Written by Suzanne Smalley
The Biden administration on Thursday sanctioned Russian oligarchs and organizations for their role in spreading disinformation and supporting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, including a news agency that the Treasury Department says has ties to a Russian cyber espionage and offensive unit.
The sanctions targeted nine employees of InfoRos, a nominal news agency mainly run by the GRU, which controls Russia’s military intelligence service and operates its own special forces units. According to the Treasury Department, the GRU’s 72nd Main Intelligence Information Center, a unit within the Russian Information Operations Troops, functions as the “Russian military force to conduct cyber espionage, influence and cyber offensive” and is the operator of InfoRos.
In a press release, the Treasury Department said InfoRos is a network of more than 1,000 websites that “spread false conspiracy stories and misinformation promoted by GRU officials.” For example, in early December 2021, Treasury officials said a Ukraine-based InfoRos editor contributed to an editorial claiming Ukraine was provoking Russia into war.
The Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control and the US State Department said the sanctions against InfoRos were intended to intensify pressure on Russia and shut down channels of disinformation that attempt to “label Ukraine and those responsible for the Ukrainian government as an aggressor in Russian-Ukrainian relations”.
The department said the InfoRos and other propaganda were placed by Russian intelligence services seeking to “weaken perceived adversaries”.
OFAC has named a total of 26 individuals based in Russia and Ukraine and seven Russian entities for supporting the Russian government’s extensive disinformation campaigns. The Treasury said these campaigns “spread false narratives that advance Russian strategic goals to destabilize Ukraine and falsely justify Kremlin activities.”
Sanctions add to an ever-growing list that has extended since Russia began its invasion on February 24and as the United States and the world seek to pressure Putin to rethink what the Treasury has called a “war of choice.”
The department said the effort is part of its ongoing work with “international partners and allies to target assets in various jurisdictions” belonging to oligarchs and entities enabling Putin’s assaults in Ukraine.
Thursday’s batch of prominent sanctioned Russian oligarchs and accused Putin enablers includes Russian billionaire Alisher Burhanovich Usmanov, whose $600 million yacht was seized, and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, whom officials have referred to as “Putin’s main propaganda purveyor”.“
Yevgeniy Prigozhin is one of the purveyors of this propaganda, the Treasury said. He has previously been named for leading efforts to disrupt the US election and is an alleged financier of the Internet Research Agency (IRA), which the department says it uses to denigrate the US election process and, more recently, to support programs designed by the Russian government. influence operations in Ukraine.
The IRA’s influence efforts focus on “sowing discord on social issues in Ukraine”, according to the announcement. He said Russian disinformation has also targeted European politicians with lies meant to promote Russian goals in Ukraine.
Another targeted organization, the Strategic Culture Foundation (SCF), was previously banned from social media and payment platforms following previous US sanctions. But it continues to work, according to the Treasury, which said the SCF has created new media to advance its narrative.
The SCF has recently promoted the idea of the United States supporting Ukraine in order to “weaken Russia”, according to the statement.
“One of the main tactics of the SCF is to publish Western fringe thinkers and conspiracy theorists, giving them a broader reach, while trying to obscure the paper’s Russian origins,” the Treasury Department said. “This tactic helps the site appear as an organic voice within its target audience of Westerners.”