the Kremlin influences its audience with belligerent propaganda.

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Spreading Russian narratives through “Russian compatriots” resources

The ICRC has over 160 organizations of “Russian compatriots” in 53 countries as members. Almost all organizations have websites and social media profiles that publish materials given by the ICRC.

Furthermore, the document’s authors argued that launching an English-language version of the site would strengthen their influence on public opinion in Europe, America, and other parts of the world. At the same time, the West as a whole supposedly could not accuse the Russian portals of spreading misinformation because “the council is independent and is not funded by the Russian budget.”

In subsequent correspondence with the deputy leader of the State Duma, it was already stated that budget funds for the project (a wholly independent portal) were required. At the same time, the portal’s annual budget has nearly doubled, from an anticipated 6 million rubles to over 13 million rubles.

Read also: Operation Doppelgänger: how Russia spread fake news in France

Humanitarian Reactor: Kremlin-made terminology for news reports

As the media saw in the hacked emails, to promote propaganda abroad, the Kremlin decided to create a club called the Humanitarian Reactor, where during meetings, experts were to define harmful terms to describe activities of the United States, the West, and other countries “unfriendly” to Russia.

The words must meet the following criteria: 1. Have a demoralizing effect on unarmed states and elicit a painful reaction. 2. Have a “spirit-lifting” influence on the Russian audience. 3. To create support for Russia and hatred toward the West among third-world countries.

Babakov’s career success

Babakov has made a bright political career and has supervised the activities of many Russian industries. Babakov has become deputy chairman of the commission of the board of directors of Gazprom, a curator of the development of the Russian military-industrial complex, a kind of promoter of Russian interests in Africa, Asia and Western countries, and, in parallel, an “investor” in the energy sector of Ukraine.

Being under sanctions almost all over the world, Babakov goes to propaganda channels, calls for the destruction of Ukraine, and participates in Russia’s acquisition of media in European countries.

Ukrainian law enforcers have opened several criminal proceedings against him for numerous manifestations of aggression against Ukraine. Babakov is accused of infringing on Ukraine’s territorial integrity in several episodes.

Read also: Russian propaganda efforts against weapons supply to Ukraine leverage reports in the West

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