Two senior Republican lawmakers, the chairs of the House Intelligence and Foreign Affairs committees, say their colleagues are echoing Russian state propaganda against Ukraine.

Researchers who study disinformation say Reps. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, and Michael McCaul, R-Texas, are merely acknowledging what has been clear for some time: Russian propaganda aimed at undermining U.S. and European support for Ukraine has steadily seeped into America’s political conversation over the past decade, taking on a life of its own.

McCaul, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Puck News he thinks “Russian propaganda has made its way into the United States, unfortunately, and it’s infected a good chunk of my party’s base.”

Turner, chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told CNN that anti-Ukraine messages from Russia are “being uttered on the House floor.”

Reps. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, and Mike Turner, R-Ohio, leave a House Republican Conference candidate forum
Reps. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, and Mike Turner, R-Ohio.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images file

For the past decade, since Russia’s first military incursion into Ukraine in 2014, Moscow has spread propaganda and disinformation in a bid to undercut U.S. and European military support for Ukraine, according to U.S. and Western officials.

Some of the arguments, distortions and falsehoods spread by Russia have taken root, mostly among right-wing pro-Trump outlets and Republican politicians, researchers say, including that Ukraine’s government is too corrupt to benefit from Western aid and that the Biden family has alleged corrupt ties to Ukraine.

Russia, in keeping with traditional propaganda techniques, seeks to make its case and tarnish Ukraine through a mixture of outright falsehoods, half-truths, inferences or simply amplifying and promoting arguments already being made by American or European commentators and politicians, researchers say.

The propaganda is sometimes spread covertly, through fake online accounts, or openly by Russian officials and state media. As a result, the origin of some allegations or criticisms is often opaque, especially when a certain accusation or perception has gained wide acceptance, leaving no clear fingerprints.

Early in the war, a false story boosted by Russian propaganda — that the U.S. had helped Ukraine build biological weapons labs — gained traction on right-wing social media and was touted by then-Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

Russia also is conducting a parallel propaganda campaign in Europe. Belgium’s prime minister said Thursday that his government is investigating alleged Russian bribes to members of the European Parliament as part of Moscow’s campaign to undermine support for Ukraine. Czech law enforcement officials last month alleged that a former pro-Russian member of Ukraine’s parliament, Viktor Medvedchuk, was behind a Prague-based Russian propaganda network designed to promote opposition to aiding Ukraine.

Here are some examples of Republican lawmakers using arguments often promoted by Russian propaganda:

Buying yachts

When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met with members of Congress behind closed doors in December to appeal for more U.S. help for his country’s troops, some lawmakers raised questions about Ukraine allegedly buying yachts with American aid money.

Zelenskyy made clear that was not the case, according to Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, a strong supporter of arming Ukraine. “I think the notion of corruption came up because some have said we can’t do it, because people will buy yachts with the money,” Tillis told CNN. “[Zelenskyy] disabused people of those notions.”

Where did the yacht rumor come from?

Pro-Russian actors and websites promoted a narrative alleging Zelenskyy bought two superyachts with U.S. aid dollars. One Russia-based propaganda site, DC Weekly, published a story last November that included photos of two luxury yachts, called Lucky Me and My Legacy, which it alleged were bought for $75 million.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., a vocal opponent of military aid to Ukraine, in November retweeted a post about the alleged yacht purchase from the Strategic Culture Foundation, a Russian-based propaganda outlet directed by Russia’s intelligence services, according to the Treasury Department. The U.S. has imposed sanctions on the organization, accusing it of spreading disinformation and interfering in U.S. elections.

Another outspoken critic of aid to Ukraine, Republican Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio, also made a similar claim.

In a December interview with former President Donald Trump’s White House adviser Steve Bannon, Vance claimed that members of Congress wanted to cut Social Security benefits to provide more aid to Ukraine, and that money would allegedly be used for Zelenskyy’s ministers to “buy a bigger yacht.”

“There are people who would cut Social Security, throw our grandparents into poverty. Why? So that one of Zelenskyy’s ministers can buy a bigger yacht?” Vance said. “Kiss my ass, Steve. It’s not happening.”

Donald Trump looks as J.D. Vance speaks.
Donald Trump with J.D. Vance.Sarah L. Voisin / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

The tale of Zelenskyy’s luxury yacht, however, turned out to be totally false. The yachts cited in the DC Weekly article remain up for sale, the owners told The Associated Press.

Two academics at Clemson University, disinformation researchers Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren, found that DC Weekly ran numerous stories copied from other sites that were rewritten by artificial intelligence engines. The articles had bylines with fake names along with headshots copied from other online sites. DC Weekly appeared to be a Russian effort to launder false information through a seemingly legitimate news site as part of an attempt to undermine U.S. support for Ukraine, according to the researchers.

Asked by reporters about Vance’s comments, Tillis said: “I think it’s bullshit. …If you’re talking about giving money to Ukrainian ministers — total and unmitigated bullshit.”

Greene’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Vance’s spokesperson said the senator was making a rhetorical point about how he opposed sending U.S. assistance to what he sees as a corrupt country, but was not asserting the yacht stories online were accurate.

Vance’s office referred NBC News to an earlier response to the BBC on the same topic:

“For years, everyone in the West recognized that Ukraine was one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Somehow everyone forgot that just as we started sending them billions of dollars in foreign aid.”

Enabling ‘corruption’

Russian state media for years has painted Ukraine as deeply corrupt, and has argued that the U.S. and its allies are wasting money and military hardware by assisting such an allegedly corrupt government.

“This is absolutely a line that they have pushed, and then once it appears in the Western ecosystem, other [Russian] media picks it up and it gets recycled back,” said Bret Schafer, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy.

This line of argument has gained traction partly because Ukraine does face a genuine corruption problem.

Russia’s effort to focus attention on corruption in Ukraine reflects a long-established propaganda method of using facts or partial truths to anchor a broader assertion or accusation, sometimes making a leap in logic, Schafer and other researchers said. Russia’s message amounts to: Ukraine is corrupt, therefore U.S. and Western aid will be stolen and wasted.

Schafer said it was ironic for Russia, a country mired in corruption and kleptocracy, to be leveling accusations about corruption.

Republican Rep. Mary Miller has said she strongly opposes more assistance for Ukraine because it amounts to sending cash to “corrupt oligarchs.”

“With Zelensky coming to DC this week to ask for more money, I will continue to vote AGAINST sending your tax $$ to corrupt oligarchs in Ukraine for a proxy war that could have ended in ‘22,” Miller wrote in a post on X in December.

The Illinois lawmaker also echoed another assertion that often appears in Russian media, that the Biden administration allegedly undermined efforts by Russia to avoid war with Ukraine.

 “A peace deal was on the table that [Ukraine] and [Russia] were both ready to sign, but Biden said NO,” she wrote.

There was in fact no proposed peace agreement that Russia and Ukraine were prepared to sign before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, according to U.S. and European officials. As Russian troops massed on the border of Ukraine, Western governments urged Russia not to invade and warned there would be economic and diplomatic consequences.

Reuters has reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin rejected a possible deal to avert a war that had been discussed with Kyiv by Russia’s envoy to Ukraine. The Kremlin said the report was inaccurate and has said Russia tried for years to arrive at an understanding with Ukraine.

As for corruption in Ukraine, Zelenskyy has vowed to tackle the problem, sacking senior officials in some recent cases. But some civil society groups have criticized his approach and Ukrainians say corruption is the country’s second-most serious problem, after the Russian invasion, according to a poll conducted last year.

In an annual survey, Transparency International said Ukraine made progress toward addressing the issue and now ranks 104th out of 180 countries on its Corruption Perceptions Index, climbing 12 places up from its previous ranking.

Ukraine is not alone among countries that receive U.S. and other foreign aid but struggle with corruption. Supporters of assisting Ukraine argue it would undermine America’s influence in the world and its humanitarian efforts if Washington withheld foreign aid from every country where there were reports of corruption.

Miller’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The Biden family and Ukraine

Republicans have repeatedly alleged that President Joe Biden and his son Hunter have corrupt ties to Ukraine, and that they sought $5 million in bribes from the Ukrainian energy company Burisma to protect the firm from an investigation by Ukraine’s prosecutor general.

There is no credible evidence for the allegations. A key source for the accusations against the Bidens is a former FBI informant, Alexander Smirnov, who was arrested in February on federal charges of fabricating the bribery claims. Smirnov says he was fed information by Russian intelligence.

Republicans had heavily promoted Smirnov’s allegations against the Bidens, seeing them as crucial to a planned impeachment effort against the president that has since fizzled.

“In my estimation, that is probably the clearest example of Russian propaganda working its way into the American political system,” said Emerson Brooking, a resident senior fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab of the Atlantic Council.

GOP Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona cited the false bribery allegations in expressing his opposition to providing assistance to Ukraine.

“In exchange for … bribe money from Ukraine, Joe Biden has dished out over $100 billion in taxpayer money to fund the war in Ukraine. I will not assist this corruption by sending more money to the authoritarian Ukrainian regime,” Gosar said in a statement in October.

Gosar’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

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