(Bloomberg) -- A Russian intelligence operative who’s leading a Kremlin disinformation campaign in Africa has helped run influence operations in Europe for years, according to documents seen by Bloomberg and government officials familiar with the matter.

Artem Kureyev, identified as a Russian Federal Security Service agent in an Estonian court case in 2022, has had frequent contacts with at least half a dozen European journalists, arranged and covered travel costs for some of them to visit occupied territories in Ukraine, and at times appears to have offered to pay for planted news articles, the documents show.

On other occasions he has adopted more subtle methods to try to sway coverage, by arranging interviews, flagging and debating topics in the news or organizing press events.

The Group of Seven nations and the European Union have made combating Russian disinformation and influence operations a top priority ahead of a leaders’ summit in Italy this month. Those efforts have included publicly exposing Russian campaigns and methods, sanctioning outlets and individuals, and coordinating responses to Moscow’s actions, as well as striving to prevent disinformation spreading on major technology platforms.

Still, countering such disinformation campaigns isn’t easy as they’re aimed at sowing confusion and doubt in target audiences rather than convincing people of a particular set of facts, in order to polarise societies on issues such as migration, war or the West’s relations with the rest of the world. 

The documents provide deep insight into the operations and methods of one Russian intelligence operative involved in influence campaigns in Europe. There will be many others like him running similar operations across the continent and elsewhere.

The US State Department in February called out Russia’s intelligence services for providing material support and guidance to a new information agency called “African Initiative.” It said the project spread “deadly disinformation” about the US and Europe, including on a mosquito-borne viral disease outbreak in an attempt to undermine public health programs.

It named Kureyev as the initiative’s chief editor and said the project had also recruited members from the “disintegrating enterprises” of the late Wagner mercenary group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, who died in a plane crash last year.

The Federal Security Service, known as the FSB, and African Initiative didn’t respond to requests to comment on Kureyev. 

Kureyev was also named by The Insider investigative website in January as a contact of a Latvian lawmaker in the outgoing European Parliament, Tatjana Zdanoka, that the outlet accused of cooperating with Russian intelligence. Zdanoka, who didn’t run in the weekend’s European Parliament elections, denied the allegations in a Facebook statement. Her office said in an email that Zdanoka saw Kureyev once in Brussels at an event in the European Parliament but beyond that she doesn’t known anything further about him.

The Kremlin denies Russia is engaged in disinformation campaigns in Europe. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, in January dismissed espionage accusations against Zdanoka as a “witch hunt” comparable to the McCarthyism era in the US in the 1950s. “How many people were arrested and thrown into prison on charges of having relations with communists or the KGB?” he told reporters. “This is the same thing.”

One of the authors of The Insider’s story, ex-Bellingcat reporter Christo Grozev, claimed last year that a journalist from North Macedonia called Darko Todorovski had received payments to get stories published in Bulgaria.

A Russian document seen by Bloomberg indicates that Kureyev had agreed to pay Todorovski 300 euros for articles in two publications. It’s not known if or when such payments were made.

Todorovski said he took part in three visits to military zones in Ukraine organized for journalists by Russia’s Defense Ministry. He knew Kureyev through these press tours as someone with a media company who’d been “collaborating with many journalists from different countries, including the West,” he said Monday in emailed answers to questions.

Todorovski said articles he wrote about these visits were published in Bulgaria, though he denied Grozev’s allegation about payments. “Statements without evidence that I received money and instructions are not serious,” he said.

According to the documents, correspondence between the two men from 2021 to 2023 includes instructions for distributing and finding articles in Russian and English translations on fringe websites such as londonnewstime.com and veteranstoday.com, as well as hotel bookings made by Kureyev for two of Todorovski’s stays in Russia in April last year. 

Todorovski said he had an invitation at the time to take part in TV programs about Asia “and there was a conference and working meeting at the university.” He added that since he takes part in many conferences and forums, he cannot know who pays for all his hotels. Todorovski said he met Kureyev in 2022, in Russia.

Some of the exchanges echo the techniques of a typical pro-Russian propaganda campaign, which often include fabricated news stories planted on fringe websites and then amplified through social media posts or picked up by state media outlets.

One European government official said Kureyev and Todorovksi were last year involved in working on a website called “antibellingcat,” dedicated to discrediting the investigative outlet. 

Todorovski said he left the project a year ago and he believed it was no longer active.

The European official, who asked not to be identified because the information is sensitive, said Kureyev has had contact with Russia’s GRU military intelligence about some aspects of his European influence operations. The GRU didn’t respond to a request to comment.

Separate documents show that Kureyev booked and paid the flights for a group of journalists to visit Crimea in 2023, long after Russia’s full-scale war on Ukraine had begun. Russia seized Crimea in 2014, prompting international sanctions in response.

Kureyev has been in contact with other reporters since Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine and for years prior to that.

Documents indicate that he and another intelligence officer met separately with at least one reporter from an EU member state in Russia, Turkey and elsewhere. On at least two occasions, in August 2019 and in March 2022, the journalist’s Russian contacts covered the travel costs. 

Though many of these discussions relate to news coverage, such as facilitating interviews or arranging trips to Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, the documents don’t provide evidence that any of these journalists’ work is directed or funded by Moscow.

In 2021, Kureyev was in contact with journalists and intermediaries as part of a plan to engage the press in European nations around Russia’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council, according to some of the documents. One of the intermediaries reached out to several local journalists in a Nordic country but it’s not clear if any of them replied.

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