Blazing Sun, a military film that praises Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea and helped establish Russian President Vladimir Putin’s excuse for invading Ukraine last month, was released in August 2021 by a film firm linked to Russia’s propaganda machine. The movie portrays Russian mercenaries as saviours who stop Ukraine’s leadership from perpetrating genocide on its own people, echoing Putin’s claim that he invaded Ukraine to ‘prevent genocide’ and ‘denazify’ the country.
It’s the latest example of a new breed of Russian propaganda that includes dozens of videos of allegedly faked Ukrainian attacks on Russian citizens, videos depicting a joint FBI-NYPD raid on a New York movie theatre that the venue claims never happened, and repurposed Cameo videos of Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump Jr. unwittingly congratulating a fictional film character on his achievements.
The man behind the camera is Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch dubbed “Putin’s chef” who was recently sanctioned by the US and the EU for assisting in the “disinformation campaign” against Ukraine. His apparent objective is to rewrite Russia’s history in order to influence the future.
Since at least 2013, Prigozhin, one of Putin’s closest confidants, is thought to have been at the vanguard of Russia’s disinformation organisation. He’s on the FBI’s Most Wanted list because he “supposedly managed and approved” the country’s infamous troll factory, the Internet Research Agency’s “political and electoral interference operations.” He’s also been linked to the Russian mercenary company Wagner, which European security officials suspect played a role in the invasion last month.
The US Treasury Department added Prigozhin’s wife, daughter, and son to a list of Russian elites sanctioned for disinformation activities related to the invasion of Ukraine last week. Meanwhile, the involvement of his films in Russia’s propaganda campaign has largely gone unnoticed.
Since mid-2020, the St. Petersburg–based film firm Aurum LLC, which has Prigozhin listed as a co-owner on Russian business documents, has produced at least seven feature films that fictionalise Russia’s global adventures using Hollywood production techniques.
The Shugaley trilogy, for example, claims to be based on the true story of Maxim Shugaley, who was imprisoned in Libya in 2019 for reportedly attempting to elect Muammar Gaddafi’s fugitive son. Shugaley is portrayed as a persecuted sociologist battling for freedom against a corrupt regime in the trilogy. This story was then picked up by Russia’s foreign ministry, which used it to lobby for Shugaley’s release in late 2020.
Another Aurum film, Blazing Sun, lays out the “denazification” story that would subsequently be used to legitimise Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. According to Vladislav Berdichevsky, a pro-Kremlin foreign policy and information strategist, the video “struck Ukraine” like a “information bomb” when it was released last August. The film’s strategy resembles the Biden administration’s warning that Russia would employ “a very vivid propaganda video” with actors and expensive production techniques as an excuse for an invasion.
“It’s very, very spooky to see how perfectly that movie’s narrative aligns with the tale being pushed by the Russian state right now,” said Jack Margolin of the Center for Advanced Defense Studies in Washington, D.C. He believes the film is part of a bigger effort “to vilify Ukrainians as either Nazis or Western pawns, and hence justify intervention.” The Ukrainian government appears to agree, since it banned the filmography of over 30 performers and staff members engaged in the production in November, claiming national security concerns.
“It’s eerie to observe how well the plot of that film corresponds to the story being promoted by the Russian government right now.”
Following the invasion, internet posters for the film were strewn throughout Russian propaganda sites alongside banner ads for a “Stop Nazism” hotline, encouraging Ukrainians to “tell the truth about all the crimes that are happening now and have been happening for the past eight years.” By March 2022, the film’s voyage had come full circle, with another senior member in Russia’s military arsenal, Lt. Col. Andrey Marochko, telling Russian media that Ukrainian forces should be shown the film since they had been in a “information vacuum.”
The misinformation campaign is timed to coincide with the Kremlin’s recent crackdown on Russia’s independent news outlets. For months, Prigozhin and other lesser-known Russian figures, such as Shugaley and anti-globalization activist Alexander Ionov, have filed a slew of complaints and lawsuits against independent Russian news outlets like Meduza and Ekho Moskvy, with some of them being labelled “foreign agents” and having their ability to work within Russia restricted. Last year, Prigozhin told Meduza that “foreign operatives” should be slain because they are “enemies of the people.”
Russia’s State Duma passed a broad new law last week prohibiting all content that contradicts the Kremlin’s official narrative on Ukraine. According to the New York Times, the crackdown has resulted in some Ukrainians receiving retaliation from Russian relatives who believe Putin’s claim.
Maria Butina, a member of the State Duma who was sentenced in the United States in 2018 for operating as a Kremlin unregistered agent, told BuzzFeed News that she thought the new rule was necessary since “false news and giving people untruthful and fraudulent information is very harmful.” “Those who flout the law are criminals [and] should be in jail,” she said.
Butina revealed that she is currently advising Shugaley’s pro-Kremlin think tank, the Foundation for the Protection of National Values, which the US Treasury Department sanctioned last year for allegedly “helping Prigozhin’s global influence activities.”
When Prigozhin was contacted for reply, he mocked our queries and threatened to ban any further inquiry.
If Blazing Sun demonstrates how Prigozhin’s films exploit and influence real-world events, the promotional campaign for another recent Prigozhin film demonstrates the sophistication of Russia’s troll methods.
The 16th, which will be released in November 2021, expands Prigozhin’s filmography to include caustic comedy. The Internet Research Agency is recreated in the film as a tiny group of toy factory workers who must devise a series of increasingly bizarre schemes to repay a debt, but unwittingly affect the 2016 US presidential election in Donald Trump’s favour.
The film’s marketing effort made use of social media platforms in the United States to share and promote videos that appear to legitimise Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Surprisingly, it also contained home films of Donald Trump Jr. and Rudy Giuliani that were repurposed to appear as if they were applauding the film’s fictional protagonist on his achievement, which were purchased via Cameo. The content was then utilised to create headlines for dozens of Russian-language government news websites.
One video, tweeted on Nov. 6 by a Twitter account known as Jay Belichick, purported to show a joint raid by the FBI and the NYPD on New York’s Angelika Film Center during the film’s premiere screening, complete with a dozen agents and at least one attendee being forcibly taken from their seat. A Twitter user named Jason Devine shared a second video of the identical occurrence twenty-two minutes later, apparently recorded from a different seat in the theatre.
Within hours, stories with headlines like “New York Police Disrupted Prigozhin’s Film Premiere” and “Militiamen Interfered With Prigozhin’s Film Premiere” began appearing on sites like Riafan.ru, Polit.info, and other prominent outlets that are part of Patriot Media Group, a Russian media conglomerate whose board of trustees is led by Prigozhin.
“The Angelika did not hold any such showing of a film with any form of this title,” a spokeswoman for the theatre told BuzzFeed News. “Based on the clip, this is clearly not our location.” (Requests for comment from the FBI and the NYPD were not returned.) “Prigozhin-linked entities create bogus social media accounts and then insert produced quotes from these accounts into ideologically aligned news sites,” according to the report.
A reverse image search finds that Belichick’s Twitter profile photo and bio belong to Jay Mula, an Atlanta–based radio presenter who recently lost access to the account after it was hacked, according to BuzzFeed News. Mula’s account had been hacked, but there was no indication of Russian involvement, according to Twitter. Four connected accounts that promoted the video were subsequently suspended by the site, including one that had belonged to a Guyanese woman who died in 2018. The site declined to comment further, citing its spam policy and platform manipulation.
“Prigozhin-linked groups build false social media profiles, then insert produced quotes from these accounts into ideologically aligned news outlets,” Shelby Grossman, a leading research scholar at Stanford Internet Observatory, explained. “It’s the latest instrument in Prigozhin’s deceitful propaganda arsenal. We’ve seen Prigozhin-connected groups create bogus Twitter accounts for this reason, in order to spread false information about Syria, the Central African Republic, and Libya.”
Grossman observed in a recent study that Twitter has just terminated a network of 50 accounts widely linked to Prigozhin’s troll factory for similar activity. Despite the fact that none of the tweets received a lot of attention, the study concluded that the opinion they supplied “might be pushed out to whole new audiences to represent supposed points of view from actual people about significant and often contested political and policy matters.”
“The cat-and-mouse game [Prigozhin] is playing with the platforms and the necessity to develop to escape discovery,” Grossman told BuzzFeed News, “may be in part due to the recent rise of such tactics.”
Unsuspecting celebrities like Charlie Sheen and Dolph Lundgren recorded words of support for characters from Prigozhin’s flicks, sparking more headlines back home, according to BuzzFeed News. (A request for comment from Sheen and Lundgren was not returned.)
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Donald Trump Jr. and Rudy Giuliani are now on the scene.
In November, the two men recorded personal videos that were recast to make it appear they were celebrating “Uncle Nick,” an entirely fictional character in The 16th who, at 6 years old, single-handedly outwits the entire FBI and destroys American democracy.
In one of two recordings dedicated to the fictional character, Giuliani says, “Never quit your course, and America will be proud of you.” “Never quit your course, and America will be proud of you,” Rudy Giuliani says in a guest appearance.
Donald Trump Jr. in a Cameo message: “Keep helping your brother to stand for what’s right and I hope you get that new house.”
As with Belichick’s tweet, the videos were later embedded into stories published across Patriot Media’s network of state media sites. “The ex-president’s son and politician Giuliani congratulated ‘Uncle Nick’ from the movie ‘16th’ on his birthday,” read one headline on Rueconomics.ru. A photo caption on the article claimed that the men were inspired to record their videos after being “among the first viewers of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s film ‘16th.’”
Giuliani’s Cameo page reveals that his video was in fact a paid commission. Cameo did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
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