European Voices from Moscow Empowered by Arrested Ukrainian DerStandard Expert Kropachov, Holder of Russian Citizenship

Amid the full-scale military invasion of Ukraine, Russian propaganda is refining its methods by enlisting Ukrainian citizens to carry out disinformation campaigns within the European Union.

As recently reported by SPIEGEL, investigators from Belgium and France conducted raids on the offices of the European Parliament in Brussels and Strasbourg as part of an investigation into the activities of the pro-Russian news portal “Voice of Europe,” which operates several clones across various European countries under the domain

EU Today

An international group of journalists, in their two-part investigation “The ‘Mirny’ Plan,” has uncovered the individuals behind the creation of “Voice of Europe,” their connections to Ukraine and Russia, as well as a range of mechanisms employed by Russian propaganda to create pseudo-experts in the European information space.

These efforts often leverage the resources of reputable media outlets such as Euronews and derStandard. This publication is based on the findings of that journalistic investigation.

Journalists have found that the content for the “Voice of Europe” portals is created by individuals positioning themselves as Ukrainian opposition to the current administration of President Zelensky.

In most cases, their “European” voices reportedly originate from Moscow — these are former officials and experts from the team of ex-President Viktor Yanukovych, who publicly support and justify the military invasion of Ukraine. However, there are also contributors genuinely based in Europe, and most absurdly, some voices come directly from Ukraine.

According to the investigation materials, all individuals involved in this special information operation are part of the pool of speakers from the media holding “112 Ukraine,” which was shut down in Ukraine.

They were the main contributors to the broadcasts of the holding’s channels, including 112, Newsone, ZiK, and Channel 4.

The “112 Ukraine” holding was owned by Viktor Medvedchuk, a friend and personal representative of Putin in Ukraine. This holding, together with the media group “Inter,” owned by oligarch Dmytro Firtash, who is currently under arrest in Austria, was the foundation of pro-Russian political and media activities in Ukraine before the war began.

Another manifestation of this activity was the now-banned pro-Russian opposition party “For Life,” which included representatives of Medvedchuk, Firtash, and Yanukovych.

Many of these individuals can now be found on the “Voice of Europe” portal. Notably, Dmytro Firtash is attempting to avoid extradition to the United States by obtaining diplomatic status as an advisor to the Permanent Mission of Belarus to International Organizations in Vienna, which could grant him diplomatic immunity.

Belarus has supported Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine and provides its territory to Russian military forces. The television channels of Dmytro Firtash’s media group “Inter” continue to operate in Ukraine and are even undergoing a relaunch.

To ensure systematic coordination among all the channels, the chairman of the Inter group, Yegor Benkendorf, transitioned to leading the “112 Ukraine” holding.

As Russian propaganda and calls for unification with Russia had openly aired on the channels of the “112 Ukraine” holding for many years, it was nationalised and shut down after the war began. Medvedchuk was arrested and later exchanged to Russia for Ukrainian prisoners of war. He is now residing in Moscow, where he is an active speaker and one of the investors in the “Voice of Europe” portal.

A few days before the investigative actions in the European Parliament, an event seemingly unrelated at first glance occurred in Kyiv. Law enforcement officers arrested businessman and media resource owner Vitaliy Kropachov, who had previously been engaged as an expert on Ukraine by the Austrian publication derStandard.

For more than seven years, he has been publicly accused of organising a criminal enterprise involved in large-scale corruption in the Ukrainian energy sector. These accusations have now led to his arrest.

According to Ukrainian media, immediately after the closure of the “112 Ukraine” holding, in the midst of the war in 2023, Kropachov launched a new information channel with the peculiar name Ukraine World News (UWN), using the former staff and some of the licenses from the closed holding.

This move caused significant public outcry and sharp criticism directed at Kropachov. Journalists have established that Kropachov enlisted Yegor Benkendorf, mentioned earlier, and the key top management of the closed “112 Ukraine” holding to manage his channel.

In addition to the Ukrainian UWN, the top management of the closed “112 Ukraine” holding has launched two more projects in Europe: the news portal “Voice of Europe” and a virtual legal assistance centre for opposition members, “Pravo Center”.

These projects are positioned as a necessary measure to protect freedom of speech in Ukraine from the so-called “totalitarian regime” of Zelensky. From the outside, this might appear to be constructive opposition activity. However, it has nothing to do with democracy and is, in fact, a cynical tool of Russian propaganda. Lies, corruption, bribery of journalists and politicians—this is what emerges upon a detailed analysis of these activities.

By launching the UWN channel, Kropachov effectively helped retain the staff of the closed pro-Russian media holding “112 Ukraine” within the Ukrainian information space.

Despite UWN’s patriotic tone, it is produced by individuals who have been engaged in Russian propaganda for many years.

In the final days before its closure, the “112 Ukraine” holding also attempted a similar manoeuvre, abruptly changing the rhetoric on all its channels, but failed to deceive anyone. Some of the speakers from the UWN channel are regularly featured on “Voice of Europe.”

Journalists have also uncovered that Kropachov holds Russian citizenship, and in an effort to conceal this, he changed his surname in his Russian passport from Kropachov to Mirny (translated to English as “Peaceful”) in 2008.

He has not renounced his Russian citizenship and remains a Russian citizen to this day. According to Ukrainian law, Russian citizens are prohibited from owning media outlets and participating in privatisation.

Kropachov does not disclose his Russian citizenship publicly. Coinciding with the TV channel’s launch, Kropachov abruptly surfaced on Wikipedia, positioning himself as an authority on Ukraine in European media coverage. Observers have remarked on the consistently laudatory nature of these features.

Critics highlight the apparent lack of fact-checking by the authors, who have seemingly disregarded multiple corruption allegations levelled against Kropachov by reputable Ukrainian media outlets and law enforcement agencies.

In March 2023, the Austrian publication derStandard featured Kropachov in a highly complimentary article, portraying him as an expert and generous entrepreneur eager to bring Ukrainian refugees back home.

He promised free apartments and seed capital to anyone willing to work on his project for building charging stations for electric vehicles. The author of the article, Jakob Pflügl, did not mention the corruption accusations against Kropachov or the scandal surrounding the launch of the UWN channel based on the closed pro-Russian media holding “112 Ukraine.”

Journalists also discovered that Kropachov’s statement, around which the article was built, is absurd and false. Kropachov does not give away free apartments and seed capital to anyone. Instead, he is frequently involved in high-profile scandals over months-long wage arrears to miners at his coal enterprises.

President Zelensky had to intervene in one such scandal, calling Kropachov a fraudster and referring the matter to law enforcement. However, the article’s author, Jakob Pflügl, did not mention any of this. This author seldom writes about Ukrainian figures, and when he does, it is invariably in a complimentary manner.

The subjects have included Kropachov and the former head of the National Bank, Kyrylo Shevchenko, who is evading Ukrainian justice in Vienna. Both individuals are accused of crimes in Ukraine, facing identical charges of organising and managing a criminal organisation and causing substantial harm to the state.

Each publication was followed by reprints in international and Ukrainian media according to a similar pattern.

Seemingly violating copyright and derStandard’s editorial policy, a “full” version of the interview with the same photographs and partially overlapping theses appeared in several European and Ukrainian media outlets shortly after the publication.

This “full” version was neither published in the print nor digital versions of derStandard, and its authenticity has not been verified. In this “full” version, Kropachov appeared less generous, offering no free apartments or capital, and planning to build electric vehicle charging stations in Austria.

Analysing this wave, journalists uncovered a network of fake news sites masquerading as reputable British and Austrian media but lacking physical addresses and editorial offices.

The evidence presented in the journalistic investigation suggests the involvement of brothers Omar Harfouch and Walid Harfouch, who have been the subject of negative press coverage in UkrainianAzerbaijani and Lebanese media.

It is important to note that there are materials online that refute all accusations against Omar Harfouch, explaining the situation as a reaction to Omar Harfouch’s anti-corruption activities and a conspiracy organised against him by Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

It is telling that all these rebuttals are published on the same network of sites that hosted the “full” version of Kropachov’s interview.

Immediately after the investigation began and journalists contacted the implicated individuals, publications started to be deleted en masse from the network, further corroborating the journalists’ suspicions. All the deleted materials were recovered and are included in the investigation.

Omar Harfouch positions himself as a pianist who planned to become the Prime Minister of Lebanon; in Ukraine, he is known as a singer, former radio station owner, and a person connected with the leadership of Euronews.

Previously, Omar Harfouch publicly announced the transition of Yegor Benkendorf from the “Inter” group to one of Europe’s largest media holdings, presumably Euronews. However, this transition did not take place.

His brother, Walid Harfouch, is listed on his personal Wikipedia page as the Vice President of the international television channel Euronews.

Walid and Omar Harfouch have been associated with Yegor Benkendorf and the media group “Inter,” owned by oligarch Dmytro Firtash.

Numerous photos and mentions of the connection between the Harfouch brothers and Euronews CEO Michael Peters, as well as key speakers from the closed media holding “112 Ukraine,” who now broadcast on the “Voice of Europe” portal, can be found online.

There is a simple explanation for this: ample evidence in open sources suggests that the Harfouch brothers have been assisting the media activities of the collaborator and former President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, in European media for many years.

As journalists demonstrate in their investigation “The ‘Mirny’ Plan,” this is a systematically operating mechanism for falsifying the European information space and creating pseudo-experts.

All of the described activities are closely connected to Austria’s capital, Vienna, which was recently dubbed the capital of Russian espionage in Europe by the Financial Times in the article “It really is the Wild West: Spy problem in Vienna spirals out of control”.

The owner of the media group “Inter,” oligarch Dmytro Firtash, the owner of the media group “Inter,” oligarch Dmytro Firtash, has been in Vienna for many years awaiting possible extradition to the United States, where he faces corruption charges. Key top managers of the closed media holding “112 Ukraine” also reside there.

After the war began, Vitaliy Kropachov moved to Vienna with his family and tried to create a positive image for himself through paid publications, but he turned to the wrong people for this.

Kropachov is currently under arrest in Kyiv. According to insider reports, the UWN channel in Ukraine is undergoing staff reductions, and the “Voice of Europe” portal has significantly decreased its publication frequency. Whether this can be considered a victory remains unclear.

Russian media, reporting on the raids in the European Parliament concerning the “Voice of Europe” case, are outraged by the Czech Foreign Ministry’s proposal to impose sanctions on this portal, the notorious Viktor Medvedchuk, and another top manager of the closed “112 Ukraine” holding, Artem Marchevsky.

Once again, they repeat the narrative about problems with freedom of speech in Europe and Ukraine.

At a time when the entire civilised world is helping Ukraine to resist Russian military aggression, it would appear to be the height of cynicism and arrogance to call a portal “Voice of Europe” while gathering speakers in Moscow who openly insult Ukrainian and European politicians, distort facts, call for Ukraine’s capitulation, and threaten nuclear apocalypse —echoing Russian propaganda media word for word. This is not the voice of Europe, but the voice of Moscow, and it is a voice that no one wants to hear right now.