Psy-ops in high places Putin’s new science adviser to Russia’s National Security Council is a military intelligence agent accused of spreading disinformation about the coronavirus
In recent years, Russia’s National Security Council (or Sovbez) has come increasingly to resemble the USSR’s Politburo (the Soviet Communist Party’s powerful executive committee). On May 11, Vladimir Putin made significant changes to the Sovbez’s Science Council, which provides “scientific-methodological and expert-analytical support,” assists with the development of Russia’s national security strategy and strategic planning documents, and helps define priorities, criteria, and metrics. One newcomer to the Science Council is a man named A. G. Starunsky, a deputy commander of Russia’s Military Unit 55111. Meduza has learned that intelligence agencies in Estonia and the United States suspect this person of involvement in online disinformation campaigns run by Russia’s Military Intelligence Directorate (GRU).
What’s Military Unit 55111?
Little is known about this unit. Unlike many other Russian military formations, there’s almost no public information available about 55111. One explanation could be that the unit is relatively new. (Another group outside Irkutsk used this number before it was disbanded in 2012.)
Most GRU military units leave some kind of paper trail. For example, this is how journalists verified that Major General Alexander Averyanov heads Unit 26155, whose agents the Czech Republic has accused of destroying ammunition depots and killing two people in Vrbětice in 2014. Usually, military units register with Russia’s tax authorities as legal entities in order to conduct commercial activity. In this paperwork, unit commanders are listed as organizations’ directors. (Averyanov is registered with the state as the head of the “Military Unit 29155” federal budgetary institution.)
But Unit 55111 has no such paper trail. “A. G. Starunsky” (the deputy commander named in Putin’s presidential order) appears nowhere in records for any military units. One explanation is that his unit can conceal its commercial activities because it falls under the scope of a government decree issued on November 27, 2017, that allows the Defense Ministry, the Federal Security Service, and the Foreign Intelligence Service to complete procurements in closed marketplaces without disclosing the information to the public.
References to Unit 55111 didn’t start appearing in materials shared at research and scientific conferences until April 2018, when Bauman Moscow State Technical University hosted an event devoted to “issues facing the development of weapons, military and special equipment for air and missile defense troops, and space forces.” A press release advertising the conference stated that representatives from Military Unit 55111 joined the conference.
In November 2019, representatives from Unit 55111 joined another conference (this one devoted to issues facing “the development of radio electronics and the educational process of training specialists in radio engineering systems for special purposes”) at the Higher Military Engineering School of Radio Electronics in Cherepovets. The conference program listed 55111 alongside several other military units already known to belong to the GRU: Unit 45807 (housed at the GRU’s Moscow headquarters at 76B Khoroshevskoye Shosse) and units 74455 and 36360 outside Moscow in Zagoryansky (where the GRU’s 4th research company is based).
Who’s Alexander Starunsky?
Alexander Starunsky’s name has appeared repeatedly in the American news media in connection with information warfare operations by Russia’s Military Intelligence Directorate. This Starunsky and the “A. G. Starunsky” Unit 55111 deputy commander recently appointed to the Sovbez’s Science Council are the same person, says a source close to the FSB, who told Meduza that Starunsky is responsible for “operations abroad.”
In July 2020, citing sources in the U.S. government, The Associated Press and The New York Times both reported that Starunsky was a GRU officer involved in disinformation campaigns, including the dissemination of fake stories in English about the coronavirus. American journalists linked Starunsky to the website inforos.ru, which allegedly answers to the GRU.
According to inforos.ru, its “newsroom” is located in Moscow at 13 Krzhizhanovskogo Street, Building 2. There are another three organizations registered at this address, all co-owned by Alexander Gennadievich Starunsky: the nonprofit “21st Century Information Civilization,” the nonprofit “Russian Abroad Institute,” and the “Shanghai Cooperation Organization Business Club,” which has owned 20 percent of the Inforos News Agency since April 2019.
Starunsky has also been a member of the Inforos board of directors since 2005, according to the website Runet-ID, where participants and speakers at the Russian Internet Forum are registered.
Starunsky attended the forum as a scientific consultant for a company called “Astra+,” which belonged to Denis Tyurin and was registered at the same address as Inforos. Records show that Tyurin was the Inforos News Agency’s main owner, growing his stake from 30 to 100 percent before he transferred all his shares to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Business Club (as well as two other individuals), which he co-founded with Starunsky.
On April 15, 2021, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned both Denis Tyurin and the Inforos News Agency for links to the GRU. Starunsky’s name didn’t make the list.
- In 1998, he received his doctorate in psychological studies after defending his dissertation on information warfare (“psychological impact as an object of acmeological research”).
- That same year, he served as an adviser to the commander of the CIS Collective Peacekeeping Forces in Tajikistan.
- From 2000 to 2001, he served in Bosnia and Herzegovina as a senior officer in the Armed Forces’ General Staff Communications and Interaction Group at the headquarters of the “Sever” multinational division.
- In 2002 and 2003, he served as the deputy commander of information policy for the United Group of Forces in the North Caucasus.
- In 2006 and 2013, he was listed as a lecturer at the Defense Ministry’s Military University with the rank of retired colonel.
What are the allegations against Starunsky, Tyurin, and Inforos?
The New York Times was the first to connect the name Alexander Starunsky to GRU Unit 54777 and the website inforos.ru. In an article published on July 28, 2020, the newspaper revealed that anonymous sources in the U.S. intelligence community believed Starunsky and Tyurin had “ties to the GRU” and orders to ensure that the websites InfoRos, InfoBrics.org, and OneWorld.Press “pushed messaging and disinformation drafted by [Russia’s] intelligence officials.”
A year and a half earlier, in December 2018, The Washington Post reported links between Inforos and GRU Unit 54777 (also known as Russia’s 72nd Special Service Center). According to the newspaper’s findings, the center “has several front organizations that are financed through government grants as public diplomacy organizations but are covertly run by the GRU and aimed at Russian expatriates.” The Washington Post said these fronts included inforos.ru and something called the “Institute of the Russian Diaspora” (most likely, the Russian Abroad Institute, which Denis Tyurin, Alexander Starunsky, and Sergey Kanavsky co-founded in 2005).
Records from Russia’s “State Purchases” online portal show that the Russian Abroad Institute is registered in Moscow at 13 Krzhizhanovskogo Street, Building 2 (the same address as Inforos and other organizations connected to Tyurin and Starunsky). Between 2011 and 2019, the nonprofit won government contracts worth more than 26 million rubles ($352,050) “to create and promote interactive online content aimed at compatriots living abroad.”
The online magazine Russky Vek (Russian Century) lists the Russian Abroad Institute and the Inforos News Agency among its founders.
Tyurin and Starunsky have won even more money in state contracts through their registered trademark for the website inforos.ru, collecting more than 87 million rubles ($1.2 million) between 2010 and 2019 from various government agencies, ranging from the Foreign Ministry to Moscow’s Department of Ethnic Policy and Interregional Relations.
According to journalists at The New York Times, Tyurin and Starunsky are involved in “a kind of information laundering, akin to money laundering,” wherein disinformation created by the GRU is spread first to peripheral, lesser-known websites before it’s republished by other, more popular Western resources with pro-Russian leanings (such as globalresearch.ca). American intelligence officials believe that these websites “amplify” GRU disinformation, though there’s no evidence of any direct connections to Russian spy agencies.
The Estonian intelligence community has reported similar findings, identifying Starunsky as Unit 54777’s former commander and Tyurin as an officer in the group. In this year’s annual report, Estonia’s Foreign Intelligence Service described Unit 54777 as “the GRU’s chief psy-ops division” and linked it to an extensive network of organizations and websites that spread disinformation from a single headquarters in Moscow located at 13 Krzhizhanovskogo Street, Building 2.
The New York Times also found roughly 150 articles about the coronavirus pandemic published between May and July 2020 by websites associated with the GRU. These texts contained conspiratorial fabrications, like articles suggesting that the coronavirus itself is actually a biological weapon.
Alexander Starunsky did not respond to Meduza’s phone calls or text messages. Spokespeople for the Putin administration confirmed the president’s appointment of Military Unit 55111 deputy commander A. G. Starunsky to the Sovbez’s Science Council. When asked if this Starunsky is the same man sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury, the Kremlin’s press officers answered: “Other assumptions in [Meduza’s] request are based on reports, including media stories, of a hypothetical nature. We do not comment on such information.”
Translation by Kevin Rothrock