SARFAN Community! Today we have a collaboration with a reader who had deep insight and interest into an event from last year that of course has its roots in the scandals and new-age propaganda we have grown accustomed to expect from Russia and their puppet mouth pieces they use to muddy waters and spread their false truths. So please enjoy this dive into the topic and continue to reach out and inform of events and issues you find valuable to enlighten others with.
In September of 2019 a relatively new NGO “ARMSWATCH” came on to the scene, with its biggest story being a bombshell investigation that the Serbian arms industry was working with the US, Romanian, Saudi, and UAE military and intelligence to supply ISIS in Yemen with mortar rounds. A shocking revelation except the problem with this story was that it appeared completely made up by Bulgarian “journalist” Dilyana Gaytandzhieva who has a history of working for… who else? Russian government sponsored outlets. Her credentials as an investigative journalist? Being fired for unethical journalistic practices. This either gets you a job spreading lies for Russia, or helps you get an unpaid internship at one of many click-bait sites writing listicles about ‘Top 10 Ways to Destabilize your Occupied Regions’.
The website ARMSWATCH appears to have been established sometime in the summer of 2019. It had been relatively inactive in terms of content and traffic until its landmark fake story later in September of that year. Posing as an investigative NGO, the website began posting a series of articles relating to arms sales, specifically targeting areas where the EU and US are in competition with Russia. In its September series of “investigations” the website’s manager Dilyana Gaytandzhieva, spun a story that NATO countries and Saudi Arabia were colluding to support terrorist groups, after images of Serbian made mortars showed up in an ISIS video from Yemen. The fact that the US bought arms to support the Afghan military and fight terrorists in the country, and Saudi Arabia bought from the same victory in Valjevo, Serbia, then lost its weapons in Yemen which showed up in that video was enough evidence for her. This should remind our community of how Russia was linked to the downing of the MH-17 due to their supply of the Buk missile systems to their Moscow-supported separatists, which is a more concrete link that they somehow vehemently deny, while then accusing others of the same crimes in more tenuous cases. Seems odd to say the least but we aren’t the brightest bunch here at SARFAN (but we try our best).
Gaytandzhieva supported her allegations with a large amount of documents and passports of various individuals who had done business in Serbia. Part of the cache of documents she selectively released alleged that Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vucic, his Minister of Interior, and the ruling Serbian Progressive Party had been profiting from arms sales from Krusik. These allegations created a storm of controversy in Serbia, with President Vucic and the ruling party repeatedly attacked by critics based off of the false and poorly sourced ARMSWATCH story perpetuated by Gaytandzhieva. (We would be remiss if we attacked someone’s sourcing without doing a great job ourselves, please reach out if you’d like to help us with our editorial work!)
Criticisms of Vucic reached a peak on 15 November 2019, with Serbian President Vucic being admitted into a hospital after a heated exchange with a reporter over the Krusik allegations, with him experiencing heart issues. Two days later on 17 November, a video was leaked online showing a Russian intelligence officer in Belgrade meeting with and paying a bribe to a Serbian military officer, putting relations in a bind with the video clearly showing how Russia exploits its relationship with Serbia. As news of the video made its way into Serbian press, ARMSWATCH serendipitously released another story on 21 November alleging that Serbia was supplying the Ukrainian military in its fight with pro-Russian rebels, in an attempt to divert attention to the Russian spy scandal in the country.
It is unclear why president Vucic and Serbia had been targeted in this smear campaign by Gaytandzhieva, but her Russian sponsors may have been seeking to discredit the country’s leadership or to undercut Serbia’s arms industry to take away from its market share for Russia’s own profit. The sheer amount of documents that ARMSWATCH leaked online was also suspicious as no one aside from a senior factory director could have obtained them. Though such document releases are a common trait for Russian hacking operations, where after Russian intelligence hacks a target then selectively releases the “evidence” to support a narrative, in this case targeting Serbia’s president and customers of Serbia’s arms industry.
At this point, it seems fair to say that ARMSWATCH and Gaytandzhieva’s links to the Russian propaganda machine are undeniable, no? In 2017 she was fired from Trud, a Bulgarian newspaper, after a similar story she authored alleging Azerbaijan being involved in support of Al Qaida was debunked. Gaytandzhieva later complained that her editors at a private company fired her because of Azerbaijani government pressure, and not for her shoddy and misleading reporting (If this was something people could be fired and silenced for, we should all be unsurprised by our community’s inevitable shut down.) It should be noted that Azerbaijan is a country that is stepping out of Russia’s sphere of influence and has sought closer relations to Israel, Turkey, and the West for weapons and economic trade, making them a target just like Serbia. Prior to that she served as a reporter for RT and Sputnik, both parts of Russia’s well established state propaganda network, for which she was invited back to appear to promote her ARMSWATCH “news” stories in 2018, clearly showing the Russian propaganda cycle in full spin. Their methods are fine-tuned at this point: train and uplift a propagandist, set them up to establish their own network, then later invite them as a commentator for a disinformation narrative.
Most recently Gaytandzhieva has been hard at work promoting coronavirus conspiracies on her website accusing American funding for healthcare programs as being cover for bio-weapons (while ignoring the Soviet history of Russia’s very real biological and chemical weapons programs, something overlooked in the aftermath of World War 2, and mostly something that the Japanese took most of the blame for. Perhaps another topic worth diving into at a later date). Although to be fair, this subject seems to be a bountiful subject for troll communities of all kinds if we’re being honest, and the main lesson here should be that everyone needs to pay close attention to information being distributed online, including everything we provide here. At its core, our movement seeks to promote critical thinking and safety as we provide our community with tools and information for them to make their own decisions. I will avoid rambling speeches for now, you already know those are waiting for you at the end of this article.
What we hope these points start to make clear for the SARFAN Community is that ARMSWATCH appears to have been set-up as a Russian disinformation and propaganda mouth piece from its inception. On Gaytandzhieva’s social media presence she has repeatedly targeted Bulgarian tycoon and perceived enemy Emilian Gebrev, who has survived TWO attempts on his life by Russian intelligence using a nerve agent, and the smearing his company EMCO. ARMSWATCH stories also try to support Russia by denying that Novichok attacks ever took place in Bulgaria, or the UK, or were done by someone else, or by a perhaps a magic nerve agent fairy that spreads Novichok around to the peril of innocents who also happen to have a history with Russian intelligence and being perceived as problematic to their endeavors. When she is not desperately trying to draw attention to her website and loose truths she considers news, she is making the rounds on Russian state programming such as RT and Rossya 1, as well as well known Russian disinformation sites such a Newsfront, all of which are ran by the Russian government.
ARMSWATCH has received little attention since late 2019, and maybe we are doing more harm than good by bringing it up again, but we wanted to highlight the fact that many media outlets could see the debatable investigative work seething with Russian propaganda narratives. Gaytandzhieva has now turned to crying wolf, claiming to be the victim of cyber attacks and hacking against her website, of which there is again surprisingly no evidence, likely in an attempt to seek attention and remain relevant until Russia finds another use for her.
SLIGHTLY RAMBLING CONCLUSION WARNING
What we again hope to highlight here is the boldness and carefree attitude our Russian neighbors display when they decide to start one of their notorious disinformation campaigns. They hold no regard for the truth, the innocents they harm, or what other problems they create, so long as they achieve their own personal goals. We have seen this time and time again, especially as our communities become more fractured, we see Russia and other troll communities attempt to sow more division amongst us. We have to remember that we have to take care of each other, help our communities stay strong and intact, and be weary of these types of actions and operations created solely for the purposes of driving us apart. We could see that they decided to attack Serbia, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan and others on a whim, and so we must ensure that any future accusations and attacks of this nature are scrutinized heavily. Perhaps if we continue with this critical thinking, we can slowly turn the tide and stop falling for these continued narrative attacks.
Thank you SARFAN Community, if you stuck around this long then you are a truly dedicated reader and your support is always appreciated. Please continue to reach out to us with any of your questions, comments, concerns, or anything else. Stay safe, stay informed, and take care of each other.