Three anti-Russia stories that proved to be false

These are three anti-Russia stories from Western journalism that proved to be false - either through deliberate misrepresentation or baseless claims.

Few Western journalists are willing to challenge the pre-determined script pundits push about Russia. Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald represent a minority who are willing to challenge this narrative. While so-called Russian disinformation campaigns are the focus of most media outlets, Taibbi and Greenwald provide concrete examples of Western reporting on Russia that proved to be false. Taibbi provides a “Master List of Official Russia Claims That Proved To Be Bogus” as of March 18, 2021. Greenwald focuses on “Beyond BuzzFeed: The 10 Worst, Most Embarrassing U.S. Media Failures on the Trump-Russia Story.” This article seeks to continue the work of Taibbi and Greenwald by highlighting how inaccurate Russia stories persist.

1. Russia is behind the Democratic National Committee (and now Republican National Committee) hacks

Taibbi and Greenwald countered the accusations of Russia hacking the DNC in 2016. Ultimately there was no conclusive evidence with Shawn Henry of Crowdstrike admitting: “We did not have concrete evidence that data was exfiltrated from the DNC.” Crowdstrike is a cybersecurity firm that has a record of having to revise and retract its conclusions linking Russia to hacks.

Now in 2021, the same Russian hacking groups – Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear – that Crowdstrike still claims hacked the DNC are culpable for the latest RNC hack. This story is being pushed by almost every major American news outlet despite the fact the RNC denies the hack. Spokesman Mike Reed’s statement: “There is no indication that the RNC was hacked or any RNC information was stolen.”

Russian First Deputy Chairman of the Federation Council Foreign Affairs Committee Vladimir Dzhabarov called these allegations another provocation that will “only worsen the relations between two countries.”

There has never been substantial evidence linking Cozy Bear or Fancy Bear to Russia’s intelligence agencies. This latest story will likely have the same falsehood as the DNC claims. Yasha Levine writing for The Baffler exposes the fiction behind the Russian hacker groups. The names of these groups are monikers given by Crowdstrike and the groups themselves are a creation of analysts grouping the hacks under Advanced Persistent Threats. Evidence linking the groups to Russia is circumstantial – the use of the Russian language, Moscow time zone, and observation of Russian holidays. Levine asks an illuminating question: “First off, what kind of hacker – especially a sophisticated Russian spy hacker – keeps to standard 9-to-5 working hours and observes official state holidays? Second, just what other locations are in Moscow’s time zone and full of Russians? Let’s see: Israel, Belarus, Estonia, Moldova, Romania, Lithuania, Ukraine.”

2. The Russian government was responsible Colonial Pipeline cyberattack

Both sides of the aisle have pushed a conspiratorial angle when it comes to coverage of the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack that occurred on May 7, 2021. In many ways this story mirrors the story of the Russian hackers attack the electricity grid in Vermont (both Taibbi and Greenwald have covered this falsehood of this). Though the hacking group DarkSide is suspected to be based in Russia, even President Biden stressed: “We do not believe the Russian government was involved in this attack. But we do have strong reason to believe that the criminals who did the attack are living in Russia.”

Republican Senator Ted Cruz rebuked Biden’s claims and instead insisted that Biden currying favor with President Putin. He explained: “Then Biden sat by and allowed Russian hackers to hack the Colonial Pipeline producing gas lines up and down the eastern seaboard… He sat by while they paid a ransom to Russian hackers. And now his reward to Russia for Russian hackers shutting down a major infrastructure pipeline on the Eastern Seaboard, today he signed a waiver greenlighting the NORDSTREAM-2 pipeline.” However, these statements must be considered in the context of the domestic political climate in the U.S. The Democrat Party accused former President Trump of colluding with Russia during his time in office. Cruz’s stance simply reflects retribution for these actions – it’s now President Biden’s turn to face the same scrutiny.

Rachel Maddow of MSNBC pushes a similar story claiming, “Russia seen as a safe haven for cyber prime as pipeline hack prompts Biden admin crackdown.” In reality, the Russian government is cooperating with the U.S. in identifying where the hacker group is located. The Russian Embassy in the United States has defended itself against journalist claims that the Russian state has conducted cybercrimes.

3. Alexei Navalny is Russia’s leading opposition figure

Western journalists tout Navalny as a Putin critic, in the same manner, they charge Russia with engaging in disinformation campaigns – there is an active effort by Western media to influence domestic politics in the Russian Federation. Blogger Mike Hearn has covered this anti-Russian propaganda in the media critiquing the standard way of describing Navalny as the leading opposition politician. He explains: “According to actual opinion polling the country’s leading opposition politician is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the head of the Liberal Democrat party. He gets around 10% voting intention for the 2018 elections, far ahead of Navalny who (when he shows up at all) gets more like 3–4%.”

Though Navalny supporters will often cite statistics that his approval rating has doubled – he’s still a marginal figure in the political landscape. He still ranks in fifth place in polling asking respondents which politicians they approve – behind Vladimir Putin, Mikhail Mishustin, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and Gennady Zyuganov.

The Navalny narrative represents a more covert and pervasive way for journalists to promote an anti-Russia agenda. While not an outright lie, Navalny is used as a tool of foreign policy by the West. Under the pretext of human rights and democracy, the West uses these tensions to “support pressure, blackmail, ultimatums, illegitimate actions, and sanctions, but also other forms of interference in the internal affairs of many countries” as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov explains. And journalists are complicit in painting Russia as a rogue state.

Katrina Kalamar is a Policy Analyst at the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC).