In late July, a shocking interview with a captured Azov Battalion fighter began circulating online.
In the clip, the prisoner-of-war claimed that Oleksiy Arestovych, once a key advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, had, prior to the war, ordered his Neo-Nazi regiment (among other military units) to carry out and film “brutal murders” of captured Russian soldiers in service of an “information campaign.”
The purpose of this effort, the Azov fighter claimed, was to transmit the grisly footage to Russia in order to stoke anti-war sentiment among the population, and thus protests and upheaval.
Incendiary confessions and allegations emanating from prisoners-of-war should always be treated with intense skepticism. The likelihood they will be made under significant duress, and/or result from extensive coaching, is invariably high. Nonetheless, there are sound reasons not to reflexively discount the nameless combatant’s testimony.
While you would barely know it from Western media reporting, countless Russian soldiers have been tortured and killed in the most savage ways imaginable post-capture, each and every horrifying incident representing a grave war crime. There are numerous reports of prisoners being burnt with blowtorches and/or having their eyes gouged out before execution, and even those kept alive are frequently shot in their kneecaps to cripple them for life. Accompanying clips are voluminous, and have traveled widely.
As such, questions can only abound over whether this is a matter of dedicated strategy for Kiev, rather than the isolated, vengeful actions of individual soldiers or units, particularly given numerous officials have made dire public threats about the fate that awaits Russians should they participate in the war. For example, a senior battlefield doctor told Ukrainian state media in late March he had ordered his staff to castrate captives, as they were “cockroaches”.
Arestovych has also over the years made numerous deeply concerning comments endorsing ISIS, in particular the terror group’s “cruelty for show,” which he believes to be a “wise strategy.”
“They are acting very correctly…Those methods, the world needs them, even though this means terrorism, medieval levels of cruelty, burning people alive, shooting them or cutting off their heads. This is absolutely the way of the future,” he said in one TV interview.
Even more compellingly, leaked documents reviewed by MintPress show covert plans to “achieve influence” with Russians and turn them against the war and their government have been drawn up by a shadowy British intelligence contractor, led by an individual intimately tied to a previous clandestine effort aimed at achieving the same end, using atrocity propaganda from the Syrian crisis, in which Ukraine was also central.
As we shall see, there is no reason to believe this effort will be anything but counterproductive, and in the process put the liberty if not lives of Russians at significant risk, while emboldening the Kremlin significantly, and furthering its informational objectives.
‘A stream of narrative opportunities’
The proposals were crafted by Valent Projects, exposed by MintPress in July as running a sinister social media censorship operation on behalf of U.S. intelligence front USAID, in conjunction with Chemonics International, which its own founder has admitted was created so he could “have my own CIA.” The contractor was the primary conduit via which U.S. funds and equipment reached bogus Syrian humanitarian group the White Helmets.
Submitted to the Partnership Fund for a Resilient Ukraine, a support mechanism created by the governments of Britain, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland and the U.S., the pair pledged to “map audiences critical to the Kremlin’s efforts, and identify opportunities to impact their narratives,” in order to support Kiev’s “strategic communications efforts.”
This would provide key decision makers within the Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs, and the Office of the President “a stream of ‘narrative opportunities’” with which to “influence” and “engage” audiences not only in Russia, but “other key states” including India and Turkey, via news outlets and social media.
Valent pledged to not only identify potential target demographics, but “their prevailing worldviews, how they access information and what narratives are likely to influence them,” and monitor their online interactions in real-time, in particular identifying when “key audiences express potential tension with official positions,” which could be exploited by Kiev.
This data could be segmented for different government departments, if say Defense chiefs were “interested in different audiences” than their Foreign Affairs counterparts. Overall, the entire Ukrainian administration would, it was pledged, be able to “affect measurable attitudinal and behavioral change amongst key Russian audiences” with Valent’s help.
While no mention is made in the document of this setup being used to further Arestovych’s macabre purported plans, it would certainly provide an efficacious means of achieving them. What is more though, there are sinister echoes in the proposal of an operation conducted by British intelligence contractor InCoStrat during the Syrian crisis, which was led by Valent’s founder-and-chief, Amil Khan.
Dubbed “Project Aurelius”, it sought to “increase the cost to the Russian leadership of sustained or increased intervention in the Syrian conflict by sensitizing Russian public opinion to the opportunity costs of their intervention in the conflict” – in the process not only ending the country’s decisive military involvement in the West’s dirty war, but destabilizing the government by disrupting its “domestic balancing act.”
A document related to the connivance spells out a “basic mechanism to achieving” its lofty objectives. In brief, it entailed “leveraging the reality of Russia’s Syria intervention as depicted in Syrian opposition media and presenting it to key Russian audiences, including mainstream news consumers.”
InCoStrat avowedly had “a number of assets already available to build this mechanism,” including “access to opposition-made media products” producing content refuting “Russian claims”, “the ability to task Syrian opposition media activists to capture raw material,” and “international communications specialists” based in Jordan with “the ability to establish and manage the effort” – Khan being chief among them.
‘Embedded with terrorists’
Such boasts significantly underplay the staggering scale of InCoStrat’s cloak-and-dagger machinations in Damascus. The contractor played a pivotal role in London’s long-running propaganda efforts over the course of the dirty war, which sought to disrupt and displace the government of Bashar al-Assad, convince citizens and international bodies that rabid Western and Gulf-backed militant groups rampaging across the country were a credible, “moderate” alternative, and would then flood media internationally with pro-opposition agitprop.
In service of this effort, InCoStrat trained hundreds of “stringers” across the country who fed content to three separate media production offices it managed, and established 10 separate FM radio stations, as well as numerous print magazines. On top of extensive domestic consumption in both occupied and government-controlled areas of Syria, the company fed this output to a network of “over 1,600 journalists and people of influence” globally.
InCoStrat furthermore carried out various elaborate “guerrilla” operations, which it described as “[using] the media to create [an] event” and “[initiating] an event to create media effect.” One example of these activities was “[exploiting] the concentrated presence of journalists” during the Geneva II conference in January 2014 “to put pressure on the regime.”
The company produced “postcards, posters and reports” to “draw behavioral parallels” between the Assad government and ISIS and dishonestly further the fiction that “a latent relationship exists between the two.” The company alleged in Foreign Office submissions that these productions were subsequently republished by “major news outlets” including the Qatari-funded Al-Jazeera.
In another, InCoStrat smuggled materials emphasizing alleged government atrocities – such as pictures “depicting the aftermath of a barrel bomb attack or victims of torture” – into “regime-held” areas of Syria, including Damascus. The company sought to “keep regime perpetration of war crimes in the spotlight at a crucial time when media attention has shifted almost exclusively towards ISIS and some influential voices are calling for co-operation with the Syrian regime to combat ISIS.”
This work placed the company and its staff in extremely close quarters with numerous armed militias guilty of monstrous abuses, who have been credibly accused of orchestrating “false flag” events to precipitate Western intervention, including chemical weapons strikes, which may have necessitated choreographed massacres by the individuals and groups staging them.
For instance, InCoStrat bragged of having contacts with violent gangs in “some of the most impenetrable areas in the country,” such as Syria’s “eastern front,” which, at the time of writing, was dominated by ISIS. Its stringers were said to have “access to a variety of groups,” including Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, “with whom they have conducted interviews.” Amil Khan may well have been fundamental to cultivating these connections.
In one leaked file, InCoStrat is asked to provide evidence of its “proven track record of establishing and developing contacts in Arabic-speaking conflict affected states.” Khan’s alleged history of having “established relationships with, and embedded himself into terrorist organizations in the UK and the Middle East,” experience granting him “unique insight into their narratives, communication methods, recruitment processes and management of networks,” is cited as an example of the company’s prowess in this field.
‘Undermine the Russian position’
To say the least, then, InCoStrat had “a number of assets available” to carry out Project Aurelius effectively.
The “only” public-facing element of the operation was a “Russian anti-Kremlin activist collective” based in Ukraine, “with access to foreign journalists and opinion influencers with media profiles,” who were able to “establish and run Russian social media pages” and infiltrate Russian opposition networks online on InCoStrat’s behalf.
Financing for the effort was markedly opaque, sent from Amman to a Syrian-run “media activist group” registered in Germany, which then dispatched regular payments to a parallel organization created in Kiev, covering its staffing and running costs, and expenses. Publicly, the money appeared to flow from a “Syrian interlocutor”, running crowdfunders and “eliciting donations from wealthy Syrians.”
The output of InCoStrat’s assorted Syrian media assets – and other opposition communications platforms – were monitored by a team led by Khan in Jordan, to “[identify] products that undermine the Russian position,” which were then compiled according to a “distribution plan that aims to maximize negative impact on Russian narratives around the intervention in Syria,” with a specific focus on “points of vulnerability.”
This material was then circulated to the Ukraine-based activists, translated, and spread across social media via private chats and social media groups. It was hoped the entire breadth of the Russian media, from opposition outlets such as Meduza and Novaya Gazeta, establishment liberal newspapers including Kommersant, and even “directly controlled pro-government media” would in turn pick up the stories, leading to wider civil society debate about the Syrian intervention, and corrosion in the government’s position at home and abroad.
It’s uncertain whether Aurelius succeeded in its goal of flooding Russian opposition channels with damaging disinformation, or how many journalists and publications recycled this targeted content believing it to be organic and grassroots in nature, but Moscow’s Syrian mission certainly doesn’t appear to have been deterred one iota.
Today, despite ongoing Israeli airstrikes, crippling Western sanctions and US occupation of its oil-producing areas, the country is steadily rebuilding itself and overwhelmingly under government control, in no small part due to Russian intervention.
It seems likely the proposal of Valent and Chemonics will be similarly impotent, not least because the brutality reserved for captured Russian soldiers, as apparently advocated by Arestovych, has surely reduced to zero the opportunity for Kiev to stage timely interventions, and exploit “potential tension with official positions” with target audiences in Russia. As the nameless Azov Battalion prisoner acknowledged in their testimony, such behavior “caused negativity in world public opinion,” least of all in Russia itself.
Other callous developments, including the widespread scattering of petal mines in civilian areas across the Donbas, indiscriminate attacks on the majority Russian Crimea, and Ukrainian soldiers using the cellphones of slain Russians to call and laughingly taunt their victims’ mothers back home, have inevitably been exploited by the Kremlin to further and legitimize its narratives about Kiev being a rabid, murderous fascist regime in urgent need of “denazification” and “demilitarization”.
One might argue that as a country embroiled in a David and Goliath battle, it is not only morally necessary, but eminently sensible, for Ukraine to explore any and all possible methods of evening the playing field. Yet Project Aurelius amply underlines the significant dangers and inherently counterproductive nature of covert Western information warfare initiatives.
Several media outlets identified as fruitful targets for Aurelius product have since fallen victim to Moscow’s Draconian, debilitating “foreign agent” laws, or simply been shut down by court order. In recent years, harassment and closure of opposition NGOs and information providers in Russia has frequently been triggered by the exposure of illicit – or insufficiently clear – Western funding and sponsorship.
The onset of conflict in Ukraine means an even less safe space for dissent in Russia. Thousands have reportedly received fines or prison sentences for opposing the war, while Kommersant reporter Ivan Safronov has been jailed for 22 years on dubious charges of treason. What fate would befall a journalist who wrote up content surreptitiously broadcast to them by Kiev courtesy of Valent and Chemonics, or a private citizen who shared it?
A noble lie?
If this war is won by Ukraine, it certainly will not be via covert psyops campaigns. Yet both Kiev and its Western backers have a significant vested interest in propagandizing the public in North America and Europe. Stories true or false of victimhood, heroism and battlefield success are key to ensuring the endless flow of weaponry and financial aid to a country outgunned and outmanned by its much larger neighbor, the economy and industry of which has already been comprehensively crippled.
During the Syrian crisis, the U.S. spent potentially in excess of one trillion on regime change efforts, a core component of which was a failed $1 billion secret dirty war led by the CIA. Britain pumped at least $400 million into achieving the same goal, a figure that does not take into account black operations conducted by intelligence agencies or covert military units. The sums involved in the Ukraine conflict will likely dwarf those totals.
International aid tracker DevEx calculated in late August that in the first six months of the war, over $100 billion had been committed to Kiev by Western countries, only a tiny fraction of which was “humanitarian-focused”. Seemingly each and every month, if not more frequently, yet further billions are allocated to Kiev by Washington, meaning the country is on track to become the largest recipient of U.S. military assistance since World War II. Europe has likewise committed vast resources.
Along the way, major arms manufacturers are making a literal killing, in every sense. Despite a general downturn in stock markets the world over, the share prices of companies including BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Thales have remained strong. In a particularly brash manifestation of the Military Industrial Complex in effect, Zelensky is scheduled to deliver a headline speech at a major U.S. defense industry conference on September 21st.
There are legitimate and reasonable arguments for and against regular arms shipments to Kiev, although consideration of the latter perspective has been almost entirely absent from mainstream discourse. As such, one cannot help but wonder if the ultimate intended target audience of the kind of informational connivance plotted by Valent and Chemonics is, as with Syria, Western publics.
After all, it is their support and acquiescence that keeps the war machine ever-whirring – and the profits rising. And if enemy state citizens, journalists, and civil society activists end up as collateral damage, who cares.
Feature photo | Illustration by MintPress News
Kit Klarenberg is an investigative journalist and MintPresss News contributor exploring the role of intelligence services in shaping politics and perceptions. His work has previously appeared in The Cradle, Declassified UK, and Grayzone. Follow him on Twitter @KitKlarenberg.