Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Israel that Moscow has agreed to expand a buffer zone along the Israeli-Syrian border, where Iranian and Hezbollah forces will not be allowed to enter, Arab media reported Wednesday.
The statement attributed to an Israeli diplomatic official by London-based Asharq Al-Awsat said that Russia had refused the Israeli request for a 40 kilometers (25 miles) buffer zone, but expressed willingness to extend a 10-15 kilometer off-limits zone. Russia, which views Iran as a key player in resolving the crisis in Syria, has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the role that the Islamic Republic plays in the war-torn country.
As the war in Syria seems to be winding down in Assad’s favor due to Moscow’s intervention, Israel fears that Iran will help Hezbollah produce accurate precision-guided missiles and aid Hezbollah and other Shi’ite militias to strengthen their foothold in the Golan Heights.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly criticized a US-Russian cease-fire deal in Syria, saying that it does not include any provisions to stop Iranian expansion in the area. Russia is reported to have rejected a request from Jerusalem for a 40-kilometer buffer zone between the Golan Heights and any Iranian-backed militias in Syria, only agreeing to make sure that no Shi’ite fighter would come closer than 5 kilometers from Israel.
According to the report in Asharq al-Awsat, Shoigu told Israeli officials that the 40 km demand was unrealistic and that Iranian and Hezbollah troops have not approached the border since Russian troops entered Syria, saying that therefore the request was “exaggerated” and “superfluous.”
Israeli officials have repeatedly voiced concerns over the growing Iranian presence on its borders and the smuggling of sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah from Tehran to Lebanon via Syria, stressing that both are red-lines for the Jewish State.
Hours before Shoigu landed in Israel, Israeli fighter jets destroyed a Syrian anti-aircraft missile battery stationed some 50 kilometers east of Damascus which had fired on Israeli planes in Lebanese airspace earlier that morning.
While Russia was updated about the incident in real time, according to the Israeli sources quoted by Asharq al-Awsat, the incident overshadowed the meeting and caused some tension between the officials. The report alleged that Shoigu considered it a “dangerous hostile operation that almost caused a severe crisis.”
Israel and Russia implemented a de-confliction mechanism system over Syria to prevent accidental clashes between the two militaries.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman who met privately with Shoigu at the IDF’s Kirya Military Headquarters in Tel Aviv Monday evening stated that “we will not interfere in Syria’s internal affairs but on the other hand we will not allow Iran and Hezbollah to turn Syria into a forward outpost against Israel and we will not allow the transfer of sophisticated weapons from Iran through Syria to Lebanon.”
Liberman will leave Wednesday night for a four-day visit to the United States to meet with his US counterpart James Mattis. During their previous meeting the two defense chiefs discussed issues such as the ongoing civil war in Syria and the threats posed by Iran and it is believed that Liberman will ask Mattis for the US to act against Iran’s growing entrenchment in Syria.
King Salman bin Abdulaziz arrived in Moscow on October 5 for an official visit, the first ever for a Saudi monarch. It had not been an easy decision but Washington’s puzzling lack of action had left him no choice.
It was time to start talking to Russia, now fast becoming a decisive player in the Middle East in the political and military arena to the extent that it would have to be part of any solution. Prominent on the king’s agenda was the need to convince his hosts of the danger Iran constituted for all the countries of the region, including the Gulf states.
He was very clear on that point during his conversation with President Putin. Also on the agenda – reaching a better coordination on determining oil prices in response to sudden political or economic changes as were seen in recent years. Furthermore, establishing economic ties with Russia is part of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman plan (Saudi Vision 2030) to diversify his country’s economy and lessen its dependence on oil. For President Putin, solidly entrenched in Syria while developing his political, military and economic cooperation with Egypt, which is toeing the Russian line regarding Syria and helped him extend his influence in Libya, Salman’s surprise visit was just icing on the cake.
Saudi Arabia is the leader of the Sunni world and the keeper of the two holiest sites of Islam. The Soviet Union had been driven away from the Middle East following the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, the growing disenchantment of most Arab states, and finally its own disintegration, but now Russia is back in force.
This is a challenge for Riyadh, which has depended on US support for 72 years – since Ibn Saud’s legendary meeting with president Roosevelt in February 22, 1945, on board the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal. The American president was on his way back home from the Yalta summit.
America pledged to support Saudi Arabia militarily and politically in return for a steady oil supply and embracing its policy on the region.
Diplomatic relations established in 1926 between the Soviet Union and Ibn Saud, then king of Hejaz, were severed in 1938.
The Saudis were afraid of the spread of communism and did not approve of the secular nature of the Soviet Union which furthermore oppressed its Muslim populations.
The two countries often found themselves on opposite sides. While America fought to defeat Soviet intervention in Afghanistan starting in 1980, Saudi Arabia helped by providing massive financial aid to the anti-Russian insurgents.
The Afghan fiasco contributed to the disintegration of the Soviet Union; however Saudi “assistance” included promoting Wahhabism and its extreme form of Islam in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, leading ultimately to the emergence of the Taliban and al-Qaida.
Moscow and Riyadh reestablished diplomatic relations in 1991. By 2011 they were again on collision course, this time about Syria. While the kingdom was helping Sunni Islamic militias fighting the regime, Russia tried to bring about a deal which would leave Bashar Assad in place.
When president Obama failed to act after one redline after the other – such as the use of chemical weapons – was crossed, Putin felt free to intervene openly. Russia and Syria signed a military assistance agreement that ensured the survival of Assad’s regime – and let Moscow establish a naval basis in Tartous and an air force base north of Latakia in the Alawi canton. Russia now had achieved its longtime ambition of having a permanent foothold on the Mediterranean.
But there was a price: Russia agreed to cooperate with Iran, which had come to Assad’s rescue from the beginning. In October 2012 Tehran ordered Hezbollah militiamen to fight the rebels; later it established the so-called popular Shia militias aiding the Syrian regular army. Russia found itself helping these motley forces by launching air attacks from its Syrian bases and firing missiles from its naval vessels in the Black Sea and in the Mediterranean. Its airplanes could also take off from Iranian bases for their bombing missions.
None of this could have happened without the gradual disengagement of America from the Middle East during the Obama years. Russia and Iran hastened to fill the vacuum, each for its own ends.
Tehran sees in Assad’s survival the continuation of its penetration of the country, the reinforcement of its Hezbollah ally and a direct threat to Israel. Russia needs Assad to maintain its foothold on the Mediterranean. Can their cooperation, based on a common interest, last? Israel has warned the Russians that it will not let Iran establish a military presence near its border on the Golan and that it will act if it feels threatened. Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, has said that his country has to take Israeli interests into account. Washington is yet to say anything on the subject, though it is expected that its relations with Tehran will deteriorate because of Donald Trump’s position on the 2015 nuclear deal. It is not clear how Russia would react if the US-Iran conflict escalated.
At this point Saudi Arabia concluded that it was time to hedge its bets. It remains close to America and stands by its commitment to buy $110 billion of arms and other military equipment; however, the Sunni coalition against Iran, which was to have been set up after Trump’s trip to Riyadh last May, never got off the ground. Qatar, which has close links to Iran and supports the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and extremist militias in Syria and Libya, would not have been a willing participant, and America, which maintains its largest air force base in the small emirate is not flexing its muscles to make it join. Egypt, while paying lip service to the projected coalition is conflicted because of its growing ties with Russia.
In short, Saudi Arabia felt it had to go it alone and turned to Moscow, which received King Salman with all the pomp and protocol it could muster. No fewer than 15 agreements were signed on issues ranging from security to space, energy, trade and communications. A billion dollar investment fund was set up in Russia. Riyadh undertook to buy the Russian S-400 anti-missile system, Kornet antitank missiles, missile launchers and Kalashnikov assault rifles – with the proviso that they could be manufactured in Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, Washington authorized the sale of its THAAD missile defense system to the kingdom, perhaps as a last-ditch effort to prevent its ally from acquiring the Russian system, which would entail close military and technological communications between Russian and Saudi forces.
None of the aforementioned agreements is final. Rather they are mere declarations of intent; their implementation may well depend on Russia’s answers to Riyadh on the Iranian threat.
The civil war in Syria is still raging. Though Islamic State is virtually extinct, the threat of an independent Kurdistan can still fan the flames; Turkey is poised to intervene. In the words of an Egyptian commentator, when the (American) eagle flies away, the (Russian) bear lumbers in. Will Washington wake up at last and take a more proactive role in the region?
Sergei Shoigu will land in Israel on Monday for meetings with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his first visit to the Jewish state since becoming Russia’s defense minister in 2012.
Just days before Liberman flies to Washington to meet Defense Secretary James Mattis for talks on Iran and other regional issues, the meetings with Shoigu are expected to cover the cooperation between Russia and Israel and continued military coordination over Syria, as well as the Iranian entrenchment in the war-torn country and transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah by Tehran through Damascus.
Moscow intervened in the Syrian conflict in September 2015, and officials from Israel and Russia meet regularly to discuss the deconfliction mechanism implemented over Syria to avoid accidental clashes.
Russia, which views Iran as a key player in resolving the crisis in Syria, has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the role the Islamic Republic plays in the war-torn country.
As the war in Syria seems to be winding down in President Bashar Assad’s favor due to Moscow’s intervention, Israel fears that Iran will help Hezbollah produce accurate precision-guided missiles and help Hezbollah and other Shi’ite militias to strengthen their foothold in the Golan Heights.
Netanyahu has publicly criticized a US-Russian cease-fire deal in Syria, saying it does not include any provisions to stop Iranian expansion in the area. Russia is reported to have rejected a request from Jerusalem for a 60-kilometer buffer zone between the Golan Heights and any Iranian-backed militias in Syria, agreeing only to make sure that no Shi’ite fighter comes within five kilometers of Israel.
Following Shoigu’s visit, Liberman will leave Wednesday night for a four-day trip to the United States – his fifth meeting with Mattis since the general assumed his role as defense secretary in the Trump administration. During their last meeting, the two discussed issues such as the war in Syria and the threats posed by Iran.
According to his office, the timing of Liberman’s trip to the US capital is not related to President Donald Trump’s speech on Friday decertifying the nuclear deal with Iran.
While Trump stopped short of walking away from the nuclear deal, he warned that if Congress could not fix the accord to bring about better terms and enforcements, he would “terminate one of the worst deals” in history.
Liberman responded to the speech in an interview with Channel 2 on Saturday night, calling it “brave” and warning that “everything that is happening in Syria is all because of Iran.”
While in Washington, it is believed that Liberman will ask Mattis for the US to act against Iran’s growing entrenchment in Syria. Last week, Liberman stated that Lebanon’s army has become an integral part of Hezbollah’s network, warning that the next war on Israel’s northern border will not be confined to one front but will see conflict with both Syria and Lebanon.
Israeli officials, including Liberman, have repeatedly voiced concerns over the smuggling of sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah and the growing Iranian presence on its borders, stressing that both are red lines for the Jewish State.
Referring to Tehran’s continued support for Assad and Shi’ite proxy groups, Liberman said in the television interview that “without the Iranian regime, Hezbollah would not exist” and that, “due to the lifting of sanctions [on Iran, in the framework of the nuclear deal], Iran was able to increase its support for and strengthen Hezbollah.”
Israel, according to Liberman, “knows how to manage alone and we’ll know how to deal with the challenges even without the US’s help.”
The US cited the UN body’s “anti-Israel bias” alongside financial considerations in explaining its decision.
The US withdrawal is to take effect on December 31, 2018.Netanyahu said he “welcomes the decision by President [Donald] Trump to withdraw from UNESCO. This is a courageous and moral decision because UNESCO has become the theater of the absurd and because, instead of preserving history, it distorts it.”
The American ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said in a statement Thursday following the US announcement to withdraw that “the purpose of UNESCO is a good one,” but “unfortunately, its extreme politicization has become a chronic embarrassment.”
Also on Friday, France’s former culture minister Audrey Azoulay was elected to head UNESCO in a cliffhanger vote.
By a margin of 30-28 votes, Azoulay narrowly defeated Qatari candidate Hamad bin Abdulaziz Al-Kawari, who had been the frontrunner throughout the week’s voting.
Azoulay, 45, came from behind after six rounds of voting to defeat Al-Kawari, also a former culture minister, after he failed to pick up support from other Gulf states that are part of a Saudi-led coalition blockading Qatar.
Azoulay, who is Jewish, is the daughter of André Azoulay, adviser to King Mohammed VI of Morocco. She grew up in Morocco and France.
Israel lost its voting rights at UNESCO in 2013, following its move to suspend dues to the organization over its decision to grant full membership to Palestine in 2011.
The US too lost its voting rights at the same time and has not paid some $80 million a year in dues since 2011.
The US previously withdrew from UNESCO in 1984 because Washington viewed it as mismanaged and used for political reasons, then rejoined it in 2003.
Israel this past year cited a UNESCO decision disputing Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as a reason to further reduce the amount it pays annually to the United Nations. In May, Netanyahu said Israel would cut another $1 million from its payments to the UN, bringing the total cuts since December 2016 to $9 million.
It marked the third time in less than a year that Israel has reacted to UN resolutions it deems biased against it by announcing the slashing of its payments to the body.
In December, after the Security Council passed Resolution 2334, Netanyahu ordered $6 million cut from Israel’s payment to the UN. And in March, after the Human Rights Council passed five anti-Israel resolutions, Netanyahu vowed to cut an additional $2 million.
Russia’s far-ranging campaign to promote dissension in the United States reportedly included an effort to weaponize Pokémon Go. CNN reported today that in July 2016, a Tumblr page linked to Russia’s now-notorious Internet Research Agency promoted a contest encouraging people sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter movement to play the game near famous sites of police brutality. Players were told to change their characters’ names to the victims of those incidents — an apparent effort to inflame racial tensions.
The Tumblr page was linked to Do Not Shoot Us, a multi-platform campaign designed to mimic aspects of Black Lives Matter. (As CNN notes, the name plays on “hands up, don’t shoot,” one of the movement’s slogans.) Do Not Shoot Us included a website, donotshoot.us, along with related pages on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. The Facebook page was one of 470 pages that were removed after the company determined that it was linked to Russian groups attempting to interfere in US politics.
According to CNN, the group’s Tumblr page included a post showing a Pokémon named “Eric Garner,” who died after being put in a chokehold by a officer of the New York Police Department. The post promoted a contest, which promised Amazon gift cards to the winners, according to the report. CNN could not find evidence that anyone actually participated in the contest, it said, or that the page had distributed the gift cards.
The Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts of the group have been suspended, CNN said. Its YouTube and Tumblr pages, though, remain active — though the Tumblr page has shifted to posts about Palestine.
MOSCOW – Russia accused the United States on Wednesday of allowing Islamic State to operate “under its nose” in Syria, saying Washington was letting the militant group move about freely in an area abutting a US military base.
The allegations, made by Russia’s Defense Ministry, center on a US military base at Tanf, a strategic Syrian highway border crossing with Iraq in the south of the country.
Russia says the US base is illegal and that it and the area around it have become “a black hole” where militants operate unhindered.
The United States says the Tanf facility is a temporary base used to train partner forces to fight against Islamic State. Pentagon spokesman Colonel Robert Manning on Tuesday said Washington remained committed to killing off Islamic State and denying it safe havens and the ability to carry out strikes.
But Major-General Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, said Moscow wanted to know how around 300 Islamic State militants in pickup trucks had passed through the US-controlled area and tried to block the highway between Damascus and Deir al-Zor used to supply Syrian forces.
He said the US had not yet given an explanation.
“We suggest the American side also explain about another incidence of their ‘selective blindness’ towards militants operating under their nose,” Konashenkov said in a statement.
He said about 600 militants based in a refugee camp in the US controlled area had driven en masse to a former customs post called Tafas on the Syrian-Jordanian border earlier this month and seized food and medical supplies meant for locals.
“You don’t need to be an expert to now forecast an attempt to rupture the peace agreement in the southern de-escalation zone,” said Konashenkov.
“We issue a warning. All responsibility for sabotaging the peace process will lay exclusively with the American side.”
Russia accused the United States on Tuesday of pretending to fight Islamic State and of deliberately reducing its air strikes in Iraq to allow the group’s militants to stream into Syria to slow the Russian-backed advance of the Syrian army.
In the latest sign of rising tensions between Moscow and Washington, the Russian Defence Ministry said in a statement that the US-led coalition had sharply reduced its air strikes in Iraq in September when Syrian forces, backed by Russian air power, had started to retake Deir al-Zor Province.
“Everyone sees that the US-led coalition is pretending to fight Islamic State, above all in Iraq, but continuing to allegedly fight Islamic State in Syria actively for some reason,” said Major-General Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for Russia’s defense ministry.
The result, he said, had been that militants had moved in large numbers from Iraqi border areas to Deir al-Zor where they were trying to dig in on the left bank of the River Euphrates.
“The actions of the Pentagon and the coalition demand an explanation. Is their change of tack a desire to complicate as much as they can the Syrian army’s operation, backed by the Russian air force, to take back Syrian territory to the east of the Euphrates?,” asked Konashenkov.
“Or is it an artful move to drive Islamic State terrorists out of Iraq by forcing them into Syria and into the path of the Russian air force’s pinpoint bombing?”
He said Syrian troops were in the midst of trying to push Islamic State out of the city of al-Mayadin, southeast of Deir al-Zor, but that IS tried daily to reinforce its ranks there with “foreign mercenaries” pouring in from Iraq.
All of these were recorded, posted or written by Americans. Yet all ended up becoming grist for a network of Facebook pages linked to a shadowy Russian company that has carried out propaganda campaigns for the Kremlin, and which is now believed to be at the center of a far-reaching Russian program to influence the 2016 presidential election.
A New York Times examination of hundreds of those posts shows that one of the most powerful weapons that Russian agents used to reshape American politics was the anger, passion and misinformation that real Americans were broadcasting across social media platforms.
The Russian pages — with names like “Being Patriotic,” “Secured Borders” and “Blacktivist” — cribbed complaints about federal agents from one conservative website, and a gauzy article about a veteran who became an entrepreneur from People magazine. They took descriptions and videos of police beatings from genuine YouTube and Facebook accounts and reposted them, sometimes lightly edited for maximum effect.
Other posts on the Russian pages used stilted language or phrases rarely found in American English. Yet their use of borrowed ideas and arguments from Americans, which were already resonating among conservatives and liberals, demonstrated a deft understanding of the political terrain. The Russians also paid Facebook to promote their posts in the feeds of American Facebook users, helping them test what content would circulate most widely, and among which audiences.
“This is cultural hacking,” said Jonathan Albright, research director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. “They are using systems that were already set up by these platforms to increase engagement. They’re feeding outrage — and it’s easy to do, because outrage and emotion is how people share.”
All of the pages were shut down by Facebook in recent weeks, as the company conducts an internal review of Russian penetration of its social network. But content and engagement metrics for hundreds of posts were captured by CrowdTangle, a common social analytics tool, and gathered by Mr. Albright.
One Russian Facebook page, the United Muslims of America, frequently posted content highlighting discrimination against Muslims. In June 2016, it posted a video originally made by Waqas Shah, 23, an online video creator from Staten Island. In the video, Mr. Shah dressed in a thobe, a traditional ankle-length gown worn by Arab men, walked through New York’s Union Square, where he is shoved and harassed by another actor pretending to be a bully to see how bystanders react.
The video ends with Mr. Shah pointing out New York’s hypocrisy: The city claims to be a “melting pot,” but no one intervened while he was getting harassed. Mr. Shah’s original video, posted on YouTube in June 2016, was a viral hit that attracted more than three million views. A week after he posted it, United Muslims of America copied the video to its group page without the original YouTube link, a process known as ripping. There, Mr. Shah’s video become the Russian page’s most popular post, earning more than 150,000 interactions.
Mr. Shah said when he noticed the ripped video, he wrote to the administrator of the United Muslims account, asking them to add the link to his original YouTube video. His main concern, Mr. Shah said, was that the page was stealing his views. Told that his video had been used by Russian accounts to sow division in the United States, Mr. Shah said there wasn’t anything he could do about it.
“There are always going to be people who manipulate things to their agenda,” he said.
When Being Patriotic posted a brief message last year rallying Americans against proposals to expand refugee settlements in the United States, it was liked, shared or otherwise engaged with by more than 750,000 Facebook users. Eventually, it came across the feed of Len Swanson, 64, a Republican activist from Houston and an avid Trump supporter.
“I usually publish an article several times a week, to keep driving the narrative,” Mr. Swanson said in an interview. He was not bothered, he said, by becoming an unwitting cog in the Russian propaganda machine. “You know we do the same damn thing over there,” Mr. Swanson said. “What do you think — we’re saints?”
In early 2016, Being Patriotic copied and pasted a story from the conspiracy site InfoWars, saying that federal employees had taken “land from private property owners at pennies on the dollar.” The Russian page added some original text: “The nation can’t trust the federal government anymore. What a disgrace!”
This past March, another of the Russian pages, Secured Borders, reposted a video that it attributed to Conservative Tribune, part of the conservative and pro-Trump sites run by Patrick Brown. The video, which falsely claims that Michigan allows Muslim immigrants to collect welfare checks and other benefits for four wives,originated on a YouTube channel called CleanTV.com. The Facebook post has been removed, but a version remains up on the meme site Me.Me.
Mr. Brown did not respond to an email seeking comment. But Gerald McGlothlin, the president of CleanTV — and a contributor to other sites run by Mr. Brown — confirmed in an email that his company had created the original YouTube video.
The Blacktivist Facebook page appears to have specialized in passionate denunciations of the criminal justice system and viral videos of police violence, many of them gathered from Facebook and YouTube. In May, Blacktivist also posted a message drawn from news stories about the death of Jayson Negron, a teenager in Bridgeport, Conn., during a confrontation with police. Such posts soon found an authentic audience: The Negron post was reposted by a verified Facebook account belonging to Black Lives Matter Chicago, according to a cached copy.
As lawmakers debate tighter regulation for companies like Facebook, the trail of Russian digital bread crumbs underscores how difficult it will be to purge social media networks of foreign influence, or even to hamper the covert propaganda campaigns carried out on social platforms by Russia, China and other countries.
Copying other people’s content without proper attribution can be a violation of the social networks’ rules. But the content itself — the videos, posts and Instagram memes borrowed and shared on the Russian pages — are not explicitly violent or discriminatory, so they do not violate the rules of those services. Instead, they are precisely the type of engaging content these platforms are hungry for.
The Russian campaign also appears to have been tailored to exploit the companies’ own strategies for keeping users engaged. Facebook, for example, pushed people to interact more in Groups like the ones set up by the Russians, where users can “share their common interests and express their opinion” around a common cause. LinkedIn, the professional social network owned by Microsoft, is geared toward encouraging users like Mr. Swanson to create articles and other content.
“The strategies are no mystery,” said Michael Strangelove, a lecturer on internet culture at the University of Ottawa. “Foreign powers are playing within the rules of the game that we wrote.”
A spokesman for Facebook declined to comment. LinkedIn said Mr. Swanson’s post did not violate the site’s terms of service.
“The challenges posed by the dissemination of fake news and other harmful content through technology platforms are serious,” said Nicole Leverich, a spokeswoman for LinkedIn. “We actively address suspected violations of LinkedIn’s terms of service such as harassment, fake profiles, and misinformation on our platform.”
The Russians appear to have insinuated themselves across American social media platforms and used the same promotional tools that people employ to share cat videos, airline complaints and personal rants. Many of the posts on Being Patriotic also match pre-made, shareable graphics on sites like ConservativeMemes.com, nestled alongside other conservative content made for sharing on social media.
Boosted by Russian accounts, the material was quickly picked up by other American users of Facebook, spreading the posts to an even bigger audience. The Russian presence appeared to be layered throughout different platforms: Some of the Facebook accounts, including Being Patriotic, had linked accounts on Instagram and Twitter, according to deleted content captured in Google’s cache.
John W. Kelly, the founder of Graphika, a commercial analytics company in New York, said the Russians appeared to have a consistent strategy across different platforms. Graphika has tracked thousands of social media accounts whose content closely tracks Russian information operations, promoting articles and videos about WikiLeaks dumps of stolen emails and “false flag” conspiracies about Syrian chemical weapons.
The Russian accounts intermingle with real groups of Facebook or Twitter users — from white nationalists to Bernie Sanders supporters — and seek to manipulate and radicalize them, Mr. Kelly said.
The Russian-influenced networks frequently promote obscure conservative YouTube channels such as the Next News Network and the Trump Breaking News Network, driving up their views and advertising revenue. A video posted in February by a conservative internet radio host, who claimed that 30 politicians were about to be arrested in connection with the “Pizzagate” hoax, racked up more than 300,000 views on YouTube. Another YouTube video, claiming that Michelle Obama had 214 personal assistants and had purchased four yachts with taxpayer money, had close to a million views.
Rather than construct fake grass-roots support behind their ideas — the public relations strategy known as “Astroturfing” — the Russians sought to cultivate and influence real political movements, Mr. Kelly said.
“It isn’t Astroturfing — they’re throwing seeds and fertilizer onto social media,” said Mr. Kelly. “You want to grow it, and infiltrate it so you can shape it a little bit.”
MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Saudi Arabia’s King Salman for talks at the Kremlin on Thursday, cementing a relationship that is crucial for determining world oil prices and could be pivotal for resolving conflicts in the Middle East.
King Salman, the first sitting Saudi monarch to visit Russia, led a delegation to Moscow that agreed joint investment deals worth several billion dollars, providing much-needed investment for a Russian economy battered by low oil prices and Western sanctions.
On the political front, there was no sign of any substantial breakthrough on the issues that divide Moscow and Riyadh, including the fact that they back rival sides in Syria’s civil war.
However, there was no sign of any public discord either. Briefing the media on the talks between Putin and King Salman, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov focused on the common ground between the two countries.
Lavrov said the two leaders had agreed on the importance of fighting terror, of finding peaceful solutions to conflicts in the Middle East, and on the principle of territorial integrity.
In a concrete expression of how ties are deepening, Saudi Arabia said it had signed a memorandum of understanding on the purchase of S-400 air defense systems from Russia’s state arms exporter.
The two leaders had a “friendly and substantial discussion based on a desire by Moscow and Riyadh to consistently grow mutually-beneficial partnerships in all spheres,” Lavrov said at a briefing alongside his Saudi counterpart Adel al-Jubeir.
“We believe that new horizons have opened up for the development of our relations that we could not previously have imagined,” the Saudi foreign minister said, speaking through an interpreter.
“Relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia have reached an historical moment,” said Jubeir. “We are certain that the further strengthening of Russian-Saudi relations will have a positive impact on strengthening stability and security in the region and the world.” Riyadh supports rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s forces while Russian troops and Iranian militias have sided with Assad. This leaves Moscow aligned with Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival Iran, whose influence Riyadh fears is growing in the region.
However, Russia’s military intervention in the Syria conflict has brought about an acknowledgement in Arab capitals that it now has real clout in the Middle East.
Moscow and Riyadh worked together to secure a deal between OPEC and other oil producers to cut output until the end of March 2018, in an effort to push up world prices.
Billboards were erected on the road from the airport to central Moscow welcoming King Salman in Arabic and Russian.
His son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, visited in May just before his elevation to crown prince.
MOSCOW, Russia — The Kremlin on Friday criticized “unprecedented pressure” on Russian media in the United States and warned of possible reciprocal action.
The US Department of Justice has ordered the state-funded RT media group, a television channel which broadcasts in English and other languages, to register as a “foreign agent” under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
The television network is increasingly viewed in Washington as a Kremlin propaganda tool used to interfere in the 2016 US presidential polls.
According to RT, the channel has been given a deadline of October 17 to register under FARA, a law written in 1938 to blunt Nazi propaganda, which specifically exempts news organizations.
Foreign agent status could mean that the channel would have to make personal information about its employees and interviewees public, RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan said Thursday.
“If we don’t… our employees and property will be arrested,” she said, calling it “de facto expulsion from the country.”
State news agency Sputnik, which has the same management as RT, is also under FBI investigation, according to reports.
“Some of our media is faced with unprecedented pressure,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.
“We believe this is being done in violation of freedom of speech (and) freedom of the media.”
“Clearly, in the case of continued pressure, continued violation of the rights of our media to work unimpeded, I cannot rule out that actions will be taken in accordance with the principle of reciprocity.”
Russian media reports said prosecutors are considering retaliatory measures against US media.
Russia’s media watchdog chief on Thursday said it found CNN in violation of the country’s media law over a technicality and issued an official warning.
At a senate committee meeting on defending state sovereignty, Simonyan said: “People are quitting in droves… it’s hard to even find a stringer in the US.”
She added that YouTube has kicked the channel off the list of “Google Preferred” premium video channels for advertisers.
“Clearly this is a result of pressure,” she said.
Senate committee chairman Andrei Klimov said “it’s time to think about concrete retaliatory measures” to US actions.