Russian propaganda has been trying for years to conceal the Kremlin’s hostile actions against Georgia by sowing discord between Georgia’s neighbour and partner countries.
On 28 October 2019, one of the largest cyber attacks was conducted against Georgia and the ProService company’s server was among the targets. Websites of the government agencies, private businesses and media outlets are hosted on the aforementioned company’s servers. As a result of the cyber attack, nearly 15,000 websites were disrupted, including the websites of the President of Georgia, courts, city councils and a variety of NGOs and media services. The main pages of the websites were altered during the attack and a photo of the third president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, was used to deface them. This photo appeared on targeted websites with the following caption: “I’LL BE BACK.”
On 29 October, the pro-Russian media outlet, Saqinform, blamed the cyber attack on the former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, and a group of his hackers. The following day, Saqinform’s editor-in-chief, Arno Khidirbegishvili, published an article where he claimed that given the scale of the cyber attack, it was conducted not only with Mikheil Saakashvili’s guidance but with American support as well. Arno Khidirbegishvili blamed American high-ranking officials and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for conducting the cyber attack. According to Mr Khidirbegishvili’s version, the cyber attack aimed to put Mikheil Saakashvili back in power.
The falseness of Saqinform’s information, blaming the USA; in particular, the CIA, for conducting the cyber attack, was proven by the statements of the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the UK on 20 February 2020. In cooperation with its Western partners, Georgia found out that the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation was responsible for the massive cyber attack conducted on 28 October 2019. The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), which was a part of investigation efforts, found that Russia’s military intelligence service (GRU) carried out a massive and disruptive cyber attack on 28 October 2019. Apart from the USA and the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, Poland, Latvia, Australia, Canada, Montenegro, Estonia and Lithuania also declared Russia responsible for conducting the cyber attack against Georgia. Saqinform also reported the statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs although the news agency did not refute the previously circulated fake news. On the contrary, on 2 March 2020, in his interview published in Saqinform, Arno Khidirbegishvili stated that blaming Russia for the cyber attack was “fake.” Mr Khidirbegishvili opined that Georgia and its Western partners could not produce evidence of Russian involvement in the cyber attack. Arno Khidirbegishvili has also criticized the UK’s statement which says that the GRU was “almost certainly” behind the attack (the UK gives a 95%+ probability which reflects hypothetical error). Arno Khidirbegishvili argued that blaming Russia for the cyber attack was stipulated by the motivation to foil Sergey Lavrov’s potential visit to Georgia as a part of the Council of Europe’s ministerial meeting and claimed that Mike Pompeo’s statement, where the US Secretary of State put the responsibility on the GRU for the cyber attack against Georgia, was groundless. In the same article, Mr Khidirbegishvili also stated that Sergey Lavrov has not visited Tbilisi since 2003; that is, from President Saakashvili’s coming to power. This is a factual error since Sergey Lavrov visited Georgia in 2008 to attend Mikheil Saakashvili’s inauguration. However, Arno Khidirbegishvili’s claim, where he puts the blame on Mikheil Saakashvili for organizing the cyber attack, is more “massive.” Mr Khidirbegishvili tries to corroborate his claim by the fact that Mikheil Saakashvili did not repudiate his [Mr Khidirbegishvili’s] previous statements.
The News Front online media outlet, notorious for its efforts to circulate Russian propaganda, has also commented upon the results of the investigation of the cyber attack. The media outlet rejected accusations against Russia and tied the publication of the investigation results to the Davit-Gareji issue. News Front’s article, “Fooling Georgians – Bertuban in Exchange for Display of “Friendship in Baku,” reads: “The Government of Georgia, which fools itself and speaks about the cyber attack ostensibly conducted by the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, does not utter a word about forcibly ceding part of Davit-Gareji (in particular, at least Bertubani) to Azerbaijan.”
Gulbaat Rtskhiladze, founder of the Eurasian Institute, made a similar comment in his interview with the Georgia and the World newspaper. Mr Rtskhiladze says that cyber attack did not intend to steal information and, therefore, accusing the Russian Federation’s General Staff of “hooliganism” is groundless. To Mr Rtskhiladze, blaming Russia for the cyber attack was to overshadow the Davit-Gareji issue. Gulbaat Rtskhiladze offers the same explanation in the report published by Estonia’s Foreign Intelligence Service which assesses Russia’s interference in Georgia’s 2020 parliamentary elections as highly likely. The founder of the Eurasian Institute states that the aforementioned report is interference in Georgia’s internal affairs. Georgia and the World devoted another article to the results of the investigation of the cyber attacks, entitled “What is ‘Decent Membership of the Western Family’ – Can Anybody Explain?,” which highlights the lack of evidence against Russia.
The Kremlin seeks to conceal its hostile actions by portraying neighbour countries as enemies of the Georgian people. In that regard, the pro-Russian media often seeks to push forward the issue of Tao-Klarjeti, a historically Georgian territory, and declare that it being under Turkish jurisdiction is occupation. Using Davit-Gareji to create the image of Azerbaijan as an enemy and occupier of Georgia is a part of a similar scenario.
Therefore, New Front and Georgia and the World disseminating fake news about Davit-Gareji was an effort to obscure Russia’s cyber attack. This is clearly evident in their article, entitled “The Government of Georgia Remembers the Snows of Yesteryear – 28 October Cyber Attacks – Exactly Today When People Discuss the Fate of Davit-Gareji in Social Networks.” On top of circulating false information about Davit-Gareji, News Front denies the reality found by the investigation and writes:
“It is of no surprise that Russia and its military apparatus was again proclaimed as ‘guilty’ because that is handy for ‘international partners’ and it was they who found that ‘“truth.’ The moment is also selected – Part of Davit-Gareji is to be officially ceded to Azerbaijan.”
It is natural that the US and the UK’s embassies promptly responded to the publication of the investigation results. Supposedly, people who ordered directing the attention to Russia are sitting in exactly those embassies.
Russia’s Official Statements in Regard to the Cyber Attack
News Front’s fake news is in line with the statements of Moscow which denies interference in Georgia’s internal affairs and says that Georgia’s accusations are a “staged information lie” and a “propagandist action.” Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the allegations were politically motivated and highlighted the synchronised actions of the USA, the UK, Georgia and other countries. In addition, Russia blamed Georgia for demonising Russia.
Grigori Karasin, Senator of Russia’s Federal Assembly and representative of Russia in the Prague-based Abashidze-Karasin dialogue, commented upon the statement of the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As stated by Mr Karasin, facts about the investigation had not been presented and all of that was only propaganda. The Russian embassy in Canada stated that blaming Russia for the aforementioned cyber attack was “yet another Russophobic step” whilst according to the statement of the Russian embassy in the US, American diplomacy transitioned from professionalism to tabloid journalism which is proven by blaming Russia without evidence. In addition, Российская газета, (Russian Newspaper – rg.ru) stated that the decision of Tbilisi, London, Washington and Warsaw to put the blame on Russia was an “anti-Russian” allegation. News Front is notorious for putting emphasis on Russophobia which is one of the Kremlin’s propagandist messages (see article 1, article 2 and article 3).
This rhetoric of the Kremlin was echoed by another pro-Russian media outlet – the Georgian office of Sputnik. Sputnik’s information in regard to the cyber attack reads that Vladimir Konstantinidi, Press Speaker of the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, did not present any evidence proving Russia’s involvement in the cyber attack. In addition, Sputnik published an interview with Vitaliy Vekhov (a Russian professor, expert and former police colonel) which he gave to Sputnik radio where he ruled out the possibility of Russia’s cyber attack against Georgia. Mr Vekhov opines that had this operation been orchestrated by the Armed Forces, it would have been accomplished at a higher professional level. Mr Vekhov also expressed his presumption that someone conducted the attack on purpose to later blame it on someone else. Sputnik has also prepared a video in regard to that topic, entitled “Do You Miss the News From the World of ‘Almighty Russian Hackers?’ The West and its Allies will Take Care of It.” The video featured excerpts from the statements of Russia’s official bodies whilst Sputnik’s editorial office in turn continued to repeat that Georgia did not produce any evidence, although its Western allies were not in need of them anyway. For Sputnik, blaming Russia for the cyber attack resembled another act of information warfare. Sputnik also claimed that blaming Russia for the cyber attack was linked to the US intelligence community’s report on the threats of Russia’s interference in the US elections. According to Sputnik, that report claimed that Moscow had already launched efforts to support Donald Trump’s re-election for the second term, although evidence was classified and still based on the “highly likely” principle.
News Front derogatorily commented upon the supportive statements of Estonia and Denmark in its article entitled “From the Series: ‘Dread Russia!’ Estonia will Hold Moscow Accountable for Georgia:”
“A fly on the wheel, which is Estonia in this case, through its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, commented upon the disruption of the government websites last year. That, according to ‘Western partners,’ was carried out by the General Staff of the Russian Army… Together with Estonia, the Kingdom of Denmark, with its Greenland, also frightens Russia.”
Russian Media’s Response to Blaming Russia for the Cyber Attack
Russian media’s coverage of the cyber attack was manipulative. For instance, the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper also commented upon the cyber attack. The author of the news item, published on the newspaper’s website, stated that Georgia managed to obtain US support and they condemned Russia without evidence whilst the US did not miss a chance to again blame Russia for an internet security “crime.”. The Russian media agency, rbc.ru, stated that the statement of the American diplomats comprised unfounded allegations.
One of the main mouthpieces of Russian propaganda in the world, Russia Today, writes that evidence implicating Russia has not been produced. The statement of the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was almost immediately followed by the statements from the UK and the US which unveiled more details as compared to their Georgian counterparts. Russia Today calls this a propaganda mechanism and quotes Russian experts to corroborate its position. According to them, Georgia does not have sufficient cyber capabilities and, therefore, the “investigation” and the idea to blame Russia were implanted from Western countries; in particular, from the US. This is in line with the version in News Front’s article that the USA and the UK promptly responded to Georgia’s statement and it was under their order to blame Russia. As stated by the “experts,” it was not the first case of blaming Russia without evidence and it was guided by the principle of Goebbels that more you repeat a lie, the more people will come to believe it. Regnum.ru also assessed blaming Russia for the cyber attack as cyber warfare and propaganda. Georgia does not deny the involvement of the UK and the US in the investigation; therefore, the Russian experts have no argument here. The Kremlin’s disinformation machine manipulatively portrays the investigation results to cover Russia’s blame for the cyber attack and seeks to explain it with the primary strategic thesis of the Russian propaganda – Western Russophobia.
Identical Messages from the Kremlin, Russian Media and Their Georgian Acolytes
Russia’s implication in the cyber attack and publicising the results of the investigation jointly run by Georgia and its Western partners clearly demonstrated that the messages of the Russian state, the government-controlled media and the pro-Russian mouthpieces in Georgia are identical. Similar to each other, they denied Russia’s crime and nearly identically repeated their particular arguments.
Pro-Russian Media in Georgia:
• Sputnik – “Georgia has not produced any evidence although its Western allies are not in need of them anyway.”
• Sputnik – “It has not presented any evidence of Russia’s involvement.”
• Gulbaat Rtskhiladze (interview with Georgia and the World) – “This investigation does not provide 100% proof who conducted that attack and for what purpose.”
• Gulbaat Rtskhiladze (interview with Georgia and the World) – “To put it briefly, they have run out of topics and I think what they are talking about now, that the attack was planned by the Russian General Staff, is their imagination, a provocation. No General Staff features in this case and could not be featured.”
• Arno Khidirbegishvili (Saqinform) – “Think back to which Georgian agency blamed Russia? Was it the State Security Service, the Ministry of Internal Affairs or the Ministry of Defence which are functionally responsible for internet security – cyber attacks as one of the methods of hybrid warfare? No, it was the foreign political Ministry of Foreign Affairs because otherwise it would be necessary to produce technical evidence which is non-existent.”
“They are obliged to present evidence which cannot be found in this case (otherwise they would happily reveal it as proof of Russia’s intention to continue Georgia’s occupation).”
• Georgia and the World – “After Georgian statements, European and American politicians promptly condemned Russian actions without asking what evidence Georgia had or on what the statement was based.”
Official Russian Statements:
• Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “There is no evidence of the involvement of Russia’s official structures in actions which damaged Georgia’s electronic networks and there could not be.”
• Embassy of Russia to the USA: “It is deplorable that in the United States norms of international law are less and less remembered. According to them, accusations against sovereign states must be accompanied by evidence.”
• Andrei Rudenko, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs: “We leave these comments for the conscience of those who made these statements. Russia did not plan to interfere in Georgia’s internal affairs and does not plan to do so in any way.”
• Grigori Karasin: “In my opinion, Russia is blamed for all the mortal sins before anything happens. It would be best if they appealed to facts and figures. Is it proven that all this evil comes from Russia? I highly doubt it.”
• rbc.ru: “American Diplomats Present Unfounded Allegations to Russia.”
• Komsomolskaya Pravda: “They [Georgia] managed to obtain US support and, therefore, condemned Russia without evidence.”
• Russia Today: “No evidence of Russia’s involvement in this attack has been produced. Analysts point out that this is not the first time when the West presents such accusations against Russia. Moreover, each and every accusation that has been presented until now was without evidence.”
• Yuri Rogulev (interview with Russia Today): “Western countries, when they attack Russia in this manner, do not even try to present evidence.”
Pro-Russian Media in Georgia:
• Sputnik: “Blaming Russia for the cyber attack resembles another act of information warfare.”
• Gulbaat Rtskhiladze (interview with Georgia and the World): “The idea is to constantly have something against Russia.”
• Gulbaat Rtskhiladze (interview with Georgia and the World): “The ongoing processes, the aggression which marks the attitude of the authorities towards Russia, are inspired precisely by the anti-Russian lobby.”
Official Russian Statements:
• Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “In Georgia, it is unfortunate that they do not want to abandon Russia’s demonisation and learn lessons from last year’s crisis.”
• Embassy of Russia in Canada: “These are more Russophobic lies and fake news circulated by Ottawa along with Tbilisi and Washington.”
• Grigori Karasin: “It has become a habit of certain political circles that when something happens, anti-Russian sentiments immediately erupt. I'm not ready to go deeper into this issue. We need to check the facts. If there are facts and evidence, then we can have a serious discussion, otherwise it is all propaganda, it is a propaganda lifestyle.”
• Российская газета: “In its anti-Russian accusations, Tbilisi has the support of London, Washington and Warsaw.”
• Komsomolskaya Pravda: “Americans did not miss a chance to blame Russia again for a ‘crime’ related to internet security.”
• Russia Today: “According to the experts, the West seeks to justify its anti-Russian rhetoric.”
Pro-Russian Media in Georgia:
• Sputnik: “Traditionally, ‘highly likely.’”
• Arno Khidirbegishvili (Saqinform): “The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre and the UK’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Domenic Raab, stated that “almost certainly” it was conducted by the GRU (?!). Excuse me, but what does it mean ‘almost certainly?’ The fact either exists or it does not. How can one state present allegations against another state based on suspicion only?”
Official Russian Statements:
• Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “All accusations are still blamed on the principle of ‘highly likely.’”
• Russia Today: “As stated by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, all accusations have been presented on infamous ‘highly likely’ principle.”
About the Sources
A pro-Russian outlet, Saqinform (Saqinform.ge) is owned by the pro-Russian organization, Historical Legacy LTD, which also holds the ownership rights of Georgia and the World. The editor of Saqinform, Arno Khidirbegishvili, professes an openly pro-Russian narrative with false emphasis on the Kars Treaty as well as criticism against the Anaklia seaport and equating the latter with the American naval base. Of note is that Arno Khidirbegishvili’s articles are published in such anti-Western Russian internet portals such as regnum.ru and sputniknews.ru’s Georgian outlet, sputnik-georgia.ru.
News Front’s Georgian office is part of News Front managed from the annexed Crimea and apart from Georgian also operates in eight additional languages. News Front was founded in 2014 and based on different media reports, it gets funding from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). News Front circulates fake news and disinformation all around the world. In New Front’s international news sections, one can find materials of such Russian state media outlets as Russia Today, Sputnik and RIA Novosti. News Front’s Georgia office has spread fake news multiple times, including the one about the coronavirus. News Front disseminates Russian propaganda in Georgia. Its editor is Shota Apkhaidze and its Facebook page administrator is Konstantine Chikviladze. Mr Chikviladze is also the administrator of Georgia and the World’s Facebook page.
Georgia and the World
Georgia and the World has long been exposed for disseminating fake news. The newspaper also has a strongly pro-Russian editorial policy which is evident in almost every article. For instance, they repeated the Kremlin’s narrative and false information about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the Second World War. They also claimed that Russia had never breached an international treaty.
According to the report of damoukidebloba.com, Sputnik is one of the primary instruments of Russian propaganda. Since 2014, Sputnik has worldwide coverage. It is a foreign language service of Russia’s state news agency, RIA Novosti, and the radio, Voice of Russia, with Dimitry Kiseliov at its helm. Sputnik runs its own website in different countries and broadcasts from local radio stations. Sputnik’s office also hosts the press centre of Россия сегодня (former RIA Novosti). Press conferences were held at the press centre by the Antifascist Coalition of Multinational Georgia (Revaz Gogidze and General Tristan Tsitelashvili), Political Movement of Law Enforcement and Armed Forces Veterans, Shota Apkhaidze, an employee of the Eurasian Institute, who is currently the editor of News Front and others.
Sputnik has three editorial offices in Georgia: Sputnik-Georgia, Sputnik-Abkhazia and Sputnik-South Ossetia.