Russia's government secretly funded news sites in eastern Europe and dictated the content they produced under the banner of "independent" coverage, an Estonian investigation found.
BuzzFeed News obtained Skype chat logs, which were first discovered by Estonian journalists and investigators probing a suspected Russian operative in Estonia, that detail an effort by the Kremlin to conduct information warfare across Europe.
According to the logs, Estonian and other versions of the "BaltNews" sites are actually fronts for the Kremlin, which dictates the sites' content and often urges stories critical of the U.S. or American society to be published.
A leading Estonian strategic communications expert, Raul Rebane, told the news site that the effort amounted to “systemic information-related activities on foreign territory. In other words — information warfare.”
“The pressure to turn [Estonia] from facing the West to facing the East has grown," he added of Russia's likely goals.
Separate versions of the "BaltNews" site, both of which are controlled by the Kremlin, exist in Lithuania and Latvia, according to the report.
According to BuzzFeed, money was transferred to the sites through shell companies and editorial direction was given out via Skype. The sites also showed evidence of purchasing artificial traffic boosts from Russian troll farms, such as the Internet Research Agency (IRA).
The suspected Russian agent based in Estonia, Aleksandr Kornilov, told BuzzFeed that he no longer has any contact with the "BaltNews" sites, while declining to answer questions about their activities.
“It’s not interesting for me anymore,” he said.
Other editors and journalists at the sites told BuzzFeed that accusations of Kremlin control were false.
“I wrote and published the news I thought to be important and interesting," a former daily editor of the Estonian site told the news service.
The sites, which continue to publish news reports, said in June 1 that a new editorial team had taken over.
The report is the clearest evidence yet of ongoing Russian efforts to interfere in the politics of foreign countries following the U.S. intelligence community's assessment that Moscow was involved in meddling and hacking efforts during the 2016 presidential election.
President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump lawyers to Supreme Court: Jan. 6 committee 'will not be harmed by delay' Two House Democrats announce they won't seek reelection DiCaprio on climate change: 'Vote for people that are sane' MORE claimed last month that Russians agents, who were accused of working to boost his campaign by the intelligence community in 2016, may attempt to influence the midterm elections this year on behalf of Democrats.