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He was kidnapped and tortured by Russian soldiers. Then they started using his Instagram to spread pro-Kremlin propaganda

Eliza Mackintosh and Yuliia Presniakova, CNN

Lviv, Ukraine CNN)Before the outbreak of the war, 55-year-old Igor Krayan from the southern Ukraine port city of Kherson frequently shared gardening updates on social media. His fodder was full of palms, pomegranate trees, marigolds, bamboo and avocados grown in his home and small business near the Black Sea. He called it a "fairy-tale garden."

A day after Russia invaded UkraineKurayan posted a selfie with a rifle on Instagram on February 25, claiming that the Territorial Defense Forces, Reserve announced that he had volunteered to fight in the unit. of the Ukrainian army. Shortly thereafter,Kherson fell into the hands of Russian forces, and in early April, after living for weeks under their occupation and protesting the occupation, Krajan was kidnapped. He was watering plants in a shoe store when he said Russian soldiers dragged him outside and threw him into a van.

Soon after Krayan's kidnapping, his Facebook and Instagram pages, as well as a new TikTok account registered in his name, marked him as a proud Ukrainian and passionate activist. He began posting messages that were completely out of touch with the man's known personality to his family and friends. and an avid gardener.

"They started using my father's social media. They wanted to make dolls from him."


Initially, Krajan's captors painted him as a patriot, posting old photos to Ukrainian soldiers while carrying supplies. The front line in Donbass, where the Russian-backed separatists have been fighting the Ukrainian government since his 2014.

Then strange videos began to surface. One of them, Krayan, appears emaciated, flanked on either side by a masked armed man with a blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag and a red-and-black flag associated with the Ukrainian nationalist movement. There were two men in line for him. He said Kherson was occupied and the rally was pointless, adding that the territorial defense there had been dissolved. In another speech, he denounced the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and called on his people to surrender.

"I think any further resistance is pointless," Mr Krayan said in a clip shared on his social media accounts and aired on Russian state television. . Standing in front of his weapons cache with his hands tied, he said it was part of a plan to attack Russian soldiers and freedom activists but had given up, adding: Surrender their weapons.

"They started using my dad's social media. They signed him up on TikTok after seeing him being active on Facebook. My dad I don't even know what is," Krayan's daughter, Karina, 23, an old journalist who left Ukraine after the war started, told CNN. "They wanted to make a doll out of him."

Karina provided CNN with the video and screenshots posted on her father's original social media accounts. Did. Her post, which she shared with Ukrainian authorities, was deleted after Krajan's release.

Krajan, who was released in a prisoner exchange in late April after nearly a month of detention, has been abducted in recent months from the occupied territories in the southeast of the country. One of several Ukrainians who were subsequently sucked into the Kremlin's propaganda machine. Some of their social media pages were used to promote pro-Kremlin talking points, while others featured Russian Vladimir in his interview on TV supporting Putin's war.

In an encrypted video call he spoke to CNN, Krajan said Russian soldiers could torture him for information (twisting his fingers with pliers, bloody with truncheons). He said he alternated between using his iPhone to access his social media accounts. , shares an image depicting him as a traitor turned hero. "They started playing their game with these photos," Krayan said, adding that his captors showed him hijacking his account and taunted him. added. "They used my Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok, which I didn't have, and created a page there."

offered me, they wanted to show first, 'I saw a patriot here, and then he betrayed the country.' I was. “They said, ‘You are a very famous person in Kherson. Accounts created using your name are still valid. He has not posted anything since April 24, four days before his release.

“They started playing games with these photos.

Igor Krayan Kidnapped by Russian Soldiers

And the battle for brains has entered a new phase. Moscow is shifting its strategy from the national level to the local level, trying to draw Ukrainians living in the occupied territories to Russia's side. But after struggling to find collaborators, he resorted to new tactics.

"Initially, during the blitzkrieg phase, the Russian propaganda machine worked at the state level, trying to convince the local population, especially those in the occupied territories, that Ukraine had abandoned you. Mykola Balaban, deputy director of the Stratcom Center for Communications and Information Security (Stratcom Center UA) under Ukraine's Ministry of Culture and Information Policy, told CNN.

``In the case of Igor and the man who also used this content inside Russia, ``Look at this Ukrainian, he was an activist and pro-Ukrainian, but now he understands We showed him what the real situation was and now he is pro-Russian.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin has repeatedly accused the West of spreading falsehoods,Russia's Ambassador to the United Nations, Vasily Nevenzia, in May described himself as "

Putin's changes in information warfare

More than any other country in the world, Russia has suffered the brunt of Russia's so-called "hybrid warfare" - an insidious blend of disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks and ground warfare. Ukraine has been Moscow's main target since the 2014 Euromaidan revolution transformed Ukraine's political climate and society, bringing closer ties to the West.

For years, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the notorious Kremlin-related troll factory that caused discord in the 2016 US presidential election, It used Ukraine as a test bed for its tactics. But after Russia's meddling in the election came to light, tech giants such as Facebook and Twitter stepped up efforts to crack down on organized illicit activity.

As a result, Russia has become increasingly reliant on what experts call "information laundering," through a network of pro-Kremlin actors, journalists, activists and other proxies to lie or duplicate information. justify the story. "dzhynsa" in Ukrainian (a reference to money kept in jeans pockets for illegal transactions).

Since the Russian invasion, hackers have compromised social media accounts and communication networks of trusted sources in Ukraine: government officials, news outlets,Ukrainian military personnel and civilians. and spread the false message that Ukrainian forces are attacking Ukrainian forces. To surrender and, more broadly, to sow chaos. Facebook's parent company Meta traced one of his campaigns targeting Ukrainian military personnel in April, saying it tracked his group of Belarusian state-sponsored hackers known as Ghostwriter. Stated. The company also said its systems detected and thwarted attempts by IRA-linked networks to return him to Facebook.

"They can capture a real person and do whatever they want with social media, a social mirror of this real person."

Stratcom Center UA Deputy Director Mykola Balaban
The government is also fighting back. In May,a British-funded investigation found that a new Russian vandal farm was allegedly operating at an arms factory in St. Suspected relationship with Evgeny Prigozhin, a man believed to be in IRA — hijacking discussions on social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok, targeting accounts of world leaders to promote pro-war messages. The UK government has alerted the platform to the activity and said the evidence would help root out the Russian influence operation.

Against this backdrop, Russia must find a new strategy. Now the forces are looking for real people to promote their stories - whether they want to or not.

"They can capture real people and do whatever they want with social media," said Balaban, who has tracked Russia's disinformation tactics for years. First as a historian, then as a soldier, and now as a government official. "Of course, when we're talking about resources, it's much more expensive and complicated.Because special personnel like Igor Krayan are needed to work with these prisoners. It's not as simple as fake accounts and bot farms.

Balaban's Stratcom Center UA is working closely with fact-checking and civil society groups to trace the social accounts of Ukrainians at risk of kidnapping, influence manipulation, and hacking. doing. As part of this work, the Center also maintains a database of official Ukrainian sources, which it regularly shares with Meta and other social networks for monitoring purposes.

CNN has identified at least five of her Ukrainians who were abducted. Their Facebook accounts appeared in propaganda videos that were being used or shared on social networks to spread messages in favor of Russia's war. All were public figures, including prominent local activists, officials, and veterans. According to friends and family, all but Kurayan remain missing.

According to Meta, these incidents, while concerning, do not appear to constitute a trend.

The company announced several safety features for Ukrainian users in response to the war, encouraging likely targets to install her two-factor authentication. increase.

"Russian media is 100% lying to him."

In the end, Russian propaganda saved Krajan.

After being transferred from the Kherson cellar to a barracks in Sevastopol, Crimea, Krajan was photographed in a report on Ukrainian prisoners of war. In it, he appears briefly, sitting among other detainees who have gathered in a room to watch Russian state television. Many avoid watching film crews, and some keep their heads up.

The footage, which aired on several Russian channels, including state-run NTV, described the "good condition" of the barracks and said prisoners "would like to end the war and live in peace." I am," he claimed.

A few days later, in a surreal through-the-glass scene, Krajan said he was in the same viewing room when he saw himself on the screen. "When I was in Sevastopol, I watched these Russian channels. We were forced to watch them. All information from the Russian media is 100% false," he said. Told. "But thanks to this report, I have been set free."

Some of Krajan's relatives in Transnistria, on the border of Moldova and Ukraine, allied with Russia, recognize him in the footage. and took a screenshot and sent it to his daughter Karina.

``We met my father there and figured out exactly where he was. , collected all the information and submitted it to the (prisoners of war) hotline," Karina told CNN. After days of silence, her phone rang. At the time, the person in charge of negotiating the prisoner exchange was Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Irina Vereshchuk, who called Karina to tell her that her father was being released, she said. Told. "I couldn't be happier," she added.

CNN has reached out to Bereschuk's office, the Intelligence Bureau, which currently manages prisoner exchanges, and the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), which operates the hotline, for comment. SBU told CNN it could not comment on specific cases.

Before the war began, the US government warned in a letter to the United Nations that the Russian military had "reliable information" that compiled lists of Ukrainian citizens, including activists and journalists.kidnapped, torturedor killed.

For this reason, many people living in occupied territories do not take their personal mobile phones into their homes, instead using burner his devices when possible. Krajan didn't have his iPhone with him when he was abducted, but after days of torture he told his captors where it was hidden.

“The Russian military is trying to control devices (activists, local influencers, celebrities), checking social media accounts to understand their value. and how he or she has made it public, not only because he or she may have influence, but also to verify his identity.”Prominent Ukrainian Fact Checker Yevhen Fedchenko, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the organization StopFake, told CNN.

“The Russian military wants to control the devices, they check their social media accounts and they understand their value. We're looking into it, we're looking into influence. Use me for the same purpose, to spread or simply eliminate ," he added.

For Fedchenko and others at the forefront of Russia's information warfare, the Kremlin's strategy is nothing new. The information vacuum and atmosphere of fear created in the occupied territories are tactics used by Moscow in 2014 when it annexed Crimea and fomented war in eastern Ukraine.

But this time the Ukrainians have become fixated on these tactics.

When Krayan regained control of his social media accounts, ready to denounce them or rebut them online, he then began sifting through posts. But it was unpleasant to read what his captors wrote in his guise. But when he scrutinized the comments, it became clear how ineffective their strategy was.

"I read how my friends reacted to these videos. And when they knew it was Russian, they immediately commented," he laughs. said while "They realized it wasn't me."