Russia Update: Defense Ministry Plans New Computer Programs to Monitor, Analyze Social Media

January 29, 2015
President Vladimir Putin with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Photo by Mikhail Mettsel/TASS

Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.

The previous issue is here, and see also our Russia This Week stories ‘Anti-Maidan’ Launched by Nationalists, Cossacks, Veterans, Bikers and The Guild War – How Should Journalists Treat Russian State Propagandists? and special features ‘Managed Spring’: How Moscow Parted Easily with the ‘Novorossiya’ Leaders, Putin ‘The Imperialist’ A Runner-Up For Time’s ‘Person of the Year’ and It’s Not Just Oil and Sanctions Killing Russia’s Economy, It’s Putin.

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Russia’s Defense Ministry is launching a new program to monitor and analyze social media that has experts concerned about its overreach.

Russian-Backed Separatists Plan ‘League of Newest States’

The Russian-backed leadership of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) plans to hold a summit of all the breakaway regions that the Kremlin has forced into existence in the last decade.

RIA Novosti reports that Aleksandr Kofman, the DNR’s foreign minister, announced on Oplot TV that the meeting will be held in February or March of this year.

Oplot is the name of both the fight club and the battalion of fighters headed by Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the prime minister of the DNR.

Kofman claimed that “negotiations were already held and consent already obtained” for the conference which plans to declare a “League of Newest States.”

Earlier the foreign ministry of the breakaway South Ossetia announced it would establish diplomatic relations with the DNR, and Abkhazia is also discussing this. Both are regions separated from Georgia after the 2008 war which have not been recognized by Western governments.

The question is: which regions from which “frozen conflicts” fomented by Russia will join the “League of Newest States”?

The blogger Colonel Cossad reprinted a map from Argumenty i Fakty which shows a number of such regions in Eurasia and Africa:


These are (clockwise):

South Ossetia
Waziristan (Pakistan)
Nagorno-Karabakh Republic
Turkish Republic of North Cyrpus
Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (Western Sahara)
Territory of Somalia

Colonel Cassad noted that the congress might include “those partially recognized states or territories without state status like Basque, Flanders, Venice and Texas.”

Kosovo is already recognized by Western governments although not Serbia or Russia, and would hardly be likely to attend a DNR-inspired event which is just a front for the Kremlin. We dare say Texas wouldn’t participate, either, although knowing how Russian organizers have been able to collect representatives from various extreme right- or left-wing parties in Europe and the US for various ventures like “election-monitoring,” anything is possible.

Comments Colonel Cassad (translation by The Interpreter)

This is an entirely good venture on the part of the DNR foreign ministry even in the purely propagandistic sense. Exploiting modern separatist tendencies (especially in Europe) can lend the problem of the people’s republics of Donbass a somewhat different level.

Yes, otherwise they might just be places where Russia has instigated war, that are currently designated as “certain districts of Donetsk and Lugansk regions” in the Minsk talks, where the maps of the front line have been disputed.

We notice that the “League of Independent States” doesn’t want to include breakaway regions from Russia like Chechnya, retained in the Russian Federation at the cost of two wars causing hundreds of thousands of lives, much less movements for more autonomy such as have appeared in Siberia. Nor does it include successful European autonomous regions like the Aland Islands.

That’s because the purpose does not really appear to be strengthening autonomy so much as disrupting Western-leaning countries or territories Russia opposes.

Even Colonel Cassad admits that this venture “was quite likely coordinated with Moscow.” He believes that these aspirational rump statelets are “not only an element of the collapse of the old world but the bricks in the foundation of the new world which has still not appeared” — although a lot of it looks like the old world of Soviet imperialism.

And the agenda is unmistakeable: “If Russia plans a long-term battle with the USA and its hegemony, then the support of separatists tendencies in the EU and the USA itself if of course one of the instruments of russian foreign policy,” says Colonel Cassad.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

EU Votes to Extend Sanctions Against Russia over War in Ukraine

The European Union has voted to extend sanctions against Russia, AP and other wire services reported.

AP reported today:

Consensus was found but some pointed out that instead of mentioning the threat of economic sanctions,
the joint statement only mentioned “any appropriate action” was on the
table for the Feb. 12 EU summit of government leaders. It was wording
seen as a concession to those seeking to keep dialogue going with

France and some others said that while firmness was essential, room for negotiation had to be kept open.

Denmark was pleased no such rash action was taken Thursday.

makes sense that we don’t decide on economic sanctions before we see
how Russia will behave. We still have the hope that this will be the
push to Russia to go to the negotiation table,” said Danish Foreign
Minister Martin Lidegaard.

Mogherini insisted though that “When I say any action, it means any.”

said that on top of Thursday’s decision to extend the first batch of
sanctions, the EU was also preparing a list of new officials to be put
on the visa ban and asset freeze program, which could be confirmed as
soon as Feb. 9.

“We hope that
this can help in putting pressure, in particular on Russia, to make
positive steps and prevent the negative steps that we have seen in the
recent days,” Mogherini said.

The factor that seemed to turn the tide for Mogherini and other EU diplomats was the Russian-backed assault on Mariupol last Saturday, January 24, when separatists led by a Russian officer fired Grad missiles on the city, killing 30 civilians and wounding 90.

OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission visited the sites of many craters left by the Grad and Uragan missiles and made a clear-cut assessment:

According to the impact analysis, the Grad rockets originated from a
north-easterly direction, in the area of Oktyabr (19 km north-east of
Olimpiiska Street), and the Uragan rockets from an easterly direction,
in the area of Zaichenko (15 km east of Olimpiiska Street), both
controlled by the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (“DPR”).

Lithuania, which is currently a member of the UN Security Council, has also been very outspoken against Russia’s role in the war in Ukraine.

But despite clear-cut evidence that Russia was continuing to escalate
the war on Ukraine, and the belief of many European leaders that
sanctions were still warranted, there were fears this week
that Greece, which has recently elected a new government with two
pro-Putin parties in the coalition, the far-left SYRIZA and far-right
ANEL, would prevent consensus on the sanctions.

The fact that all the EU foreign ministers meeting today in Brussels, including
the new Greek minister, agreed on the extension, was characterized by the Dutch Foreign Minister
Bert Koenders as a “strong signal toward Russia.”

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Smolensk Woman Accused of Treason for Informing Ukrainian Embassy in Moscow About Russian GRU Troops Sent to Ukraine

A Russian woman has been placed in pre-trial detention in Lefortovo Prison on charges of “state treason” for reporting on the possible deployment of Russian forces in Ukraine, Kommersant reports.

Svetlana Davydova of the city of Vyazma in Smolensk District  has been detained for reporting to the Ukrainian Embassy in April 2014 that the building next to her house where a military unit was usually stationed was empty, and the soldiers may have been sent to Donetsk.

Davydova, mother of seven, and her husband Anatoly Gorlov were awakened by police at 8:30 on January 21 who told  them through the door that the neighbors had complained about them. When Gorlov opened the door, men in black camouflage burst into the apartment. Among them was a plain-clothed man, Col. Mikhail Svinolup, an investigator from the special cases department of the investigative division of the Federal Security Service (FSB). Svinolup informed Davydova that she was under arrest under Art. 275 of the Russian Criminal Code (“state treason”).

Svetlana Davydova and infant.

Their home was searched, and all notebooks as well as a computer and laptop were seized. A day later, Gorlov learned his wife had been taken by convoy to Lefortovo. Her case is registered under No. 3/1-10/2015. A judge had already issued the warrant for her detention, and the fact that she had seven children was not taken into consideration.

Last April, Davydova noticed the unit No. 48886 was gone from the building next to her home. It is the home of the 82nd Separate Radio Technology Red Banner Alexander Nevsky Brigade of the GRU, or Russian military intelligence.

Davydova says that she then went to the center of town on errands, and on the commuter bus saw one of the soldiers from the 82nd Brigade. It was not hard to tell who he was; as Gorlov recounts the story, he was talking on his cell phone loud enough for the whole bus to hear, and saying that he and his fellow soldiers  “were being sent to Moscow in small groups, compulsorily in plain-clothes, and then would be sent on a trip from there.” Davydova, who followed the situation in eastern Ukraine with interest, decided that he must be referring to a trip to Donetsk.

Next, she decided to warn the Ukrainian Embassy in Moscow, and even made a note for herself about the phone call — which is now attached to her treason case, said Gorlov. She said she wanted to prevent casualties, he recalls.

The Ukrainian Embassy has not had any comment on the arrest but Gorlov claims that at the time, they took down the information. He says (translation by The Interpreter):

“Sveta [Svetlana] is against this war in general, but I would not say that we are some sort of active participants in anti-war rallies or opposition members. She was in the KPRF (Communist Party of the Russian Federation) but then she left to raise her children. I don’t know how the FSB found out about all this.”

The FSB told Kommersant that they would answer questions on the case in a month.

Anna Stavitskaya, an attorney who earlier defended Igor Sutyagin, a military expert arrested on false charges of espionage, has commented on the case. She noted that the “treason” charge, which is interpreted to mean disclosure of state secrets or help or assistance to another state carries up to 20 years of prison.

Stavitskaya noticed an interesting facet of this case:

“It turns out that during this case, the FSB will have to admit the fact that soldiers were sent to Ukraine, or confirm that a neighboring state is at war with us and about to attack us. So in any event, it places investigators in an awkward position,” she said.

Davydova had no access to state secrets as she was not admitted to classified work. “Her story referencing a conversation she heard somewhere and her assessment of the reality cannot be disclosure of a state secret,” said Savitskaya.

Both Russian and Ukrainian military leaders have claimed that Russia has no regular army fighting in Ukraine, only “volunteers.” But stories like that of Davydova cast doubt on the official claims.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

UK Summons Russian Ambassador Over Russian Strategic Bombers Flying Over The English Channel
Sky News has these news alerts:

Reuters adds these details about the actual incident:

British Typhoon fighter jets were scrambled to intercept two Russian Bear long-range bombers which had flown close to UK airspace, Britain’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) said on Thursday.

The Russian planes were detected flying over the Channel, south of England, on Wednesday and typhoons were launched from Royal Air Force (RAF) bases at Lossiemouth in Scotland and Coningsby in eastern England, the MoD said.

“The Russian planes were escorted by the RAF until they were out of the UK area of interest. At no time did the Russian military aircraft cross into UK sovereign airspace,” the Ministry of Defence said in a statement.

As we’ve been reporting for nearly a year, such incidents used to be rare but have become alarmingly common over the last year. As evidence of this, Daily Mail has posted this picture of a “Russian Bear is escorted by an RAF jet during an alert in September.”


James Miller

Confessions of a Former Kremlin Troll

A new report has come out on about the infamous “Kremlin troll farm” located at 55 Savushkina Street in St. Petersburg. (the name means “dog” in Russian) is a news and entertainment site in Russia’s 14 largest cities.

A woman who worked inside what she called “a giant propaganda machine” has told her story on condition of anonymity, and explained why “you can’t last long at at such a job,” says

The troll farm is able to attract workers by advertising widely through head-hunting firms looking for “copy-writers” or “content managers.” If they are trying to hide the nature of the work, it’s a flimsy job as the pay — 40,000-50,000 ($579 to $726) a month — and the address (Metro stop Staraya Derevnya/Chernaya Rechka) are always the same in the ads and and have long been associated in St. Petersburg media coverage with President Vladimir Putin’s “information war.”

Little is mentioned about the job in the interview, as the theory is that for such high pay by Russian standards, most people won’t ask too many questions.

The base pay for bloggers — people who write in LiveJournal and
social media — and other “content managers” including “SEO specialists”
or designers of patriotic “demotivator” posters, called
“illustration” — is 45,000 rubles ($653). Those at higher positions earn
55,000-60,000 ($797-$939).

To enter the building on Savushkina, you have to show your passport if you don’t already have a pass. The managers collect a lot of information from you; your complete work history, even your parents’ workplaces; then ask you to “rewrite” a piece of current news. Says the former worker:

“You get the impression that they hire anyone who can prove that they can write and speak Russia. Meanwhile, they don’t reveal any information about where you’ve landed; ‘a media holding company, several sites, you have to earn traffic, the pay is higher than average.'”

Each “troll farmer” is expected to work the hours from 9:00 to 5:30 pm and produce 20 news items, of which 70% are to be original items.

“There are a total of 12 sites in the holding, as I understand it, on various topics, but all of them deal with politics and Ukraine one way or another,” says the woman.

The business card says “Federal News Agency” (FAN) but most of the traffic comes from a so-called “Kharkiv News Agency”  (ironically called Although the site feigns to be Ukrainian “all the news is made at Savushkina 55,” says the source. There are several such “Ukrainian” sites including the best known one, “Anti-Maidan” which were started in July 2014. The site doesn’t have outright fakes like some Russian propaganda sites, but it does hew to the Moscow line, calling the Russian-backed separatists fighting in Ukraine “militia.”

The “farm” has something of a “Big Brother,” says the ex-troll:

The first days you simply don’t understand where you are, why you’re rewriting this news and filling the site with it. You get the impression that it’s some kind of social experiment or reality show, especially because in each open space, where there are about 20-30 employees seated, there are observation cameras.

There are never any editorial meetings or even ideological instruction; it is expected that workers know what to do, and guidance only comes at the level of the chief editors. The workers mainly seem to have come from provincial cities in Russia and they are often hipsters — dread-locks or piercings are common. The workers are divided into three categories, says the former worker:

1) “They pay me and I could care less, I don’t even know what goes on,” many of these people have families, loans to pay, etc.
2) “Yes, I know this is a pro-Kremlin troll factory but the hell with the mental anguish — they pay me and that’s enough;
3) “I am waging an information war against the fascist junta!” — the last category is fewest in number.

“Practically nothing is asked about your personal
political beliefs when you are hired for the job,” she says.

FAN occupies only one floor of the four-story building on 55 Savushkina St. — the other floors have other “troll” operations who place aggressive comments on forums, for example; those working on the Ukraine sites “regard them with an irony verging nevertheless on a certain fear.”

The bosses are only after one thing — traffic, number of views and unique visitors per day, a number which is supposed to rise by 3,000 every day. The SEO department is engaged in crude spamming, which is why the sites are often blocked in Google and VKontakte.

The managers whip their site editors and they in turn pressure their workers to find breaking news and be the first to re-write it. There’s a focus on murders, rapes and other police blotter stories and then show business gossip, features on the Russian pop singer Alla Pugacheva or Madonna in order to get traffic. Negative stories about gays are popular, as are those about feminism and the Ukrainian activists Femen, but the main news is “Putin, Crimea, and ‘Novorossiya,” says the author.

While the managers make reference to the need to attract clicks and get advertising revenue, in fact this only draws a smile because the operation is widely understood to be government subsidized.

Finally the soul-killing work took its toll, says the former paid troll:

The decision to leave the “troll preserve” was long in maturing. On the one hand, I realized that such non-manual labor with a decent salary for St. Petersburg would be hard to find under the conditions of the crisis; there was never a single day on Savushkina where I encountered any insurmountable difficulties actually of a technical nature. The issue was the psychological burden of this work. By December, I had a tic in my eye from nervous stress and I dreamed all night of writing and re-writing news about Putin and Ukraine. Moreover, I hew to liberal views; among my acquaintances are quite a few opposition-minded people, and at a certain point I realized that I was simply ashamed to say where I worked. All of those factors outweighed considerations of comfort and I resigned in relief.

See our past reports on the St. Petersburg troll farm:

The Kremlin’s Growing Army of Trolls

Here Comes the Kremlin’s Troll Army

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Experts Concerned about Lack of Competence, Over-Reaction from Military Monitoring
The Russian Defense Minister has commissioned the building of a system to monitor and analyze open-source information to keep abreast of the political and socio-economic situation in the world, reports.

According to the Unified Tool-Building Corporation, which is part of Rostekh, the state corporation for producing and exporting civil and military high technology, the Russian Defense Ministry is creating a hardware and software complex to analyze the military and political situation (PAK VPO) and the socio-political and also socio-economic situation in the country (PAK OPS). Andrei Riznyk, the general director of Systems Management, working on the project, had this to say (translation by The Interpreter):

“We are developing our own algorithms for the automatic collection of information, its processing and classifications and also models for expert assessment and possible options for development. The system enables the collection of information in real time, the processing of open-source information and thus at any moment to provide the fresh data for a query of interest, whether the situation in the regions of the Far East or in any country of the world.”

Riznyk said the new programs will provide officials of the Defense Ministry information on significant events in the country and abroad and model scenarios for how the situations will evolve and preparation of proposals to the leadership in an automated format.

Riznik said particular attention would be paid to new sites, social networks and blogs, and that programs will pick up the frequency of expressions on a given topic, and evaluate them.

The new system will be based in a newly-renovated National Center for Defense Management, opened in December 2014. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has moved into a new office there.

Konstantin Sivkov of the Academy of Geopolitical  Problems said while Russian programmers would develop the software, the hardware and Internet-related programming would come from the US, as Russia does not manufacture it. He also believed automatically-collected information shouldn’t go directly to the Defense Ministry leadership since it could contain false or distorted information.

“You need an analysis at the level of ‘What did they want to say with this’ which no system can give you,” he said.

In other words, the Defense Ministry will need humans to sort through the clutter of social media to make sense of it.

The architects of the new system claim that it will be able to sift out fake information and even detect a cyber-war against it designed to trick it.  Sivkov believes that it is precisely because of such a vulnerability to open attack that the new Center for Defense Management should not get this data, but rather analysts at Russian military intelligence, known by its initials “GRU,” which stands for Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian Armed Forces General Staff.

Andrei Soldatov, editor of the web site which studies intelligence agencies says that the military will find it difficult to get an objective picture of the world with such tools. The Defense Ministry does not have the necessary experience since at first FAPSI (Federal Agency for Government Communications and Information) did this job, then these authorizations were spread over the Federal Security Service (FSB) which handles domestic intelligence; the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and the Federal Protective Service (FSO).

Soldatov pointed out that really all agencies had to have this capacity; after the “Arab Spring” broke out, all government offices began to monitor social media.

“All of them, right up to the Moscow Mayor’s Office use a system for monitoring social media and open sources,” he said. But people in the Defense Ministry are “outrageously incompetent” on information analysis and Soldatov predicted that the Defense Ministry would interpret any criticism of the government on social media as “military actions”.  

“They could come to the president and say there is information aggression against us and we must respond to it. Gerasimov, the head of the General Staff, recently warned in a military journal about “new forms of aggression” like information aggression, said Soldatov.

Konstantin Kalachev, head of the Political Expert Group noted that Shoigu was trying to seize some turf that went far behind the immediate duties of the Defense Ministry:

“The Defense Ministry is preparing for wars of a new type. Regional conflicts including in the Donbass really do make such information relevant and in demand. But in reality, the Defense Ministry intends to compete with the FSB and SVR in this field. Shoigu is making the Defense Ministry a super ministry. As he did before with the Emergencies Ministry. All of these instruments raised the significance and possibilities for the Defense Ministry and the minister.”

Kalachev surmised that Shoigu “has ambitions greater than the Defense Ministry,” by which evidently he means the presidency.

Of course, it could be argued that any government agency needs to keep abreast of social media using analytical programs; in the West there are a huge variety of such programs and services ranging from Socialbakers to NodeXL to Recorded Future and many others. The question in the Russian context is more about how the information will be “weaponized,” to use the term from our report on propaganda, The Menace of Unreality. Information is used, first of all, for control of Russia’s own population before it is used to attempt to control the rest of the world.

Aleksey Grazhdankin of the Levada Analytical Center commented on the Defense Ministry’s planned program:

“If the task is to study the population of the country, this isn’t effective because of the non-representative nature of the sample, but if the purpose is to study the growth of dissatisfaction, the growth of protest activity, then this is quite an effective instrument. Since the mood of the most active part of the population can be judged by social media, this is sufficient in order to make substantial conclusions on movement in the public consciousness.”

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick