Strategic Culture Foundation: A tangly web of disinformation

The Strategic Culture Foundation has been described as “submissively loyal to the Kremlin party line” and a “parrot of Russian propaganda. However recently the New York Times reporting shed new light on this site and the Russian intelligence services who are in control behind the scenes. According to their article, “The Strategic Culture Foundation is directed by another Russian intelligence agency, the SVR”. The article also named another site controlled by Russian intelligence services InfoRos, read our previous reporting on that site here. Whereas the NYT named two people who were in control at InfoRos, it provided fewer details on who is in control at the Strategic Culture Foundation. We want to find out who the mysterious owners and editors might be and in the course of our research, we have identified a network of linked sites probably under control of SVR.

What is the Strategic Culture Foundation?

The Strategic Culture Foundation declares in its mission statement that “SCF works to broaden and diversify expert discussion by focusing on hidden aspects of international political and unconventional thinking. Benefiting from the expanding power of the Internet, we work to spread reliable information, critical thought and progressive ideas.” All sounds good, doesn’t it? But you would be searching for a long time to find reliable information, critical thought or progressive ideas on this site. They also seem to have a particular interest in calling anyone and everyone (never the Mother Russia of course) a Nazi. The people accused of Nazism by SCF makes a pretty long list: Ukraine, Estonia, European Union, Canada, Poland… the UK Royal Family House of Windsor. Surprising that they feel able to make such accusations when they also engage in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

Another worrying thing is the number of times the Strategic Culture Foundation and its “analysts” are cited in the International Press in relation to Bosnia, Serbia and Ukraine. The advanced in these pieces are so blatantly pro-Russia that it’s a surprise that they managed to continue for so long before being linked to Russian Intelligence Services. The foundation and its contributors frequently expressed skepticism of NATO and Western influence in Russia’s neighbors for example in 2014, Anna Filimonov (at the time editor-in chief of the SCF) said both that “Serbia is Russia’s Strategic Ally” and that the West had trampled Serbia into the ground and the country needed to be rebuilt. In 2013, Viktor Pirozhenko of the SCF suggested that Ukraine would not fulfill its political commitments to the EU, as it could lead to Yanukovych’s defeat in presidential elections. The dangerous thing here is that people might share these opinions thinking they come from well-informed commentators with no agenda, when in fact it comes from the heart of the Russian intelligence services.

It is clear that this site works in a different way to InfoRos. In the case of InfoRos, Denis Tyurin had clear links to the GRU 72nd Special Service Center; however Strategic Culture Foundation works differently. They pretend to be a progressive think tank and provide useful “International Media” for Russian media to quote when they want to sow disinformation at home. The people writing the articles clearly have interests in the topics they cover and may not even know that they work for the SVR. Maybe the SVR thought that by operating in this way their involvement would not be revealed but unfortunately there are a few mistakes which reveal that all is not as it seems with the SCF.

Who controls SCF?

Media Bias who give Strategic Culture Foundation a rating of “Questionable Source” with “very low” factual reporting state that SCF “completely lacks transparency by not listing owners or editors.” As many including EuVsDisinfo have noted nowhere on the pages of this all-English site does it admit that the site is registered and managed in Russia – they don’t even publicly state that they have a Russian version of their site.

We wanted to take a look at the few people who are publicly connected to SCF. Vladimir Maximenko is listed as General Director of the Strategic Culture Foundation, a role he has occupied since 2007. Interestingly, according to Dark Side of the Kremlin email leaks, Maximenko is in touch with Kirill Frolov who appears to spend a lot of his time coordinating different Russian propaganda sites that clearly have Kremlin links like rusvena.su. As Director of Foundation, it seems likely that Maximenko maintains contact with the SVR officers who provide direction to his work.

A key figure here is Andrey Grigoryevich Areshev. He first came to our attention as the Deputy Director of the SCF. He was born on 21 June 1974 in Tbilisi according to publicly available information. According to historic Whois data, Areshev registered the domains for Strategic Culture Foundation (fondsk.org, strategic-culture.org, fondsk.ru). Back in 2015, some people online were trying to link this to FSB, which was close but not quite right! The address that was given was: ul. Soljanka, d 1/2, Str. 2, Podezd 11-A, Apartment 8, which is real address but what is unusual is the phone number… it seems that this phone number belongs to a recruitment agency – which seems suspicious behavior and shows that the site is not what it appears to be.

What is happening at ul. Soljanka?

As we said, while the phone number used by Areshev to register these sites appears to be taken from somewhere else, the address seemed legitimate. There is such a building in Moscow, fairly central, not too far from Red Square and there are even other businesses at similar addresses. Some of these business caught our attention..one of them is “ROSSPO METALL” – one of the founders of this business (registered to a different address) is “ROSSPO” which is the Russian Organization for Cooperation between the Special Services and Law Enforcement Agencies. ROSSPO’s Executive Director is Anatoliy Mikailovich Kulachenko, who is also the Chairman for an organization called Otchizna. WE never understood fully what is happening here, but it definitely seems that there is something strange happening at ul.Soljanka.

Areshev, clearly a knowledgeable man can be found all over the Internet. You can find him leaving book reviews and giving interviews to Sputnik Estonia, we were particularly interested to see that he participated in an RISI roundtable event. RISI has been described as the SVR’s analytical center and although the two organizations officially split in 2009, it seems clear that there are still strong links – Leonid Reshetnikov, a former SVR director, was head of RISI from 2009-2016. We are not trying to claim that this is conclusive of an SVR link, but given what we now know it certainly raises questions.

Areshev’s web of disinformation

On his VK page, Areshev shares articles from SCF and also VPO analytics but it seems he has an interest in many different sites. Through our research into Areshev, we stumbled into a whole web of disinformation sites… all linking back to Areshev. Areshev is listed as a contact for the OdnaRodyna VK page and appears to have created the OdnaRodyna (ОднаРодина) Twitter page, although that hasn’t been active since May 2019. When we accessed historic Whois data, we discovered that in fact Areshev registered the odnarodyna.org to the same SCF address and used the same strange phone number… OdnaRodyna – a site which frequently shares manipulative messaging on Ukraine is one of them. In fact, OdnaRodyna was one of the internet resources that were banned by the Ukrainian government, because they “contain information with signs of prohibited nature according to the rule of law”.

This isn’t even the only site, we discovered ritmeurasia.org. Although Areshev is only listed as an author in the site, it turns out that he also registered this site with the same fake phone number back in 2013. We found Areshev listed as a registrant for another site worldintellectual.net in June 2018, although this was only briefly as it was pretty swiftly moved in an effort to hide Areshev’s involvement. Prior to Areshev being involved, the main registrant was one Igor Igorevich Alekseev. We couldn’t find too much information about Alekseev, who also contributes to SCF, but he is involved in another project Route Magazine.

The email address given for Areshev when registering this site is pravo5@zmail.ru and through this email address we were able to connect him to many different activities. At first, Areshev registered all these sites in his own name, but later seems to have tried to transfer them to a proxy service. We wonder what he is trying to hide? Andrey is clearly a very busy man. He also finds time for his role as an administrator for the Kamerton journal. Kamerton describes itself as an online literary and historical journal. Their main aim, so they say, is to reflect the literary process the common historical events and also to promote social thinking in places where people speak, write and think in Russian, primarily in the countries of the former USSR. Although the main editor of Kamerton is listed as Svetlana Georgiyevna Zamlelova, it is clear that Areshev has a controlling role in Kamerton site too, another way for SVR opinions to make their way on to the Internet???

We also found links between Areshev and several LiveJournal profiles. It doesn’t seem that they were particularly effective, they haven’t been active since 2012. Maybe the SVR weren’t reaching their intended audiences. One of these sites is neko-mashura.livejournal.com, whose name is “fondsk__ekspert”. This blog covered a wide range of topics, but you won’t be surprised to hear that it covered a few of the Kremlin’s favorite topics: Anti-NATO, Ukraine, Armenia and the Caucuses. The neko-mashura account wrote for two other suspicious LiveJournal accounts eurazia-ru.livejournal.com, which said that it was interested in the fight for the Soviet legacy in the Balkans, the Caucuses and in fact everywhere, and another site kaukaz.livejournal.com. One of the sites that was referenced by kaukaz LiveJournal site was kavkazoved.info, which it turns out was registered by one Andrey Areshev using the address ul.Soljanka, d1/2, str. 2 Podezd 11-A, Apartment 8. Interestingly, a different email was used to register this site but all the rest of the details are exactly the same. The email address ivanov-info@mail.ru was also used to register odnarodyna.su in 2015, perhaps after Areshev got concerned about his privacy??

We see a pattern here that clearly continues to this day. This is not just about one site – it’s about a whole range of sites which all publish very similar information on very similar themes. They share authors and often share the same syndicated content. They create their very own little disinformation ecosystem. Others have pointed out that a group of these sites New Eastern Outlook, Oriental Review, South Front and SCF all play a similar and have authors in common.

Why should I care?

Our investigation into SCF has found what looks like a network of Russian disinformation sites going back years. Given what has been revealed about the SCF and SVR ties, it makes you wonder whether all these sites are controlled by SVR too? It is clear that a lot of time and effort has been invested in creating and maintaining this network of sites, which shows the dedication to disinformation by the people involved here.

The network of sites that have been created here can be confusing and difficult to understand, but that is their aim. The Kremlin hopes to confuse the environment and make it confusing to find what is really true and in which opinions we can trust. The intention here is clear though: for the Russian intelligence services to influence the public conversation.

What can we learn by looking at these sites? We used to think of Russian influence as coming from Twitter bots and fake accounts – and these mechanisms certainly still exist – but these sites show us a different side to Russian influence. They invest time, money and effort into these sites. Strategic Culture Foundation was founded in 2005 and it has been promoting SVR propaganda since then under the guise of a news portal/think tank. A simple Google search will tell you how often SCF articles and authors are cited as sources or referenced in other publications. Would it be the same if people know it was coming from the SVR? Not likely!

This is yet another warning to be skeptical of opinions and articles that you read online that just seem to be pro-Russian. In recent times we have seen some social media companies marking content coming from Russia Today and other such Kremlin mouthpieces as being Russian-State backed. It seems that they should take similar action against these accounts and any their stories are spread online – we hope that now the link between the intelligence services and these sites is clear that more action will be taken online and offline to deter this type of activity.

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