Among other things, this group is supposed to "respond operationally to challenges that arise and intersperse the necessary information and the 'system of argumentation' as quickly as possible." The large number of comments posted by members of this group is intended to create the impression among ordinary Internet users that "a majority thinks this way." In addition, the strategy document recommends, "projects" should be initiated that show "how tolerant Moscow is toward dissidents, and how much more comfortable it is to live within Moscow's sphere of influence."
On January 25, 2016, the strategy document was received in the email inbox of Elena Nikitina, the "Information Minister" of Donetsk. The sender was a Russian email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, owned by someone calling himself "Andrey Afrika." About four weeks later, one of the "advisers," as the Moscow masterminds call themselves, made a mistake that probably exposed their real names. The mishap occurred in an email a certain "Kashalot74" sent to the information minister at 12:13 a.m. on February 21, 2016.
The attachment to the email contained the agenda items for an upcoming meeting. The subject was: "Media Planning, Report on the Work of the Mass Media in the Region." Four names were mentioned at the beginning of the document: Andrey Tolmachev, Yevgeny Morus, Andrey Godnev and Alexander Pashin. The men are described as "technologists and media managers."
Half an hour after Kashalot74 (Russian for "sperm whale") pressed Send, he realized what he had included in the email. "I advise you to delete our last names and forget them!" he wrote in another email to the minister.
Kashalot74 was usually more careful. His presumed real name, Alexander Pashin, appears only a few times in the 10,000 emails. Another email from Kashalot74@mail.ru to the Donetsk interior minister includes as an attachment an airline ticket from the nearby Russian airport in Rostov on Don to Moscow, for a flight at 11:45 a.m. on February 24, 2016. Minister Nikitina's name is listed as a travel companion on the booking confirmation.
According to research by the pro-Ukrainian website InformNapalm, Alexander Pavlovich Pashin worked as a journalist in Murmansk in the early 2000s. He later became director of public relations in the administration of the northern Russian naval port city. After the war in eastern Ukraine began, Mr. Pashin accompanied an aid convoy from Murmansk to the city of Sloviansk in July 2014, and he brought along his camera. He didn't hide, and he gave interviews about the trip, even posting pictures of himself posing next to armed separatists on his profile page on the Russian social network, VK. In May 2016, Mr. Pashin posed for a photo with Donetsk rebel leader and "Prime Minister" Alexander Zakharchenko.
Andrey Godnev is another name the Donetsk information minister was asked to delete and forget. His name also appears in several of the leaked Donetsk emails. Mr. Godnev calls himself a "political adviser" and, according to his VK profile page, is from the Russian city of Nizhniy Novgorod. The strategy document names him as a co-author. In August 2013, Mr. Godnev gave seminars for the Young Guard, the youth organization of Russia's ruling party, United Russia. This emerges from reports on the websites of the two organizations.
Another adviser to the Donetsk information ministry is a person who calls himself "Kosake," or Cossack. The minister consulted with him to discuss the public portrayal of separatist leader Zakharchenko. The "Cossack's" digital trail leads to the name Alexander Kazakov. The Russian online newspaper gaseta.ru calls Mr. Kazakov an "ideological curator" whose job is to improve the rebel leader's image. In interviews, Mr. Kazakov describes himself as a political scientist and representative of various Russian think tanks. Eastern Ukrainian propaganda station Newsfront introduced him in 2015 as the deputy director of the Center for the Political Economy (ZPK). This coincides with information from the Russian official newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, which also lists Mr. Kazakov as a deputy director of the ZPK. The consulting firm has its offices in a modern office tower in downtown Moscow. On its website, the ZPK boasts about its "collaboration with the presidential administration," abbreviated as AP. The AP is a well-known and powerful institution in Russia, Moscow's counterpart to the Federal Chancellery in Berlin, but with more clout. It is President Putin's power center.
The abbreviation "AP" appears in an email sent by the Donetsk information minister on February 9, 2016, at 2:11 p.m. In it, she instructs an employee of her ministry to organize a meeting for the purpose of "cooperation in the media planning and implementation of special projects." The meeting is to include representatives of the separatist Ministry of State Security (MGB), the defense ministry and the editors-in-chief of the region's most important media organizations. A man called Andrey Federovich is also listed as one of the attendees. His position is stated in square brackets next to his name: Advisor from the AP. Mr. Federovich could be the person calling himself Andrey Afrika, who had emailed the strategy document to the minister a few weeks earlier.