Hackers, nurses and Arnold: Inside the struggle to get information on the Ukraine war to Russians

The State Department created an account on Telegram, a messaging app popular with Russians, four days into the war in Ukraine as it became clear that Washington was missing an opportunity to interact with Russians, a senior department official told CNN.

A series of posts on the account in Russian have amplified President Joe Biden’s denunciations of the war and cautioned Russians about Moscow’s propaganda machine.

“Long before the Kremlin launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it had stepped up its campaign of disinformation and censorship of independent media and continues to do so even during the war of aggression,” the department said from its Telegram account Thursday.

Russian engagement with the State Department Telegram account to date appears to be very modest — the account had 1,911 subscribers as of Friday afternoon Moscow time and the country’s total population is around 142 million.

Analysts say it is unlikely that any single platform or messaging campaign is going to break through with the Russian public in a significant way. But the goal shared by a range of actors trying to pierce the digital iron curtain is to chip away, cumulatively, at Russian public support for the war and the morale of Russian soldiers.

The State Department also has an account on Russian messaging platform VK, has set up a website to rebut Russian disinformation in recent weeks and has worked to get US officials on Russian-language broadcast platforms, the official said.

Not a ‘silver bullet’

“None of it is a silver bullet,” the State Department official said, acknowledging the formidable wall of censorship in Russia, which has blocked access to Twitter and Facebook.

But some critics have suggested the US government needs to do more and aim to emulate the huge propaganda effort of the Cold War when significant resources were dedicated to pushing messaging toward the Soviet population.

Russian authorities have detained thousands of people protesting the war in Ukraine. A Russian state television journalist who interrupted a live news broadcast Monday holding a sign that said “NO WAR” was detained and fined about $270 but could still face prison time.

“This is a real Achilles’ heel for Putin,” James Clapper, who served as President Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence, told CNN. The US government, he said, should be using any social media platform available to bring images of dead Russian soldiers and prisoners of war to Russian citizens.

Several Russian prisoners of war have appeared at news conferences held by Ukrainian authorities. That may be a questionable practice under the Geneva Convention, which forbids states from causing unnecessary humiliation to prisoners of war.

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“This sort of thing lends itself to covert action on the part of the US government,” Clapper said. “And I trust and hope that we are doing something along those lines.”

The US intelligence community is closely watching public opinion in Russia, but it’s not clear whether there is any planning underway to conduct any form of clandestine information operations.

“We’re watching what’s happening in Russia,” said one Western source familiar with the intelligence, who added that it is not clear yet whether public opinion is breaking for or against the war.

There are less shadowy ways of supporting the free flow of information into Russia.

Alina Polyakova, president of the nonprofit Center for European Policy Analysis, said the State Department’s Telegram account is “a step in the right direction, but frankly it’s not creative enough.”

Russians today don’t appear to trust Western media or government officials as sources of information the way they did in the waning days of the Cold War, said Polyakova, who grew up in Kyiv in the 1980s.

“We really need to be more creative about thinking who the right messengers are,” she added, pointing to the numerous refugees who have fled Russia in recent weeks as the Kremlin has criminalized independent reporting on the war in Ukraine.

Western governments and philanthropic organizations now have a “huge opportunity” to support these abroad as they will likely continue reporting from and connecting with Russian audiences who trust them, Polyakova said.

‘We should bring real news to them’

While the State Department lobs carefully worded messages to Russian citizens, a loose band of volunteer hackers from Ukraine and abroad are being more confrontational.

The so-called Ukrainian IT army, which Kyiv is actively encouraging, has looked to hack Russian news sites and post information about Russian due in Ukraine, according to Yegor Aushev, cybersecurity executive who said he organize the hacking collective on behalf of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense.

Russian citizens “don’t know a lot about what’s going on here,” Aushev said by phone from Ukraine. “That’s why we decided that one of the most important targets should be media. We should bring real news to them.”

But reaching a Russian audience doesn’t require breaking into a computer. Americans are among the many people who have sent text messages to Russians using a website built by an international group of volunteer programmers known as Squad303.

Stacey McCue, a Florida nurse, has sent roughly 100 text messages and hundreds of emails to Russians using the platform. She began personalizing the messages with her own voice, saying that Moscow has been lying to its citizens and that the war has killed civilians.

So far, McCue has gotten only three responses: “F— off,” “Crimea is ours” and one reply threatening to “forward your message to the appropriate authorities! Stop making such calls!”

The hostile responses haven’t deterred McCue.

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“I think it’s better to be proactive, to make a stand, even if it’s a small thing to try to influence the overall situation,” she told CNN.

More high-profile Americans are joining the cause.

Schwarzenegger, the “Terminator” star and ex-California governor, addressed “the Russian people” in a video with Russian subtitles he posted Thursday to his 5 million Twitter followers and more than 19,000 Telegram subscribers.

“I hope that you will let me tell you the truth about the war in Ukraine and what is happening there,” Schwarzenegger said before detailing the Russian bombing of a Ukrainian maternity ward.

It wasn’t immediately clear how much traction Schwarzenegger’s video may have gotten within Russia. But on Friday, the term “Arnie” had broken into Twitter’s top 10 list of trending topics within Russia, and numerous containing Schwarzenegger’s video were accompanied by both praise and criticism by Twitter users.

A source close to Schwarzenegger told CNN that the former bodybuilder made the video on his own accord and wasn’t asked to do so by the US government.

But the State Department Telegram account wasted no time in sharing the video, and others in the information ecosystem followed suit.

Blake Ferrell, a plumber from Indiana, told CNN that he sent Schwarzenegger’s video to several Russians on Telegram, and still images of the actor’s speech to other Russians via the Squad303 texting platform.

Ferrell hasn’t received any replies yet, but he wants to keep trying to reach a Russian audience.

“For me, it’s the excitement of actually reaching another person,” he said.

CNN’s Katie Bo Lillis and Dana Bash contributed reporting.

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