This Is How Russian Propaganda Actually Works In The 21st Century
Skype logs and other documents obtained by BuzzFeed News offer a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine.
TALLINN, Estonia — The Russian government discreetly funded a group of seemingly independent news websites in Eastern Europe to pump out stories dictated to them by the Kremlin, BuzzFeed News and its reporting partners can reveal.
Russian state media created secret companies in order to bankroll websites in the Baltic states — a key battleground between Russia and the West — and elsewhere in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
The scheme has only come to light through Skype chats and documents obtained by BuzzFeed News, Estonian newspaper Postimees, and investigative journalism outlet Re:Baltica via freedom of information laws, as part of a criminal probe into the individual who was Moscow’s man on the ground in Estonia.
The Skype logs and other files, obtained from computers seized by investigators, reveal the secrets and obfuscating tactics used by Russia as it tries to influence public opinion and push Kremlin talking points.
“In other words — information warfare.”
The websites, all called Baltnews, presented themselves as independent news outlets, but in fact, editorial lines were dictated directly by Moscow.
It was only immediately before or shortly after the publication of this article that the websites finally admitted to being owned and operated by the Russian state, as pointed out by news site Meduza. The Baltnews websites now include a disclaimer that says “The information agency BALTNEWS is registered with [Russia’s] Federal Service for the Supervision of Communications, Information Technologies, and Mass Communications (Roskomnadzor) as of Aug. 17, 2018,” and that the owner of the site is the international news agency Rossiya Segodnya. It's not clear when the disclaimer was added, but according to the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine it was not present on the Estonian site on Aug. 25.
Raul Rebane, a leading strategic communications expert in Estonia, said that this scheme and others like it are “systemic information-related activities on foreign territory. In other words — information warfare.”
He said that Russian propaganda networks in the Baltics had been operating for years but had become more intense recently.
“The pressure to turn [Estonia] from facing the West to facing the East has grown.”
Long before Russian interference in the 2016 US election became one of the biggest stories in the world, and Kremlin disinformation campaigns became a household issue, Moscow faced accusations of trying to influence public opinion in the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, which are all members of NATO.
The revelations about the websites in the Baltic states provide a rare and detailed inside look into how such disinformation campaigns work, and the lengths to which Moscow is willing to go to obscure its involvement in such schemes.
In the Baltics, Russia directly borders the European Union, and NATO has a big military presence, but perhaps most importantly the region is home to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians, mostly in Estonia and Latvia.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, he did so under the pretext of protecting the interests of “Russian speakers.” So in the Baltic states, Russian propaganda is a real and present fear, and explains why attempts by Moscow to influence public opinion are treated so seriously.
The records and Skype logs obtained offer an opportunity to see what it looks like when the curtain is pulled back on the inner workings of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine, on this occasion targeted at Russian speakers in the Baltics.
In early October 2014, Aleksandr Kornilov — a member of the Coordination Council of Russian Compatriots in Estonia, an organization known by its Russian acronym, KSORS that appears to be dealing with minority rights, such as Russian-language education, but is seen by Estonia’s counterintelligence agency as a tool of the Kremlin’s foreign policy — gave an interview to a news website in Lithuania called Delfi.lt, about the launch of three new websites in the Baltics.
Kornilov told the interviewer that the websites, being launched separately in Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia, would be independent portals steering clear of politics.
“The portal will be entertaining; you will not be rivals,” he told the reporter. “The concept — a normal, entertaining, nonpolitical portal.”
But the reality was very different. In fact, the websites were funded and directed from Moscow, by one of Russia’s largest state media agencies.
In a Skype chat obtained by BuzzFeed News and its reporting partners, Kornilov is ordered by an employee of Rossiya Segodnya — which runs the website and news agency Sputnik and the news agency RIA Novosti, and is closely connected to RT (formerly known as Russia Today) — to comply with a list of approved topics to cover.
“I have a task. Every day you need to report on three of the five topics that we will suggest.”
“San, reply please,” Aleksandr Svyazin demanded of Kornilov in June 2015, using a shortened version of his first name.
“Aleksandr, show up please!” he says later, growing impatient.
“Here,” Kornilov finally responds.
“San, hello! I have a task,” Svyazin says. “Every day you need to report on three of the five topics that we will suggest.”
After receiving the first list of topics, Kornilov replies in one word in Russian, “понятно” — “understood.”
The Skype logs suggest that Svyazin was Kornilov’s main point of contact throughout the scheme, as they sent each other thousands of messages over a two-year period and spoke with each other regularly concerning editorial matters for the website.
When contacted on Facebook by BuzzFeed News, Svyazin denied any connection to Sputnik or Baltnews. Svyazin did not respond when presented with a screenshot of a Skype chat — where his Skype avatar is visible — between him and Kornilov. However, in a subsequent Facebook message to a BuzzFeed News reporter, Svyazin referred all queries to the press office of Rossiya Segodnya.
This exchange between Kornilov and Svyazin, one of many revealed by the Skype logs, indicates the lack of independence of the websites, which, as the documents show, formed part of a propaganda operation orchestrated, funded, and managed by Rossiya Segodnya, as it set up outlets that acted as mouthpieces for Moscow in Europe.
Shortly after the Baltnews websites launched in October 2014 — three nearly identical websites hosted in Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania — the Rossiya Segodnya employee Svyazin, a bylined author on various Sputnik websites in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, told Kornilov on Skype to start sending weekly reports about notable upcoming events.
“Aleksandr, we ask you to send information about upcoming events for the following week. Can you do it? Send it on Sunday or Monday,” Svyazin said on Nov. 10.
“Information about what?” Kornilov asked.
“About the main upcoming events in the following week. You know, like ‘on Tuesday the government has a meeting, on Wednesday the government resigns, on Thursday a visit by Obama, on Friday still something else...’” Svyazin said.
“I don’t have such news like the meeting of the government, the collapse of it, or the visit by Obama,” Kornilov replied.
“That was an example,” Svyazin said. “Send what you have.”
By Nov. 19, Svyazin seemed more demanding.
“Aleksandr, a preview of significant events coming up next week is needed urgently. After another hour is already too late,” he wrote.
“I don’t have them,” Kornilov replied.
“But where can I get them from? I need to add them to the calendar by 4 p.m.”
Kornilov did not appear eager to compile the list of forthcoming events. The two continued discussing which events would suit the calendar, but over the following weeks, Svyazin had to repeatedly remind him to fulfill the duty.
On Dec. 18, Svyazin told Kornilov there was another order.
“We have a command to publish five surveys about Europe, conducted by a European company on the order of the Flagship [RIA Novosti]. The published materials need to include thorough comments by experts,” he told Kornilov. “Stay in contact — I will send the material a bit later.”
A day later, Svyazin, again on Skype, said they had decided to push publication forward to that same day.
The first survey Kornilov published said that almost half of people in the UK, France, and Germany wanted the EU to be more independent from the US, the second that most Europeans don’t believe the EU was independent when deciding on sanctions against Russia, and the third that there was a rising concern among European people about the level of the EU’s dependence on the US.
In February, Svyazin sent Kornilov a link to yet another RIA Novosti survey, about Americans having little trust in their police forces. This time, he didn’t even need to say that Kornilov should write his own version for Estonian Baltnews. “Most American people do not regard the police as a guarantee of their safety,” reads the headline published by Baltnews Estonia. Similar stories ran on the same day in the Latvian and Lithuanian versions of Baltnews.
All the surveys are described as being carried out by London-based ICM Research, which is referred to as “a well-known British polling company” in the original RIA Novosti stories. ICM Research, operating now under the name ICM Unlimited, told BuzzFeed News that it has never worked for RIA Novosti but did carry out some polling for Rossiya Segodnya/Sputnik that was published in 2015. “Unfortunately our records do not go back as far as 2015 therefore we cannot confirm whether the surveys [referred to in this story] were conducted by ICM or whether they have been misattributed to us,” said Gregor Jackson, the research director of the company.
In the June 2015 Skype conversation between Kornilov and Svyazin — where Svyazin asks Kornilov to “show up please!” — the Rossiya Segodnya employee mentioned a list of topics that Rossiya Segodnya demanded Baltnews.ee publish stories about.
The first daily list was sent the same day, June 19, and included topics like the widening of sanctions against Russia, asking questions about the possibility of Greece leaving the eurozone, and Putin’s face-to-face meetings at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.
From the beginning of July, some topics in the daily list started to have the Russian word обязательно — mandatory — attached to them in brackets. The mandatory topics were often those that showed tensions inside the EU or US, as well as those covering the conflict in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
Other areas of news that had to be covered included Greece not having repaid its debt to the International Monetary Fund, the cutting off of Crimea from Ukraine’s energy network, and a US Navy battleship entering the Black Sea.
The scheme worked like this: Money was channeled through shell companies outside of Russia, direct editorial orders were delivered via Skype, and the sites reported back the headlines they published, while they also bought clicks and tested buying comments from Russian troll factories to boost numbers.
The story and the true nature of the websites only came to light via a tax evasion and forgery criminal investigation into Kornilov — a 55-year-old Russian citizen described in public reports by Estonia’s counterintelligence agency KAPO as a Russian propagandist — and a freedom of information request in that country. Kornilov wasn’t convicted personally, but the NGO he set up and used in the schemes was, under Estonian law that allows for companies and other bodies to be prosecuted and convicted.
The documents reveal that Rossiya Segodnya set up the Russian-language news sites in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in October 2014 — six months after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and as the war between Russian-backed separatists and Ukraine waged in Eastern Ukraine.
The sites all had the same name — Baltnews — with only different country codes to distinguish their domain names. They were presented as independent media websites for the local Russian-speaking populations of each country. The partner for the project in Estonia was officially an NGO run by Kornilov called Altmedia, which he set up in 2010 to represent Russian speakers in the country.
When approached by BuzzFeed News for comment, Kornilov said that as he doesn’t work for Baltnews anymore, he is not prepared to answer journalists’ questions about the websites. “It’s not interesting for me anymore,” he said. Subsequent attempts to contact him were unsuccessful.
The first contract Altmedia signed relating to the websites was with a group called Media Capital Holding B.V. — based in the Netherlands and owned through several front companies by Rossiya Segodnya — on Aug. 18, 2014, at which point Altmedia became responsible for “the creation and promotion of media projects in Estonia and the Baltic States.”
According to a tax audit, part of the documents obtained via a freedom of information request, Atlmedia received 91,400 euros (about $107,000) in total in five separate monthly payments, four from Media Capital Holding and one from Barsolina Ventures, a company registered in Cyprus.
At the start of 2015, Altmedia began sending monthly traffic reports, including headlines of the most-read stories, to Barsolina Ventures. The reports, which were not signed, refer to a new contract dated Jan. 1, 2015. As part of the deal, Barsolina Ventures would pay 11,400 euros a month to Altmedia. This arrangement continued into 2016, the most recent year covered by the documents. Based on publicly available data, it appears that Altmedia continued receiving such funding up until spring this year, when Rossiya Segodnya pulled the plug on the operation. BuzzFeed News approached Rossiya Segodnya, RIA Novosti, and their press team for comment in three separate emails, but none were answered.
The next company to enter into an arrangement with Altmedia was SPN Media Solutions DOO Beograd, a company registered in Serbia. Documents from the Serbian business registry reveal that it was created on March 31, 2015, by OOO Media Kapital, another company owned through different intermediaries by Rossiya Segodnya in Russia.
SPN Media Solutions’ address is registered at law firm Stanisic’s office in an upmarket neighborhood in central Belgrade.
According to the company’s own financial reviews, it has no employees. But in the years 2015, 2016, and 2017, its annual turnover was around 3.5 million euros, with all revenue coming from “foreign markets.” According to the Serbian business registry, its managers since the company’s founding have each possessed passports, filed at the registry, that indicate they are Russian citizens.
Tanya Stanisic, a partner of the law firm that helped establish SPN Media and where the company’s address is registered, declined to comment. “Unfortunately, I cannot help you. I am not authorized to talk to you about the business of a client. Also, it is not allowed by the Code of Professional Ethics of Lawyers, starting from the privilege of confidentiality in the relations between the lawyer and the client,” she said in an email sent after BuzzFeed News went to the firm’s office for the third time.
SPN Media Solutions does not just have interest in Estonia. A Ukrainian court order from July obtained by BuzzFeed News quotes the Ukrainian security service (SBU) as saying the same company was secretly financing the Ukrainian branch of RIA Novosti.
The deputy head of the SBU, Viktor Kononenko, said in May that each month the Serbian company was transferring 53,000 euros “of Russian origin” to Ukrainian companies that funneled the money to the Russian state news agency’s branch in the country. Kononenko did not respond when contacted by BuzzFeed News for comment.
Kirill Vyshinsky, the head of RIA Novosti Ukraine, was arrested by the SBU in May, accused of treason and of running an information war against Ukraine for Russia. In the court order obtained by BuzzFeed News, RIA Novosti Ukraine is accused of hosting and distributing 16 anti-Ukraine articles that aimed to divide Ukrainian society, create separatist sentiments, and stir hatred between different ethnicities. Vyshinsky’s lawyer, Andriy Domanskyy, did not reply to an email seeking comment, but Vyshinsky has previously denied the charges.
The documents and Skype chats relating to how the scheme was operated and funded in Estonia relate to only that country, but the versions of Baltnews hosted in Latvia and Lithuania appear to be operated in a similar way — all three websites look identical, they were set up at the same time, and they published similar stories on the same day. Local security services in all three countries consider the websites to be part of the same operation.
In addition, the Latvian branch of Baltnews did file at least one monthly report to Barsolina Ventures, according to the documents obtained by BuzzFeed News.
The financial reports of Baltnews.lv show it had an annual turnover of 100,000 euros, but it displays little to no advertising and had no paid-for subscriptions.
The website’s editor-in-chief, Andrejs Jakovlevs, declined to comment, saying finances were not a matter for editorial staff. He said there was an information-sharing arrangement in place with RIA Novosti, but no money was exchanged, and no one ever told him what to write.
“Their goal is to extend Russia’s influence within Lithuania’s information space, promote anti-western sentiments, and shape public opinion favourable to Kremlin.”
But Latvia’s internal counterintelligence and security service, known by the acronym DP, said that according to its information, Baltnews.lv was financed from Russia using companies in third-party countries.
“The information obtained by [DP] indicates that money received from Russia was the main source of income for Baltnews.lv,” Ēriks Cinkus, deputy head of the DP, told BuzzFeed News.
Meanwhile in Lithuania, the country’s intelligence service, the VSD, identified Baltnews.lt and Sputnik as the channels through which Russia spreads pro-Kremlin messaging in the country.
“Their goal is to extend Russia’s influence within Lithuania’s information space, promote anti-western sentiments, and shape public opinion favourable to Kremlin,” wrote the VSD in its latest annual report.
The report said that in 2017, on the orders of Russia, Baltnews and Sputnik began publishing more articles about the status of the Polish community in Lithuania.
“They sought to incite ethnic confrontation and exacerbate relations between Lithuania and Poland. The publications tried to persuade the audience that Lithuania discriminates [against] the local Polish community or to make an impression that Poland ‘does not waive’ its territorial claims to its neighbours,” the report said.
Up until June 1 this year, the editor-in-chief of Baltnews.lt was Anatoly Ivanov, and financial data from a nonprofit run by him — named Eurasian Media Laboratory — shows he was receiving significant funding from Barsolina Ventures.
According to reports in the Lithuanian business registry, Eurasian Media Laboratory received roughly 500,000 euros in three years. In 2015 and 2016 Barsolina paid 163,200 euros to Eurasian Media Laboratory each year. And in 2017, the Eurasian Media Laboratory reported 185,472 euros’ worth of earnings, with the vast majority of it coming from Barsolina for “internet gateway services.” When contacted by phone by BuzzFeed News, Ivanov did not answer any questions regarding the payments.
“Young man, you probably didn’t hear me. I’m busy — there’s people at my office. You can ask whatever you want to. If you don’t understand me in Russian, I’ll say it in Lithuanian,” Ivanov said, switching from one language to another. “There are people sitting at my office. And I don’t want to waste my time.”
Asked again about the payments in the amount of 500,000 euros, he sighed and gave no further response before hanging up the phone.
“Young man, you probably didn’t hear me. I’m busy — there’s people at my office. You can ask whatever you want to.”
As well as providing the funding, Rossiya Segodnya also appears to have directly coordinated what topics all three Baltnews websites should cover. Not only does Baltnews seem far from the independent entertainment website Kornilov suggested to the Lithuanian news website Delfi, it also appears to have been just one cog in a much larger machine.
On May 25, 2016, Svyazin — probably in error — sent Kornilov a list of topics that appear to show the expected coverage of Kremlin-owned media across the former USSR: the Baltic states, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and the Russian-supported breakaway region of Ossetia in Georgia. Estonia has two separate entries in the list — one for Baltnews and the other for the local edition of Sputnik.
BuzzFeed News compared the list of topics with stories published in these countries that day and found that all but two of the local editions of Sputnik indeed published what was ordered. The Kyrgyzstan Sputnik wrote, as instructed, about local business tycoon Sharshenbek Abdykerimov secretly owning an apartment in the Tower, at the time London’s tallest residential skyscraper.
The Georgian Sputnik wrote, as it was asked, about the dress sense of the country’s female politicians, including plenty of examples and photos. In Moldova, the local Sputnik website was ordered to cover the dependence of the national currency on the Russian ruble, and the price of oil. It carried out the task by publishing a news piece headlined “The Diagnosis of Our Leu: Breaking Free of One Dependency Brings on Another.”
Sometimes, other people based in Russia directed the coverage. On July 20, 2015, a multimedia editor for Rossiya Segodnya demanded news stories on the troop and arms movements of the Eastern Ukrainian separatists. Similar coverage of mandatory topics was ordered regularly in the following months. The orders also came from a woman who introduced herself to Kornilov on Skype as Liana Minasyan and said she was the editor of a multimedia program “planning to deal with the Baltic countries.” Another person involved in directing the coverage in Estonia also appears to have traveled to Estonia to recruit journalists for the local Sputnik.
The Estonian counterintelligence agency KAPO identified Minasyan as the supervisor of the Estonian Sputnik office in 2015. “Rossiya Segodnya has been working to establish an office in Estonia and an Estonian and Russian-language portal for Sputnik since spring 2015,” KAPO revealed in its 2015 review, adding that “Liana Minasyan from Moscow” was among those overseeing the office. Last year Minasyan confirmed to Re:Baltica that she was responsible for all Sputnik websites in the Baltics, but denied being involved with Baltnews.
When approached again by BuzzFeed News for this story, Minasyan said she didn’t work with Baltnews or with the Baltic states at all anymore. “If you want, I will forward your question to my former colleague,” she said, and didn’t reply to follow-up questions.
The records show that Kornilov and Svyazin’s daily Skype sessions continued for months, with the two men sometimes arguing about the weekly and monthly traffic reports Kornilov was asked to file.
In one case, Kornilov says that a draft contract has an error in it — instead of saying “Estonian language” it says “Latvian language,” another indication that similar contracts were signed in each Baltic country.
Their conversations at times went beyond work — sometimes they complained about their bosses and the bureaucracy they were involved in. The records also show that they met several times in Russia.
From the beginning, Kornilov tried to weave an illusion of an independent news site. When the Lithuanian outlet Delfi.lt covered the launch of Baltnews, Kornilov presented himself as the publisher of all three sites. The domains in all three Baltic states were registered to his name at that time, but were soon re-registered to Media Capital Holding B.V. — the company registered in the Netherlands by Rossiya Segodnya proxies.
“The terms are confidential. I am the editor-in-chief and communicate directly with their representative in Estonia. Right?”
Immediately after the news story was published by Delfi, Kornilov held a conversation with Jevgeni Levik, a pro-Russian journalist in Estonia who was working at Baltnews as its first editor-in-chief but was fired by Kornilov shortly before the launch.
“Our official position is such: We are developing an interactive information project together with foreign investors,” Levik said prior to his dismissal, in a Skype chat obtained under freedom of information laws. They also discussed how to react if journalists asked about the sites’ investors.
“Maybe we should give them the name of the company. I am sure many would not decline to know about it. And all contacts? And prepare a business plan,” Kornilov replied, seemingly sarcastically.
Levik said, “If they ask who are the Dutchmen, I will reply that they are private people and it is a private commercial project. The terms are confidential. I am the editor-in-chief and communicate directly with their representative in Estonia. Right?”
“Yes. You should deal only with things in your competence. To be precise, people there are not private, but it is an investment fund,” Kornilov said.
Levik declined to comment when contacted by phone by BuzzFeed News. “It’s a four-year-old history. I was just a journalist,” he said.
He then demanded to be sent the excerpt of the article where he is mentioned ahead of publication. “I am warning you — it’s your duty,” Levik said. “And then I will say if I approve it to be published or not.”
What the Skype chat logs also reveal is that over several years the Estonian Baltnews inflated its website traffic by buying fake unique visitors from various Russian companies that offer such a service. A friend and assistant of Kornilov, Aleksandr Dorofeyev, approached one such company as early as October 2014, the same month Baltnews.ee launched. Dorofeyev didn’t say why he needed to pump up the traffic numbers.
“I’m thinking to first have a test with 2,000 [pageviews] and if everything is OK then [we’ll make a larger order] for 14,000 rubles [about $200 by today’s exchange rate]. Will these visitors be distributed evenly throughout the day? If I order 100,000 you will share them evenly throughout the month?” he asked under the Skype handle Раскрутка сайтов — Website Promotion.
It seems that the initial test went well, as Baltnews and the Russian web company continued doing business. Dorofeyev was told that 1 million pageviews would cost 10,990 rubles (roughly $160 by today’s exchange rate). The Skype logs indicate that he placed several orders over the next few months. In March 2015, Dorofeyev said that he was looking for a long-term arrangement, with one or two orders every week.
Most of the orders needed to be submitted via email or a designated website, but occasionally Dorofeyev also posted the orders directly on Skype. On Feb. 18, 2016, he asked for 20,000 pageviews spread across five days on four different stories, with a viewing time of between 90 and 120 seconds. One of the stories he wanted to artificially boost the audience for was headlined “NATO’s Help for Estonia Might Not Arrive in Time”; another was about a local far-right politician promising to fight against refugees.
The Skype chats show Dorofeyev did not stop at fake visitors: He also paid for fake comments from a troll factory for specific stories. The price per comment was nine rubles (just $0.13). At first, Dorofeyev ordered a practice run on another propaganda site that Kornilov and he ran privately, Baltija.eu.
“Let’s start with 50 comments from two different people. If everything works out, we can continue working together also on other sites and with a larger number of posts,” Dorofeyev instructed an individual named Artem who offered the troll factory service.
Dorofeyev, the Skype chats show, was interested if the troll factory could use different IPs for the fake comments. The service provider asked why. “We need unique IPs so that the owner would have no reason to think that something murky is going on, but that they are real unique visitors. In general, we need a crowd of people,” Dorofeyev replied.
“It’s a telling vicious circle of producing and financing propaganda, then referring to it as a genuine voice of local Russians.”
Artem, whose surname is not known, said that the company’s policy did not allow it to be involved in publishing comments on other sites. “We have copyright,” he said and directed Dorofeyev to the terms and conditions. But they still agreed to proceed with the test on Baltija.eu.
When approached by BuzzFeed News, Dorofeyev denied buying pageviews and comments. He said he only worked for Baltnews in Estonia as a daily editor: “I wrote and published the news I thought to be important and interesting.” He also rejected the notion that anyone had told him what to write about.
When told about Skype chat logs that show his involvement in artificially boosting traffic numbers, Dorofeyev said that he could also have a ticket to the moon, but “it wouldn’t prove that I actually went on the moon.” He declined to share his email address so the Skype logs he is featured in could be sent to him.
Harrys Puusepp, a superintendent and spokesperson at Estonia’s KAPO agency, told BuzzFeed News that the Baltnews scheme matches the modus operandi of other Kremlin propaganda operations and shows how their covert financial schemes are used to legitimize hostile propaganda.
“It’s a telling vicious circle of producing and financing propaganda, then referring to it as a genuine voice of local Russians, in order to use the distorted public image to support their foreign policy goals at international platforms,” Puusepp said.
The documents and Skype logs obtained by BuzzFeed News continue until summer 2016 — the time when the Estonian police seized Kornilov and his associates’ computers as part of the criminal investigation into document forgery. Public data suggests that the financing scheme of Baltnews continued well beyond that date. In 2016, after getting into trouble with Estonian tax authorities and the police, Kornilov changed the NGO he was using to run Baltnews. Instead of Altmedia, he started using a new NGO named Baltnewsmedia.
According to the financial review of Baltnewsmedia, it received 136,800 euros’ worth of donations in 2016. The review doesn’t specify the source of the donations, but they amount to exactly 11,400 euros a month — the sum Barsolina Ventures used to send to Altmedia. In 2017, the donation went up to 155,508 euros.
On June 1 this year, a brief message was posted on all three Baltnews sites, saying that due to a change of publisher, a new editorial team was to be formed. The same day, Kornilov posted a message on Facebook saying his team had ended its association with Baltnews. “Thank you to everyone who was with us for those four years,” he wrote.
Four days later, he reached a plea deal with the Estonian prosecutor’s office. While Kornilov managed to avoid a conviction for tax fraud and forgery of documents, Altmedia, the NGO he founded and used when publishing Baltnews, was convicted — allowing Kornilov to keep a clean record personally, although the court verdict clearly states his role in arranging and running a tax evasion scheme and document forgery.
The Latvian Baltnews website, when contacted via its general email address for comment, directed all questions to the press office of Rossiya Segodnya. Emails sent there remain unanswered.
Baltnews continues to be published in all three Baltic countries. ●
Additional reporting by Šarūnas Černiauskas and Paulius Gritėnas in Lithuania, Vesna Radojević in Serbia, and Vlad Lavrov in Ukraine.