Treasury Department

Two Russians sanctioned by US for alleged disinformation campaign

The U.S. Treasury Department announced on Wednesday that it is sanctioning two Russian nationals and two companies for a disinformation campaign that allegedly sought to “impersonate legitimate media outlets.”

The sanctions name Ilya Andreevich Gambashidze and Nikolai Aleksandrovich Tupikin as the founders of two Russia-based companies that U.S. officials believe are involved in a “persistent foreign malign influence campaign at the direction of the Russian Presidential Administration.”

The companies — Social Design Agency and Company Group Structura — allegedly provided the Russian government with a variety of services that include the creation of websites designed to impersonate government organizations and European media organizations. 

In the fall of 2022, U.S. officials say Tupikin and Gambashidze created about 60 fake news websites, fictitious social media accounts and staged videos as part of a campaign to amplify content. 

The websites included links to legitimate sites and intently mimicked other well-known news outlets, according to the U.S. 

“We are committed to exposing Russia’s extensive campaigns of government-directed deception, which are intended to mislead voters and undermine trust in democratic institutions in the United States and around the world,” said Brian Nelson, undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence.

Researchers at several companies refer to Russia’s latest disinformation networks as “Doppelgänger.” Meta, the parent company of social media giants Facebook and Instagram, previously referred to Doppelgänger as the “largest” and “most aggressively persistent” malign network sponsored by Russia.

Doppelgänger was previously linked to Structura and Social Design Agency, whose clients also include several Russian local government entities, state-owned enterprises and private companies.

Both Structura and Social Design Agency were sanctioned by the European Union in August for their alleged involvement in Doppelgänger.

In November, the U.S. government also linked these two entities to a disinformation campaign across Latin America aimed at undermining support for Ukraine and discrediting the U.S. and NATO.

In its previous campaigns, Doppelgänger also targeted the U.S. and seven European countries, with a specific focus on Germany and France. The network has impersonated organizations like the French Ministry of Public Affairs, the German Ministry of the Interior and NATO.

Blockchain analysis by researchers at Chainalysis showed Gambashidze had about $200,000 worth of cryptocurrency in wallets that were listed as part of the sanctions announced on Wednesday. 

Treasury officials noted that the campaigns have already been involved in the U.S. congressional elections of 2022 and more recently the election in Moldova. Moldova's intelligence warned earlier this month that Russia uses social networks to promote pro-Moscow politicians, encourage anti-government protests, and incite inter-ethnic hatred in the country.

Several recent Russian influence campaigns targeting Ukraine have sought to sow doubt among the local population about the war. Last month, Russian hackers attacked several popular Ukrainian media outlets, posting fake news related to the conflict.

Meta warned in November that both Russia and China are ramping up disinformation networks in preparation for the U.S. presidential election in the fall of 2024. 

The company previously identified a Russian disinformation campaign that created fake articles masquerading as legitimate stories from The Washington Post and Fox News before finding another new cluster of websites connected to the same campaign last year. 

Two weeks ago, Lithuanian security services said Russia has improved the quality and upped the frequency of its information campaigns against Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland. 

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Jonathan Greig

Jonathan Greig

is a Breaking News Reporter at Recorded Future News. Jonathan has worked across the globe as a journalist since 2014. Before moving back to New York City, he worked for news outlets in South Africa, Jordan and Cambodia. He previously covered cybersecurity at ZDNet and TechRepublic.