Circling the Lion's Den

The Red Web Comes to The United States

An excerpt from "The Red Web: The Kremlin's Wars on The Internet"
by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan

In January 2016 thirty-five-year-old Mika Velikovsky, a shrewd, jovial reporter with a habit of wearing an Indiana Jones hat everywhere he went, was invited to join an international team of investigative journalists.

Velikovsky was thrilled. He had been in and out of work for several years, ever since the Kremlin began its purge of the media following the Moscow protests in 2011–2012. In media circles this purge was referred to as a “f—ing chain of events,” an expression coined by its first victim, the editor of the liberal journal Bolshoi Gorod (The Big City), who was fired because his publication had been supportive of the protests. Four years later the Moscow media landscape was distinctly depressing, rife with stories about bad editors and which team of journalists had just been fired.

Velikovsky accepted the job right away. After all, he had plenty of experience working on investigations involving international partners. In the late 2000s he worked for the Russky Reporter (Russian Reporter), WikiLeaks’ media partner in Moscow. In 2010 Velikovsky traveled to Sweden and spent a few days conferring with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. After that, he became Russian Reporter’s contact for interacting with Assange’s team, working on US State Department diplomatic cables and the leaked emails from the private security company Stratfor. Velikovsky valued his connection with WikiLeaks and took pains to maintain it after the joint project ended, speaking occasionally on Skype with Assange and Sarah Harrison, head of the WikiLeaks’ investigative team. (It was not easy: Assange had a habit of cutting partners off completely once a project was done.) The effort was fruitful: when Velikovsky visited Assange in London the Russian journalist agreed to work on a film based on the WikiLeaks’ cables. He spent four months traveling across Central Asia for a documentary that was to show how the region’s authoritarian regimes reacted to the WikiLeaks exposés. When Edward Snowden flew to Moscow, Velikovsky tried to use his contacts at WikiLeaks to get in touch with the American. He even met with the WikiLeaks people in Moscow, but the only result of this effort was surveillance by the Russian security services. The surveillance was so easy to spot—the same men followed Velikovsky on foot and in a car—that it was clearly intended to be a warning.  The state seemed to be telling him to mind his own business.

In 2016 Velikovsky was invited to join a large-scale investigation being conducted by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), which consists of reporters based all over Europe and the former Soviet Union, from Azerbaijan to Romania to Ukraine to Russia. The project had gotten their hands on an extensive trove of documents detailing offshore Panamanian companies that government officials and oligarchs all over the world—Russians included—used for illegal purposes, including fraud, tax evasion, and evading international sanctions. When the journalists’ findings were eventually published, the “Panama Papers” made headlines all over the world.

Before that, though, the internationl team spent months digging into the documents and connecting the dots. Each national team was given data on their compatriots. Using this data, each group tried to zero in on the financial activities of their country’s high-placed government officials and their personal friends. The Russian team consisted of reporters from Novaya Gazeta, one of the most respected independent outlets still operating in Russia.

The publication exists under constant government pressure, and its journalists risk their lives for their work: contract killers assassinated Anna Politkovskaya, critical of the war in Chechnya, in October 2006. Now Velikovsky joined the team.

The OCCRP broke its first story on April 3, 2016. Velikovsky was proud to be part of it, especially as it turned out that his team unearthed the biggest news contained in the Panama Papers. The Russian journalists identified multi-million-dollar accounts owned by Sergei Roldugin, a personal friend of President Putin. Roldugin was a cellist, and although he had some business dealings, including oil and the media, he was no oligarch. And yet it appeared he had been put in charge of Putin’s private money.

These findings quickly developed into a major news story when Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, commented on them.5 This was highly unusual: Russian officials generally do not comment on sensitive stories in order to prevent them from gaining traction. To the team of Russian journalists, this looked like an endorsement of their findings.

But then Velikovsky was confronted with something totally unexpected. WikiLeaks launched a vicious attack on the OCCRP report on Twitter. On April 5 WikiLeaks posted:

   #PanamaPapers Putin attack was produced by OCCRP which targets Russia & former USSR and was funded by USAID & Soros.

In another tweet they developed the accusation:

    US govt funded #PanamaPapers attack story on Putin via USAID.  Some good journalists but no model for integrity.

The tweet implied that the journalists had been used, either as paid agents or as dupes of the US government. USAID and George Soros are conspiracy theorists’ totems. For years the Kremlin has seen the United States Agency for International Development, USAID, as a CIA front that is plotting to undermine the Russian political regime. Meanwhile George Soros, along with his foundation, Open Society, have been accused of sponsoring “color revolutions” in Russia’s neighboring countries. Russia expelled USAID in September 2012 and listed Soros’s Open Society Foundation as an “undesirable organization” in November 2015 after the General Prosecutor’s Office said it threatened Russia’s constitutional order and security.6

Mika Velikovsky was outraged. His friends at WikiLeaks— people he worked alongside for years—had turned against him.

It was personal, and it was unfair. In Velikovsky’s eyes Assange betrayed the very principles he had explained to him during their conversations: “Assange told me many times that it’s not important what the leaker’s motivations are or who he works for. The only important thing is the authenticity of the documents. If you have doubts, you can start thinking about why and where and how. But if you don’t have any doubts [about the documents’ authenticity], then it doesn’t matter who leaked. . . . That’s why it was so disgusting to see this coming from WikiLeaks!”

Days went by, and the Roldugin story didn’t die. Instead, with each passing day it gained more media coverage all over the world.

On April 7 Vladimir Putin attended a media forum in St. Petersburg where he personally commented on the Panama Papers.

He immediately attacked journalists: “What did they do? They manufactured an information product. They found some of my friends and acquaintances—I will talk about that shortly—and they fiddled around and knocked something together. I saw these pictures. There are many, many people in the background—it is impossible to understand who they are, and there is a close-up photo of your humble servant in the foreground. Now, this is being spread!”

He was clearly personally affronted. Putin could barely hold himself together: “There is a certain friend of the Russian president, and they say he has done something, so probably something corruption-related. What exactly? There is no corruption involved at all!”

And then Putin did something unexpected: he tried to debunk the findings by citing WikiLeaks’ claim that the whole thing was an American conspiracy: “Besides, we now know from WikiLeaks that officials and state agencies in the United States are behind all this!”

The next day we were both at the Journalism Festival in Perugia. Sarah Harrison, the head of WikiLeaks’ investigative team who had spent forty days alongside Snowden in Moscow’s airport in 2013, was there too. She was giving a talk about WikiLeaks and Snowden.

During the question-and-answer session Andrei asked Harrison about WikiLeaks’ response to the Panama Papers. Andrei also pointed out that, to Russian journalists, WikiLeaks’ conspiracy claim sounded strange: after all, the journalists who took part in the Panama Papers investigation worked for Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper whose commitment to exposing corruption has led to the high-profile murders of several of its journalists. Yet just the day before, Andrei continued, Putin had quoted the WikiLeaks’ tweet about US funding to publicly call into question the Panama Papers’ investigation findings.

Referring to “bias” and “spin,” Harrison immediately deflected responsibility: “Please, do not make me responsible for what Putin says! What Putin says and does has nothing to do with me!”

Then she went on the offensive. The fact that a Russian story was the first to make headlines was, in her eyes, enough to justify WikiLeaks’ attack. “It is very clear, from the reporting that came out, that it’s being used as basically an attack on Putin,” she said. Then, echoing the longstanding Kremlin line, she added, “And the funding of this organization as a whole does come from the USAID!”

Her response shocked us: we have known both the OCCRP project and its leader, the Sarajevo-based veteran journalist Drew Sullivan, since 2008. Sullivan was well respected in investigative journalism circles; for years he and his reporters have been exposing corruption in regions not particularly safe for journalists.

Sullivan is also known for his integrity—just a year earlier, in the summer 2015, he stated that his organization would stay away from a $500,000 US government grant to combat Russian propaganda: “The problem starts with the grant title, ‘Investigative Journalism Training to Counter Russian Messaging in the Baltics.’”

He continued, “The title implies the grant seeks journalists to actively counter a Russian message which, at best, is not a mission for journalism and, at worst, is propaganda itself.”

We were dismayed to hear WikiLeaks using the same line of argument as the Kremlin. We felt that this kind of logic was not compatible with the ideals of the free flow of information we believe in and that WikiLeaks itself had, in the past, professed.

WikiLeaks appeared to take the Kremlin’s side, and we didn’t understand why. The very same day, April 8, Putin summoned an urgent meeting of his Security Council in the Kremlin. These meetings are held in high secrecy—even official photographers are rarely admitted.

This time the long, marble-covered hall on the second floor of the domed Kremlin Senate building was almost empty—at the grand table only eight of the twenty-one seats were occupied. Of these eight people, six were former KGB officers: Putin himself; his chief of staff Sergei Ivanov; Sergei Naryshkin, the speaker of the Duma; Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Security Council; Alexander Bortnikov, the FSB director; and Mikhail Fradkov, chief of the Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR. Neither the minister of defense nor the chief of military intelligence were present. The transcript of the meeting was never made public. The relatively small number of participants and their known backgrounds leads us to think it was about a very sensitive matter, such as the need for a retaliatory response to the Panama Papers exposés.

In the United States the presidential campaign was in full swing, and the Kremlin was watching as Hillary Clinton seemed headed toward an almost-certain victory. Putin had strong feelings about her: he believed she had been a driving force behind the Moscow protests. He also believed that she and her people at the US State Department were behind most of the Western anti-Russian moves—from the US sanctions, to the activities of the Russian opposition, to journalistic investigations exposing corruption in Russia. Putin’s circle was certain that the Obama administration was working to get Clinton elected. In their conspiratorial eyes this meant that the result of the US elections had already been decided.

A week passed, and on April 14 Putin held his annual television phone-in show. The Direct Line is broadcast live by Russian television channels and major radio stations. At this show Putin again brought up the Panama Papers and felt the need to further defend his friend Roldugin. He also renewed his accusations against the United States: “Who is engaged in these provocations?

We know that there are employees of official US agencies.” Next he said something very strange: “An article was written— I asked [my] press secretary Peskov where it first appeared—in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. The Süddeutsche Zeitung is part of a media holding that belongs to the US financial corporation Goldman Sachs. In other words, the ears of masterminds are sticking out everywhere [a Russian expression, meaning their fingerprints are all over it]!”12

It was a baffling connection, and it was wrong. Why on earth had the Russian president mentioned Goldman Sachs? Goldman Sachs does not own the German Süddeutsche Zeitung—and the respected newspaper immediately issued a statement to that effect.

The next day the Kremlin responded with a rare apology: “It is more the error of those who prepared the briefing documents [than Putin’s], it’s my error,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

So why bring up Goldman Sachs at all?

By mid-April, including when Putin made his strange remark, a hacking group—later identified as APT29, or Cozy Bear—had for months been inside the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) computer system. In March a second team, known as APT28, or Fancy Bear, had joined in and launched its own attack on the DNC. On March 19 Fancy Bear hackers had made a breakthrough: a Clinton campaign chairman, John Podesta, was lured into re-entering his Gmail password on a specially designed phishing web page, and hackers began pumping his emails off it.

In the fall of the election year of 2016 one of the biggest news stories that came out of the hacking operation was the publication of Hillary Clinton’s transcripts of three paid speeches at Goldman Sachs. In these speeches she was embarassingly uncritical of Wall Street as she discussed the causes of and responses to the 2008 financial crisis. The hackers stole these transcripts from John Podesta’s email account in the spring—right around the time of Putin’s comments about the cellist Roldugin and his false statement about Süddeutsche Zeitung’s connection to Goldman Sachs. WikiLeaks published the documents in October 2016. But in mid-April, when Putin gave his press conference, nobody except the hackers and those who had directed them knew that the hackers possessed Hillary Clinton’s Goldman Sachs transcripts.

If someone had briefed Vladimir Putin about the hackers’ Podesta findings, he may have been encouraged to believe in a conspiracy theory whereby Clinton had prompted a Goldman Sachs connection to publish the Panama Papers. It’s difficult to see how the bank got into his head otherwise.

Two weeks later, on April 19, the domain was registered.

Agentura.Ru, October 9, 2017 

The new edition of The Red Web available on