In US exile, Kremlin watcher sees Russia draw closer
OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — A Russian analyst and journalist scrutinizing her home country from thousands of miles away, Kseniya Kirillova works out of an impersonal Oakland apartment that she deliberately keeps bare of mementos, except for a stuffed teddy bear memorializing another Russian opposition journalist who died doing the same kind of work.
These days, the 32-year-old’s work has drawn closer to her new home, the United States, where she awaits a decision on her application for asylum.
As Congress and a special counsel appointed by the U.S. Justice Department investigate alleged Russian interference in this country’s 2016 presidential race, Russian state tactics such as amplifying “fake news” have moved to the center of U.S. political discussion.
Kirillova’s work examining alleged Russian actions in other countries helps in understanding such events in the United States, according to several American analysts of Russia who often cite her work.
Americans can be “naive about foreign policy, about Russian propaganda,” says Kirillova, who contributes to news outlets in Europe, including the U.S. government-funded Radio Liberty broadcast news organization, which also provides global news in the Middle East and Asia.
Kirillova says growing up in Russia, she saw the tactics used to undermine American society and government. “They really tried to destroy American institutions. They really consider the United States as their main enemy,” she said.
In the Cold War, the Soviets called the kind of tactics Kirillova monitors “active measures” — covert efforts by both Moscow and Washington, D.C., to exploit divisions, sway public opinion, and influence events in rival countries and blocs.
The FBI and CIA say Americans experienced those tactics in 2016 when hackers allegedly allied with Putin’s administration obtained the emails of Democratic officials, and Russian state media outlets spread leaked and made-up news to influence the U.S. election.
Putin denies his government interfered, although he suggested last week that “patriotically minded” Russian hackers could be going after Russia’s critics on their own.
Kirillova’s network of Eastern and Western security sources and her grounding in Eastern European cultures, politics and languages make her unique among U.S.-based journalists, said John Sipher, a 28-year U.S. intelligence veteran who now works as a Russia analyst in Washington, D.C. Her ability to tease out clues and point to patterns “has added to the depth and breadth of what’s going on,” Sipher said.
For instance, he said, Kirillova tracked down photos showing Russian officials were acquainted with people and groups Interpol had sought as suspects in an alleged coup attempt last year in Montenegro, a former Yugoslav republic that has angered Russia by becoming the newest member of the NATO Western military alliance. Russia denies involvement in the alleged plot.
“Nobody else that I’ve seen in the U.S. is doing that,” Sipher said.
The kind of Russia-monitoring Kirillova is doing from the United States could be extremely important for Americans, says Alya Shandra, managing editor of Euromaidan Press, an English-language news site based in Ukraine. A war with Russia in Ukraine is blamed for the deaths of nearly 9,500 people and the displacement of millions since 2014, the United Nations says.
Americans greatly underestimate the danger they face from Russia, and it’s “very hard for us in Ukraine” getting that across, Shandra said.
Raised in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, Kirillova came to the United States in 2014 when her husband landed contracts with tech companies. She says Russian authorities began moving against the online news site and bank accounts of her-then colleague Alexander Shchetinin, who worked with her covering Russian actions in Ukraine.
The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists says it does not track the number of foreign journalists seeking asylum in the United States, which can be a yearslong process.
Recent instances that have come to public notice include a Mexican journalist who tangled with drug cartels in Mexico and sought asylum in the U.S. He returned home after losing his bid for parole while his case played out. A teenage blogger from Singapore sought asylum in the U.S. after mocking the government in his home country, and he is fighting with the federal government over his case.
Kirillova says contacts warned her and Shchetinin that Russian security agencies were scrutinizing them. At least 36 journalists have been killed in Russia in retaliation for their reporting since 1992, the Committee to Protect Journalists says.
The teddy bear Kirillova keeps with her was Shchetinin’s. It wears a cheerful red sweater bearing a Ukrainian flag, a token of their work covering Ukraine, she said.
At one point, he sent her and her husband a selfie from Moscow, cheekily posed with the Ukrainian teddy bear in front of Russia’s old KGB headquarters. To show “we shouldn’t fear them,” she says.
In August, after Russia succeeded in stifling his news operation, Shchetinin was found dead of a gunshot wound in his apartment in Ukraine’s capital, a gun beside him. Authorities said they were investigating the possibilities of both murder and suicide.
A friend retrieved the teddy bear from his apartment and sent it to Kirillova in the United States.