The Spanish-language article with a Moscow dateline and a provocative headline first appeared in early August, suggesting a heist of sorts was underway in Ukraine.
“Why are sacred objects being transferred to the West from Ukraine?” it asked, describing an effort to send Ukrainian religious relics to the United States and other countries to plunder Ukraine’s riches under the guise of saving them from destruction in the war between Kyiv and Moscow.
But according to U.S. officials, the real ruse was the article itself, an early example of a Russian influence operation aimed at winning hearts and minds for the Russian cause across Latin America.
Even the author, listed as Nadia Schwarz, may be a figment of someone’s imagination.
I honestly don't know if that's a real name or not,” a U.S. State Department official told VOA, describing the article as “just a blatant falsehood.”
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss details of the Russian influence operation, said it is difficult to know whether the article gained any traction.
The organization that published the article, Pressenza, does not show page views on its website. And a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, managed only 24 views.
The U.S. official said the lack of attention is just proof the Russian operation is still “in its early stages.”
“It hasn't really gotten off the ground,” the official said. “What they would have originally done with this article, the type of amplification they would have probably liked to see – the full infrastructure isn't there.”
And that, the official said, is why the U.S. decided to go public, issuing a statement earlier this month, describing the Russian operation in detail.
The State Department described the Russian effort as an “on-going, well-funded disinformation campaign” spanning at least 13 countries, from Argentina and Chile in the south all the way up to Mexico in the north.
The plan, according to U.S. officials, was to have Russian public relations and internet companies recruit and cultivate Latin American journalists, influencers and public opinion leaders, to seed their publications and broadcasts with content favorable to Moscow while hiding any links to the Kremlin.
“They've been somewhat successful in using RT [Russia Today] and Sputnik in Latin America,” said State Department Global Engagement Center Special Envoy and Coordinator James Rubin.
“The difference here is they're trying to operate surreptitiously. They're trying to create content in Russia and launder it through Latin American journalists,” Rubin told VOA. “They are covertly co-opting local media and influencers to spread disinformation and propaganda.”
In addition to Pressenza, which is based in Italy and Ecuador, and which publishes in eight languages, including Spanish, Portuguese and English, the alleged network includes Chile’s El Ciudadano news site, as well as websites serving Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela.
U.S. officials said it is unclear how many of the journalists and opinion leaders are aware they are being fed Russian disinformation, though a senior State Department official told VOA, “There are definitely some willing participants.”
Others involved in the network may be so-called “useful idiots” – sympathetic to the Russian viewpoints but unaware that the directions are coming from Moscow.
Both Pressenza and El Ciudadano deny the U.S. allegations.
“Pressenza is a newspaper that, over the years, has attempted to give voice to those who, with regard to these fields, oppose rearmament processes, militarization processes, and wars,” Pressenza’s Antonio Mazzeo was quoted as saying in the publication’s response earlier this week.
“I fear a crackdown, a restriction of freedom of expression,” Mazzeo added. “This is what should make any citizen worry.”
El Ciudadano’s Oleg Yasinsky similarly rejected the U.S. accusations.
“Suddenly they realized that some independent journalists from a faraway country wrote something without consulting them,” Yasinsky wrote, according to a Google translation of his response.
“Why does the State Department care about what is published in Latin America?” Yasinsky added. “Their media and social networks control the media space of most of the world to expose our insidious plots. Isn't that enough?”
But U.S. officials accuse Yasinsky, who identifies himself as a Ukrainian, as the point man for the Russian influence operation.
Yasinsky is “the key figure here… that is really trying to orchestrate this, that is trying to build this network of potential useful idiots,” the state department official told VOA, saying that he appears to be based in Chile though he has also operated from Europe.
The State Department’s note earlier this month said it is Yasinsky who maintains and leverages the nascent network of Spanish and Portuguese speaking journalists critical to laundering the Russian disinformation to pass it off as local news and opinion.
U.S. officials though, say the content comes directly from three companies all with ties to the Kremlin: the Social Design Agency (SDA), the Institute for Internet Development, and Structura.
The three companies develop topics for news articles in line with Moscow’s priorities, write them in Spanish and then seed them throughout their Latin American network, where local journalists and editors make sure the language has a local flavor that is more likely to be accepted by readers and, perhaps, get picked up by more mainstream news outlets.
U.S. officials said some of the early efforts have even involved booking journalists or analysts on radio programs to talk about their reporting.
“They're trying to diffuse this information through multiple sources,” the State department official said. “They really want to space it out and they want to make it look organic.”
Like Pressenza and El Ciudadano, Russia has also dismissed the U.S. claims.
“The U.S. administration once again unfounded blames Russia for all sins,” according to a post on the Russian embassy’s Telegram channel.
“It attributes to us the use of its favorite method — interference in the internal political processes of independent states,” the embassy said. “The reason for this is simple: the United States is losing popularity in this region, due to neocolonial aspirations and attempts to impose its will on others.”
U.S. officials, however, said the reason they sounded the alarm about the influence operation is so the people targeted by the Russian linked actors can decide for themselves.
“We want to make sure that throughout the region that all the relevant stakeholders, the academic organizations, the think tanks, the NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], and especially the journalists themselves know about this operation so that they can judge what they see and what they read and what they hear with an understanding that the Russians may be secretly manipulating the situation,” said Rubin.