‘Reviewing the Donbass Devushka’: A Medium to Spread Russian Propaganda About Ukraine through American Sources
“DonbassDevushka” is a well-known social media account that has been linked to the recent leakage of classified documents on the Ukraine war.
The pro-Kremlin mouthpiece claims to be run by a Russian woman in the occupied city of Luhansk, but is actually run by a pro-Russian former US military officer.
US-born Sarah Bils, 30, confessed in an interview with The Wall Street Journal published last week that she has been overseeing a network of social media accounts called Donbass Devushka, which translates to “Donbasgirl”.
The former Washington DC-based noncommissioned Navy officer pretended to be posting from the Ukrainian city of Luhansk, speaking with a light Russian accent to her hundreds of thousands of followers. But Bils is actually promoting pro-Russia views on the Ukraine war.
Bils had a security clearance during her Navy career. She has been building a small disinformation empire on Twitter and Telegram with the help of more than a dozen people since 2021, according to pro-Ukraine group NAFO, which was one of the first to uncover Bils’ true identity.
Donbass Devushka helped to spread classified files allegedly leaked by airman Jack Teixeira. Four of those documents were posted by another administrator on Telegram to its 65,000 followers, according to The Wall Street Journal. Bils is one of 15 administrators “all over the world” involved in running the Donbass Devushka network.
Bils created a number of accounts on Twitter when the war in Ukraine began in February 2022, promoting pro-Kremlin views by claiming that Kyiv was sponsoring “Nazi marauders” while downplaying the setbacks of Russian forces in Ukraine.
However, most of Bils’ accounts on Twitter have since been shut down. Bils used the platform at times to celebrate the killings of Ukrainian soldiers while defending ultra-violent methods employed by the Wagner mercenary group.
Bils’ YouTube channel has just 3,000 followers. However, Bils posts long interviews with some of the most well-known pro-Russia bloggers and self-proclaimed independent journalists of the English-speaking world, sharing anti-Western sentiments and supporting the viewpoint that the US is waging a proxy war with Russia in Ukraine.
The English-speaking, pro-Russian disinformation network echoes the rhetoric used by Moscow, including accusations of “Nazism” levelled against the Ukrainian government and the assertion that Russia is being besieged by a declining West, says Yevgeniy Golovchenko, a University of Copenhagen expert on Russian disinformation and propaganda.
Bils joined the US Navy in 2009 and left active service by November 2022 due to medical reasons, which Bils said were linked to “post-traumatic stress disorder”.
While serving in the Navy, Bils ran a small business selling fish food and held podcasts discussing the subject of fish.
After February 2022 when Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, she built one of the fastest-growing English-speaking pro-Putin communities, according to Pekka Kallioniemi, a member of the NAFO group and researcher at the University of Tampere in Finland.
However, she is not the only American who has chosen to serve as a mouthpiece for Moscow’s interests, according to Jeff Hawn, a Russia specialist and non-resident fellow at the New Lines Institute, a US geopolitical research centre.
“The vast majority of these English-speaking supporters of Russia come from the United States or Europe,” says Hawn, noting that expediency probably plays a part.
Bils had set up an online store, which was taken offline last weekend, selling various items proclaiming support for the Russian war effort in Ukraine, including T-shirts and mugs celebrating Putin, pro-Kremlin Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, or Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner Group boss.
English-speaking networks such as Donbass Devushka are not necessarily the result of Russian intelligent services’ efforts at recruiting propaganda mouthpieces, notes Golovchenko.
Nevertheless, these Putinophile “influencers” are “very useful to the Kremlin”, says Hawn. The main weakness of Russian propaganda is that it always looks very institutional and linked to the Russian authorities.