A network of Russian marketing companies known for selling dubious nutritional supplements and pushing malware is behind a disinformation campaign to denigrate Western coronavirus vaccines, according to a new RFE/RL investigation.
The revelations, which lead to a Moscow-based businesswoman active in pro-Kremlin political circles, add new insight into the campaign that targeted social-media influencers in France and Germany, among other countries, and reportedly attracted the attention of French intelligence agencies.
The woman, Yulia Serebryanskaya, is a veteran of political campaigns and event planning for the ruling United Russia party, and briefly ran as an independent for election in the Moscow city elections in 2019.
She also heads an organization called Russian Initiative, which describes itself as a "worldwide union of Russian speakers" that "helps people carry on our culture and adequately represent our traditions, our social achievements, rather than tolerate a distorted idea of the Motherland, wherever they are."
The disinformation campaign involving marketing companies adds a new dimension to Russia's murky, under-the-radar efforts to promote its own COVID-19 vaccines -- in particular the Sputnik V vaccine backed by the country's sovereign wealth fund, the Russia Direct Investment Fund.
Known as RDIF, the fund has aggressively promoted Sputnik V, extolling, and at times exaggerating, its benefits, while also openly criticizing Western vaccines such as Pfizer/BioNTech, AstraZeneca, and Moderna, and amplifying negative scientific results.
There is no indication that RDIF is linked to the marketing campaign that began to appear in recent weeks, targeting social media influencers in France and possibly elsewhere.
A French investigative news site called Fact & Furious, along with other outlets including The Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, and The Guardian, reported that French bloggers had received e-mails from a person claiming to work for a marketing firm called Fazze.
The e-mails reportedly offered to pay the bloggers to produce videos on YouTube, Instagram, and other platforms criticizing the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in particular.
Leo Grasset, a French science blogger whose YouTube account has 1.2 million subscribers, reported he had been contacted, and posted screenshots of some of the e-mails to his Twitter account.
Grasset did not immediately respond to messages from RFE/RL seeking further comment.
In Germany, another social media influencer with a sizable following named Mirko Drotschman also posted screenshots to Twitter of an e-mail he received asking him to participate in a campaign against the Pfizer vaccine.
The company Fazze, which listed an address in London on its website, is not registered in Britain's public company registry. An employment site, however, describes Fazze as part of a marketing agency called AdNow, which has a presence both in Britain and Russia.
The U.K. firm, Adnow LLP, was incorporated in 2014 by a British man and a Russian named Stanislav Fesenko. Adnow LLP and Fazze both list the same London address, one that appears to be a "corporate mailbox" to which scores of companies are registered.
Until 2018, the owner of the Russian unit of AdNow was Serebryanskaya.
The listed address of the company's Moscow office is on Varshavskoye Shosse, in a southern part of the Russian capital, and is the same as that of an Internet marketing firm called 2WTrade, which is also owned by Serebryanskaya. According to its website, 2WTrade specializes in marketing health and beauty products.
A flow chart posted online of what appears to be an internal corporate document indicates further connections between Adnow, 2WTrade, and other associates and companies linked to Serebryanskaya.
A 2001 mathematics graduate of Novosibirsk State Technical University, Serebryanskaya worked briefly for the local affiliate of the state-controlled national broadcaster before graduating and moving to Moscow, where she says she worked for NTV and Channel One -- both either state-funded or state-controlled channels.
Serebryanskaya's online biography also indicates that in 2007 she worked for the campaign headquarters of Dmitry Medvedev, who was serving as a first deputy prime minister prior to being anointed by President Vladimir Putin as his preferred successor. Medvedev was elected president the following year, effectively swapping places with Putin, who became prime minister.
Serebryanskaya also says she worked with Putin's 2012 election campaign, when he returned to the presidency, and that she headed the advertising section in the political department of United Russia, the Kremlin-backed party that dominates Russian politics.
In 2013, Serebryanskaya moved to the United States "for family reasons," spending about two years there, according to her biography. While there, Serebryanskaya says, she "established cooperation with the Russian community in California (in particular, with technology companies in Silicon Valley), Arizona, and Nevada."
RFE/RL was unable to find any public record of her time in the United States.
Upon returning to Russia, Serebryanskaya founded the company 2WTrade, and, a year later, the organization Russian Initiative.
In 2019, she attempted to run for a seat in the Moscow City Duma as an unaffiliated, "self-nominated candidate," but failed to collect enough signatures to register as a candidate.
Serebryanskaya did not respond to e-mails sent via the Russian Initiative website. A message sent to her WhatsApp number was seen, but not immediately responded to.
Fazze also did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment and questions about who its client was and how much the budget for the disinformation campaign was.
The British man that Stanislav Fesenko worked with at AdNow is identified in U.K. corporate filings as Ewan Tolladay, who previously worked for a phishing and malware company called Mottogeek, now called AnnGames. Fesenko is a former co-owner of AnnGames, along with another Russian man who also hails from Novosibirsk.
Meanwhile, another Moscow-based employee of AdNow was identified, via a LinkedIn profile, as Vyacheslav Usoltsev, who previously worked for a similar marketing company called Brand.ad.
Usoltsev also happens to be the chief executive officer of Fazze.com, according to his LinkedIn profile, which was taken down on May 27. In a Facebook profile that appears to belong to Usoltsev, he uses the nickname "Slava Ussolini."
Brand.ad's website lists its owner only by the last name Serebryansky, with no indication of the first or middle name.
Another public records database, however, identifies a Russian man named Mikhail Serebryansky, who shares the same middle "patronymic" name as Serebryanskaya -- indicating their fathers have the same first name.
Corporate records show Serebryansky owns or has a share in a number of retail and software development firms, several of which are registered at the same addresses as the companies associated with Serebryanskaya.
One commenter on an employee-review site claimed that Serebryanskaya's brother is the firm's "investor."
Until 2018, Serebryanskaya was the listed owner of the British-incorporated company 2WTrade LLP. But in May of that year, ownership of the firm was transferred to a Guatemalan man, U.K. corporate records show. A man by the same name is listed as a co-founder of Serebryanskaya's organization, Russian Initiative.
Graham Barrow, a U.K.-based financial crimes expert and host of a podcast about money laundering, told RFE/RL that Serebryanskaya is identified as a "person of significant control" for three U.K. entities, all three of which appear to be connected, and exhibit strong signs of being shell companies.
Along with being registered at a corporate mailbox address -- a common business practice where hundreds of corporations can be located at a single location -- all indications are that the companies "have no real commercial activity but exist solely to act as a conduit for assets, often of unknown provenance," Barrow told RFE/RL.
"For example, all three have declared, at some point in their existence, the same pair of offshore companies, one from Belize and one from British Virgin Islands, to be the officers of the company. These two companies have acted for many other U.K.-registered companies, none of which appears to be associated with the U.K. in any way," Barrow said.
Though no evidence has turned up suggesting the involvement of Russian public entities, or government officials or agencies in the social media campaign, the effort has echoes of other public relations efforts conducted by RDIF.
Utilizing a punchy Twitter handle, RDIF has sought to amplify a host of scientific studies that have looked at adverse effects caused by some Western-developed vaccines.
But when Slovakia's drug regulator in April reported discrepancies in the contents of a batch of Sputnik V vaccines it had received from Russia, RDIF accused Slovak officials of a disinformation campaign against the Sputnik vaccine.
Slovakia, which has been using Pfizer and other Western vaccines, approved use of Sputnik V on May 26.
In September, regulators in several countries halted use of the AstraZeneca vaccine after reports suggested an increased danger of rare blood clots. Ultimately, the vaccine was cleared for use after officials determined the risk was minimal.
The head of RDIF, Kirill Dmitriyev, hailed the resumption of the use of AstraZeneca while also suggesting that the science on which it was developed was flawed.
"The suspension of trials clearly showed the fallacy of the approach, when entire countries exclusively rely on novel and untested platforms when choosing a vaccine for widespread use," Dmitriyev said in a statement.
In October, The Times Of London detailed what it said was a stealth disinformation campaign that aimed to malign the AstraZeneca vaccine by spreading memes and videos on fake websites that suggested the vaccine could turn people into monkeys.
"We know that Russia has got a track record in this area. Previously we've commented and called them out on it," Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in an interview with Sky News. "But anyone trying to basically sabotage the efforts of those trying to develop a vaccine, I think, are deeply reprehensible. It's unacceptable and unjustified in any circumstances."
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected the allegations.
"Russia is not misinforming anyone, Russia proudly talks about its successes and Russia shares its successes regarding the first-ever registered vaccine in the world," he said.