#ElectionWatch: Death Threats to Russian Opposition Leader Spread

How a conspiracy theory that Alexey Navalny will soon be killed by Ukrainian Security Services spread

Left: Yury Kot (Source: Facebook); right: Alexey Navalny (Source: Politnavigator).

On December 25, the Russian Central Election Committee (CEC) ruled that one of the Kremlin’s fiercest opponents, Alexey Navalny, is not eligible to run for president in elections to be held on March 18. The decision was expected, but not official, since Navalny announced his intention to run for president in December 2016.

In June 2017, the head of the CEC, Ella Pamfilova, told Russian language channel TV Rain that Navalny could not be registered as a candidate due to his conviction in the so-called “Kirovles” (“Kirov wood”) legal case. According to the conviction, Navalny had helped to steal ten thousand square meters of wood that belonged to Kirov state. 
 
Navalny and his supporters do not agree with the ban on running for president. On January 27, as promised, Navalny’s team called for a boycott of the elections and started to organize country-wide protests for January 28.

Theory about Navalny’s assassination

Two days after Navalny’s call to boycott the elections, Ukrainian and pro-Kremlin television personality Yury Kot published a Facebook post, which suggested the Ukrainian Security Service was preparing a plan to assassinate Navalny.

https://www.facebook.com/yurykotkot/posts/1757956500890814

The post read:

Another source from the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) confirmed that Ukrainian security servicemen murdered Nemtsov, and on the same day quietly fled to Kiev from Moscow …

Do not underestimate the level of training of the Security Service.

I’ll say more, the source whispered to me that a new diversion is being prepared …

Lyosha [Alexey — ed.] Navalny is the next who should be loudly dismissed with accusations against the Kremlin.

Today, the SSU is the command and control center for sabotage in Russia, run by the CIA. Do you think that the fields near Rostov were set on fire? And who organized the telephone sabotage in Moscow? There will be more.

They will not do it themselves, but with the hands of fanatics from right-wing radical groups. Voronenkov can serve as an example.

Ponomarev binds these two events to each other. Ilya was not only involved in the murder of Voronenkov, since he brought him to the spot where the crime was committed. Ponomaryov is also a source of funding for the opposition, allegedly by Khodorkovsky’s money, which goes to Russia through Ukraine. And one of the still recognizable and untwisted oppositionists is Lesha Navalny, who receives money from Ponomarev. He, an idiot, does not even understand that his masters have already sentenced him to the slaughter.

Lyosha. You perfectly know that I’m right. That the money come from Ponomarev exactly to you. Bear in mind that they have sentenced you already and have planned for your sacral abolition before elections to accuse Putin.

In the post, Kot referred to the assassination of a different Russian opposition politician, former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, who was killed in Moscow on February 27, 2015, as well as the assassination of former Russian Member of Parliament (MP) Denis Voronenkov, who fled to Ukraine and was shot dead in Kyiv on March 23, 2017.

According to another former Russian MP, Ilya Ponomarev, who also fled to Ukraine after opposing Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2015, Voronenkov was indeed coming to meet him just before he was shot. Ponomarev is also known for his sympathies to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an exiled Russian businessman, philanthropist, and former oligarch, and for his opposition to Vladimir Putin’s regime. 
 
 Kot himself is a controversial personality. He used to be a TV presenter and a “voice” of Ukrainian TV channel “Inter”. In 2014 he was a host of the “Antimaidan” rallies, which supported Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych against massive, pro-Europe street protests. Then he moved to Russia. He is known for his pro-Moscow and anti-Kyiv sentiment. For instance, in October, 2017 he wrote an opinion on pro-Kremlin media “News Front” suggesting that Ukraine is the aggressor, not Russia. Kot’s opinions are oftentimes shared not only on “News Front”, but also on such pro-Kremlin media outlets in Ukraine as “Politnavigator” and “Ukraina.ru”, pro-Kremlin media “Rambler”, and “TV Zvezda” which is run by the Russian Ministry of Defense.

Though the people Kot mentions are real, it is hard to verify if Kot’s anonymous source exists, and if so, if the source’s forecast is true. He also does not offer any connection between SSU and Ponomarev.

The spread

At the time of this report, the post had garnered 334 impressions, 130 shares, and 55 comments. This is a low level of direct impact.

Despite the low direct impact, it did not stop there. @DFRLab identified at least six Russian websites, which used Kot’s Facebook post for an original article (green boxes below). None of the identified websites are considered mainstream Russian media outlets.

(Source: @DFRLab)

An article published on “Politnavigator” was republished the most. Fourteen other websites and blogs copied its text verbatim. The article started with a different lead sentence followed by a verbatim facsimile of Kot’s post.

The lead sentence read:

SSU is preparing the murder of Aleksei Navalny with an aim of destabilizing the situation in Russia on the eve of the presidential elections. The ex-leader of Kiev Antimaidan Yury Kot published this claim in his blog.

According to web analysis tool Buzzsumo, the “Politnavigator” article was shared via social media 390 times.

(Source: Buzzsumo)

Another website, pro-vesti.ru, achieved a similar impact with the same content with 396 shares via social media. Again, the substance of the article was very similar to the “Politnavigator” article.

Both websites used the same image of Navalny to illustrate the articles.

The sigh on the image reads “I serve the United States of America”. Left (source: Politnavigator); right (source: pro-vesti.ru).

The third most popular article about Kot’s post, according to Buzzsumo, was published on a website titled “Antifashist”.

(Source: Antifashist)

The article started with brief editorial, which read:

Do not underestimate the SSU, especially when it works in conjunction with US intelligence services. Well, there is no reason to doubt the possibilities and meanness of the two.

They have never avoided dirty means, to achieve their goals. To destabilize the situation in Russia before the presidential elections, the SSU is preparing the murder of Alexei Navalny. Public figure, journalist, and ex-leader of Kiev Anti-Maidan Yury Kot published such information on his blog.

Articles published on websites called “Harkov” and “Anna News” shared the same content with slight wording discrepancies. Whereas, an article on “Russkaya Narodnaya Liniya” written by Andrey Soshenko provided broader analysis on why Kot’s alleged source from Ukrainian Security Services might be right. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that the article gained any traction.

Conclusion

The speculative post by Ukrainian TV personality Yury Kot on Facebook about Ukrainian state authorities planning to kill Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny raised some attention on Russian fringe media outlets and social media. However, no mainstream Russian media outlet amplified the post that was based on a single, anonymous source. The subject on whom the speculation is focused, Alexey Navalny, and his team did not address the rumors.

Kot’s allegation of a plot by the U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence apparatus to assassinate Navalny is wildly conspiratorial and fits into the realm of anti-Western propaganda, rather than journalism or reporting.

Nevertheless, a month before the Voronenkov’s murder, a Russian Military expert named Aleksandr Zhilin predicted Voronkeov’s death in a similar post on Facebook. He referred to the episode before it occurred as the SSU’s “sacred sacrifice”. At the time Voronenkov’s murder happened, it was widely speculated to be at the hands of a contract killer by Russia.

The main question is whether Kot’s unverified post was an effort to prepare a narrative ahead of an entirely different threat to Navalny. This question cannot, at present, be answered. However, Navalny will remain a thorn in the Kremlin’s side as the March 18 election approaches. The last time he called for nationwide protests against government corruption, demonstrators turned out in over 100 cities across Russia, with thousands taking to the streets in Moscow.

Given the fate of Nemtsov, threats to Navalny security cannot be ruled out entirely.

@DFRLab will continue monitoring the digital engagement space and election-related issues prior to Russia’s presidential elections in March 2018.


Nika Aleksejeva is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.