Russia’s military unit 54777, also known as the 72nd Special Service Center or the Foreign Information and Communication Service of the Main Directorate of the General Staff, is a military intelligence psychological operations unit.
Many narratives and topics in the media, even probably in your country, might be influenced by the stories developed by this military unit. How is it structured, and how does it work?
Since Russian state media, hundreds of foreign so-called independent news websites, different YouTube channels, and thousands of social media profiles distribute identical narratives, viewers may guess that a single group is behind the entire effort. And the idea that a government-related body orchestrates the Russian disinformation campaign is not false.
Soviet heritage of disinformation techniques
From the start, the Russian army’s units for psychological warfare and misinformation were designed to be more aggressive than their direct Soviet predecessors. General Staff transferred the Directorate of Special Propaganda from the GlavPUR (Main Political Directorate) to the GRU (Russian military intelligence) after the Soviet Union collapsed.
In 1991, after the Soviet Union collapsed, the GlavPUR was abandoned, and the Special Propaganda Directorate was moved to the GRU (Russia’s military intelligence). In 1994, the 91 editorial departments of the former Special Propaganda Directorate were given a number of an army unit 54777.
In the Soviet Union, a unit known as the Special Propaganda Directorate (Seventh Directorate) within the powerful army’s GlavPUR (Main Political Directorate) was responsible for conducting military psychological operations, the Agentura.ru website described it.
The Military Institute of Foreign Languages was established by the Soviet army at the end of 1966 to train officers-political staffers with knowledge of foreign languages. The Faculty of Journalism of Moscow State University created a reserve of Soviet journalists who would be mobilized into the army should a significant war start.
In the Soviet times, it was thought that special military propaganda units should only be used during the war. Still, under Putin’s regime, peacetime and wartime activities are being conducted.
Networks combining military units, media outlets, cultural missions, and the church
Psychological operation units also received the authority to work with any government agency, public organization, or religious organization. Potential supporters for the intelligence’s information wars include Moscow Orthodox Church, newspapers, social media and television networks, sports clubs, travel companies, cultural organizations, and their staff.
The Special Propaganda Unit was primarily focused on boosting the combat spirit of the Soviet army. But it also had a theoretical mandate to devise techniques for psychologically influencing opposing forces and populations.
This task was put into practice in an expressive form by Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RT. (Russia Today), a Russian state multilingual international TV channel. Broadcasting propaganda in various languages and worldwide, RT spreads Kremlin’s narratives and disinformation and influences public opinion.
Military unit behind disinformation related to the annexation of Crimea
The Washington Post study finds that unit 54777, which reported to the GRU, was engaged in activities such as producing and disseminating an alternative account of many disinformation operations, particularly the 2014 GRU-led annexation of Crimea.
Another Washington Post article describes two groups working with Russian expats connected to unit 54777 and receiving funding from the Russian government. The first was InfoRos, which, according to the newspaper’s citation of an unnamed Western intelligence official, launched a petition on behalf of Russian organizations in Ukraine, calling on Putin to assist in the oncoming crisis.
The second is the Institute of Russian Diaspora, which manages the websites of other relevant groups like the Fund for the Support and Protection of the Rights of Compatriots Living Abroad and the World Coordination Council of Russian Compatriots Abroad, which Putin mentioned in his speech to the World Congress of Compatriots in October 2018 for their work on “legal assistance” in 20 countries, including Syria, Yemen, and Libya.
The editorial office of Inforos Information Agency is located in the same building as three other organizations. Aleksandr Starunsky is listed as a co-owner. The Business Club Association, which owns 20% of the Inforos news agency, the autonomous non-profit organization “Information Civilization XXI Century,” and the “Institute of Russian Abroad” are located in the same building.
The military unit involved in pandemic disinformation campaigns – NYT
According to reports from The New York Times from July 2020, Starunsky was a GRU officer who served as the deputy commander of military unit 55111 and was involved in disinformation campaigns, particularly the distribution of false information about the Covid pandemic to English-speaking audiences.
Russian dictator Vladimir Putin named Starunsky to the Security Council’s Scientific Council in May 2021. The 2020 report from the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service identified Starunsky as the former leader of the military unit 54777.
Alexander Kostyukhin, a reserve major general, is another psychological military unit commander. He has been head of the Foreign Information and Communication Service and an assistant professor at the Middle Eastern and Middle Eastern Languages Department of MGIMO (Moscow state university) since 2013.
Kostyukhin has spent almost seven years in Turkey on two long business trips. In the military attaché’s office of the Soviet and later Russian embassies in Turkey, he worked undercover as an interpreter.
Training of officers for the military propaganda unit
The Russian Department of Foreign Military Information, formerly known as the 10th Department of the Military University and now known simply as the Department of Foreign Languages, continues to train officers for the military propaganda unit.
When he defected to the US in the late 2000s, Sergei Tretyakov, the former deputy head of the SVR Moscow Residency in New York, told Agentura.ru how his service carries out disinformation operations.
As an illustration of a special psychological operation, Tretyakov told about Russian picture displays at the UN headquarters that were meant to show the atrocities committed by Chechen fighters. He also mentioned documentary screenings that were planned especially for US and UN officials. The films were meant to demonstrate that Russia in Chechnya and the United States in the Middle East were fighting global jihadism on different fronts.
The ultimate goal, according to Tretyakov, was to let Washington know not to make too much of a fuss about Russian human rights abuses in the Caucasus. The video propaganda on Chechnya was created by Unit 54777, a covert GRU division, according to the leaks from GRU.
Websites networks in Russian disinformation over the war against Ukraine
After Russia launched an all-out war against Ukraine in February 2022, the European Union restricted RT and Sputnik, two of the Kremlin’s top platforms for disseminating propaganda and false information about the war.
Months later, Russia discovered ways to get around the ban, and the number of suspicious websites promoting the same pro-Russian information has multiplied. To cover it up, the Kremlin-funded resources changed the brand of their work. And they copied and pasted a lot of the content onto brand-new websites with no apparent links to Russia. In these non-partisan wires, they accurately inserted disinformation and propaganda stories.
With dozens of recently created online media, NewsGuard, a New York-based company that researches online misinformation, has identified a total of 250 websites that are actively disseminating Russian propaganda about the war.
These sites contain claims that the Ukrainian military committed crimes against civilians in Donbas, that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy staged public appearances, or that Ukrainian refugees committed crimes in the EU countries.
Kremlin propaganda adjusts its narratives to the events in the war
When Russia increased missile strikes on civilian energy infrastructure throughout Ukraine, the Kremlin’s disinformation network started working to discredit, downplay, and divert attention away from the crimes that Russia has been perpetrating in Ukraine.
The evidence of atrocities amounting to war crimes committed by the Russian military was irrefutable. But the proof is meaningless to Kremlin-friendly misinformation outlets. Russia-backed media poured many conflicting “explanations” of the events in Bucha into the information space.
It includes allegations of a Ukrainian provocation, that the Russian war crimes were orchestrated, that the West was to blame, and references to conspiracy theories. However, the objective of this disinformation was quite clear: spread false information to hide Russian war crimes.
“Putin’s peace” narratives in pro-Kremlin propaganda channels
In recent weeks pro-Kremlin propaganda channels were pushing information about the Kremlin’s willingness to negotiate to end the war. However, this was the “fight and talk” strategy that other aggressors frequently used to pressure better positions at the negotiation table.
And the attacks on the frontlines were backed by psychological warfare, maybe by the unit mentioned above. When Moscow propagandists call for the destruction of Ukraine, and Russian missiles and kamikaze drones target citizens and vital infrastructure in Ukrainian cities, it is difficult to take any calls for peace seriously.
To spread disinformation and psychological operations, the Russian government leverages the websites that pass for independent news organizations or think institutes. These websites publish English, French, German, Spanish, and Italian content. Identifying their nature is challenging once you see them repeating Kremlin talking points. Others were established long before the war as connected to the Russian government.
Russians get over the ban, and share disinformation videos
RT and Sputnik are no longer available on YouTube, TikTok, and Meta, which also owns Facebook and Instagram, in the European Union. But the Russians managed to get over the restriction, simply publishing RT propaganda videos from different accounts.
According to the Disinformation Situation Center, based in Europe, some RT video content was discovered to be appearing on social media under a new brand name and logo. Some video content had the RT trademark deleted before being republished on new YouTube channels, which are not under the EU’s prohibition.
Russian psychological operations target not only Ukraine
However, Russian disinformation campaigns target not only Ukraine. They sought to persuade people that the West was to blame for the rising costs of products and the deterioration of food security worldwide.
Russia makes a deliberate effort to convince audiences worldwide that Western sanctions imposed on Russia are to blame for the rise in food and fuel costs. The truth, however, is that these sanctions contain exemptions for export and transactions involving food and agricultural products. The war Russia started against Ukraine is the real cause of the food shortages and rising energy costs.
To spread propaganda and misinformation in Western countries, the Russian authorities use their agents of influence – far right and far left politicians, political experts, sociologists, and journalists. The goal is to win the population’s trust through influencers. And information campaign directors from the 54777th military unit may be behind the overall staging of the campaigns.
While there are already private and public initiatives in Europe to combat Russian propaganda and disinformation, there is an urgent need for all users to be aware of Moscow’s plots in the information space, be critical of information, and mistrust pro-Kremlin sources.