“Putin's friends” and Prigozhin's network: Foreign “observers” in pseudo elections in occupied areas

“Putin's friends” and Prigozhin's network: Foreign “observers” in pseudo elections in occupied areas

Russian propaganda is diligently working to create at least the appearance of “broad international support” for Russia's war as the Kremlin is drawing individual foreigners into their criminal campaigns.

Russia’s armed aggression against Ukraine, occupation, and attempted annexation of territories are a gross violation of international law. The sham “elections” Russians held in the occupied parts of Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk, and Kherson regions, as well as in Crimea, were yet another act of encroachment on the state sovereignty of Ukraine, as well as a brazen demonstration of contempt for the international community. The absolute majority of independent states and international organizations, such as the UN, the OSCE, and the Council of Europe, will never recognize the Kremlin's criminal actions as legitimate.

However, Russian propaganda is diligently working to create at least the appearance of “broad international support” as the Kremlin is drawing individual foreigners into their criminal campaigns. Those accomplices, driven by ideological or other motives, agree to participate in an outright farce, praising “Russian democracy,” scolding “Ukrainian Nazis” and “Western imperialists,” and turning a blind eye to the occupation of Ukrainian lands.

The so-called “foreign observers” played a special role in the shameful “legitimization” of the 2014 pseudo-referenda. Appealing to their participation, the Kremlin spoke about the compliance of “plebiscites” with international norms and standards, and convinced Russians that Russia had many friends abroad among politicians, journalists, and intellectuals. Russian propaganda preferred never to mention how much this “friendship” cost Moscow. In September 2022, Russians applied the same technique during pseudo-referenda in four regions of Ukraine. Over the year, the performance was repeated: this time, in the form of fake local “elections,” synchronized with Russia’s single polling day.

According to the head of the Russian Central Election Commission, Ella Pamfilova, out of 50 foreigners who volunteered as “observers,” more than 30 deployed in the so-called “new regions” — the occupied territories of mainland Ukraine.

The Center for Strategic Communication and Information Security has identified these individuals and now reveals their names.

The largest group consists of 21 citizens of European countries. Fifteen of them are citizens of the European Union member states. Moreover, three U.S. citizens, six people from Latin America, three from Africa, and three from Asia illegally visited the occupied territories of Ukraine.

Bosnia and Herzegovina (Republika Srpska)

●            Srđan Perišić, lecturer at the University of East Sarajevo, advisor to the President of Republika Srpska.


●            Erna Oldudottir, editor of the online publication Frettin.is.

●            Conrad Magnusson, entrepreneur.


●            Enrique Javier Refoyo Acedo, political scientist, translator, member of the Katehon think tank, participant of the Russia – Land of Opportunity forum and the East – Solidarity – Donbass organization.

●            Fernando Moragon, chair of the Spanish-Chinese Council One Belt, One Road; president of the Hispano-Russian Observatory of Eurasia Association.


●            Vito Grittani, ambassador-at-large of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia-controlled Abkhazia, co-founder of the International Diplomatic Observatory; 

●            Giorgio Descovich Deschi, founder of the separatist movement Liberazione Triestina.

●            Pasquale Salatino, editor of Osservatore Calabrese, board member of Cantiere Laboratorio.

The Netherlands

●            Sonya van den Ende, left-wing journalist, blogger, works with Russian, Iranian, and Syrian media.

●            Mirjam Mahmoud (Mirjam van den Ende), daughter of Sonja van den Ende, a conspiracy blogger.


●            Volker Friedrich Karl Tchapke, founder of the far-right organization Preußische Gesellschaft Berlin-Brandenburg e.V.

●            Thomas Röper, editor-in-chief of the Russian German-language online publication Anti-Spiegel.


●            Manuel Pires da Rocha, member of the Communist Party of Portugal, member of the municipal council of the city of Coimbra, violinist of the folk band Brigada Victor Jara.


●            Camelia Dorina Pop, head of the Italian non-governmental organization Association for the Social Support of the Friends of Romania in the European Union (APSARUE).


●            Miodrag Zarković, editor of the Serbian publication Pečat (Seal), vice-president of the organization The Last Line of Defence.

●            Goran Petronijević, lawyer, defender of the former President of the Republic of Srpska Radovan Karadžić, head of the Center for the Restoration of International Law, founder of the Russian Express media centre (Belgrade)

●            Goran Šimpraga, TV producer, head of the Russian Express media center (Belgrade).


●            Lubica Blaškova, former member of the far-right Vlast party, president of the Association of Graduates of Russian and Soviet universities.


●            Arnaud Develay, lawyer, political commentator of Russian state media, columnist for the Russian publication Geopolitika.ru.

●            Andre Chanclu, former member of the far-right movement Groupe Union Defense and a member of the neo-fascist group New Order (Ordre nouveau), co-founder of the organizations Committee France-Russia (Le Collectif France-Russie) and the France-Donbass Committee (Le Collectif France-Donbass).

●            Christelle Neant, ex-head of the Doni Press press centre in the occupied Donetsk, cooperates with “the Ministry of State Security of the Donetsk People's Republic,” Donbass Insider, and Reseau International publications.


Steve Gill (left) and Kline Preston (right)

●            George Kline Preston IV, lawyer and lobbyist who served the interests of Russian clients involved in interfering in the U.S. presidential election.

●            Steve Gill is a radio host and political commentator, former editor of the conservative publication The Tennessee Star.

●            Wyatt Reed, correspondent for the Russian state news agency Sputnik.


●            Sebastian Salgado, blogger, former information director of TVC Mexico and teleSUR Venezuela.


●            Henrique Domingues, member of the Communist Party of Brazil, a columnist for the left-wing edition of the Red Journal.


●            Janlisbert Velasco, left-wing activist.


●            Israel Homes Arconda, writer.


●            Carlos Andreas Muñoz Yáñez, lawyer, former President of the National Council for Intergenerational Equality (Consejo Nacional de Igualdad Intergeneracional, CNII).

●            Robalino de la Torre Michel Andrea, member of the left-wing political party Izquierda Democratica.


●            Clarissa Wijdorven, TV presenter.

●            Nathalie Yamb, political activist with Swiss, Cameroonian, and Ivorian citizenship. 


●            Dario Abdullah Camal, secretary of the non-governmental international network African Youth for Development Commission (AYDEC).


●            Purnima Anand, head of the non-governmental organizations BRICS International Forum and the International Federation of Indo-Russian Youth Clubs.


●            Fauzan Al-Rashid, editor-in-chief of the Indonesian version of the Internet publication Russia Beyond the Headlines (RBTH).


●            Mohammad Hamzeh, ex-member of the Islamic Consultative Council of Iran.

In Russian propaganda, these people appear almost as official representatives of the states of which they are citizens. However, this is not the case. No government and no reputable international organization specializing in election observation delegated anyone to pseudo-elections. The majority of foreigners (21 out of 33) as “international experts” were invited by the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation. The role of experts was reduced to visiting polling stations for “voting,” participating in recording propaganda TV stories and press conferences with statements about “the absence of violations,” “transparency of the process,” and “absolute legitimacy” of fake “elections” and last year's pseudo-referenda.

Foreign citizens involved in pseudo-elections can be divided into several groups. Among them are persons directly involved in the creation of propaganda content. Some of them consider themselves to be independent bloggers or journalists, some are employees of Russian media or administrators of sites affiliated with the Kremlin. It is possible to single out politicians of the extreme right and left, persons associated with Yevgeny Prigozhin's Association for Free Research and International Cooperation (AFRIC), and other agents of Russian influence.


The role of “international experts” in the fake “elections” was played by the employee of the Russian news agency Sputnik Wyatt Reed, the editor-in-chief of the German-oriented Internet publication Anti-Spiegel Thomas Röper, and the spokesman of “the Ministry of State Security of the Donetsk People's Republic” Kristel Nean.

Reed considers himself to be a left-wing activist, an advocate of racial justice, and a fighter against imperialism. He cooperates with the American project The Grayzone, which systematically spreads disinformation about Ukraine. He also runs a Telegram channel in which he “exposes Ukrainian fakes,” justifies Russian aggression against Ukraine, and reposts other Kremlin channels. 

Thomas Röper and the Anti-Spiegel website he founded specialize in conspiracy. In 2021, Röper published the book Inside Corona, which was devoted to conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic. Two years before that, a collection of Putin's speeches was published with comments by Röper, who also acted as the compiler. Russia Today TV channel took part in the promotion of the book.

Russian media regularly give the floor to Röper, portraying him as a German journalist. In fact, he has been living in St. Petersburg for more than 15 years, and since 2014 he has regularly visited the occupied territories of Ukraine to create content.

Frenchwoman Kristel Nean illegally crossed the Ukrainian border back in May 2016. Since then, she has lived in the occupied Donetsk, purchased real estate there, worked in the press service of “the Ministry of State Security of the Donetsk People's Republic” and the DONi Press news agency. Not only did she write articles, but she was also responsible for “accreditation,” finding the “right” journalists, and filtering out “foreign agents and propagandists.”

The Russia Beyond the Headlines website, the Indonesian version of which is administered by Fauzan Al-Rashid, is a soft power tool. It introduces readers to Russian culture, traditional dishes, achievements of the USSR space programme, etc. On the maps of the resource, the occupied Crimea is marked as the territory of Russia, despite the fact that Indonesia did not recognize the pseudo-referendum of 2014 and its “results.”

In 2019, Al-Rashid participated in the International Forum of Muslim Journalists and Bloggers, which was held by the Russia-Islamic World Strategic Vision Group.

It was founded in 2006 by the former head of the Central Intelligence Service of the USSR and the Foreign Intelligence Service of Russia Yevgeny Primakov. Among other things, the organization provides grants to foreigners to popularize Russia in countries with a Muslim population. 

You can work for Russian propaganda without being formally involved in Russian media. Thus, the Icelandic online publication Frettin.is, run by Erna Oldudottir, in addition to local news, regularly publishes materials on “total corruption,” “Nazi domination” in Ukraine, “failure of the counteroffensive,” accuses Kyiv of unleashing the war in the Donbas, denies the Holodomor, justifies the geopolitical claims of Russia, and provides a platform for Russian agents of influence.

The article by Frettin.is refers to the resignation of Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov allegedly due to the “failure of the counteroffensive” and “total corruption.”

It provides a platform, for example, to former Ukrainian diplomat Andrii Telizhenko, who in 2021 fell under U.S. sanctions as a member of Andrii Derkach's intelligence network for interfering in the U.S. presidential election.

Sonja van den Ende from the Netherlands and Sebastian Salgado from Argentina position themselves as “independent journalists.” Both spend a lot of time in the occupied territories and communicate with the audience through X (Twitter) accounts. In May 2015, van den Ende published a fake “reader's letter” in the Dutch Metro publication, written on behalf of a witness of a fire in the Odesa Trade Union House. The material reproduced the narrative of Russian propaganda about the “atrocities of Ukrainian fascists.” Van den Ende joined the campaign to deny the involvement of the Russians in the downing of MH17 and to discredit the international investigation. In August 2022, she visited the place of mass execution of Ukrainian prisoners of war in Olenivka to voice lies about the shelling of the colony by the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Sonja van den Ende in Olenivka

Salgado, judging by his social networks, has been in the occupied territory since at least August 2022. The only thing that makes him different from a typical Russian war correspondent is the language of the content: Spanish, not Russian.

Sebastian Salgado's X account

“Putin's Friends”

A significant part of the so-called “expert observers” supports the Putin regime on an ongoing basis, being leaders and members of various organizations that systematically promote the idea of “friendship with Russia.”

Serbian Goran Šimpraga heads the Russian Express media centre in Belgrade and regularly visits Russia. In 2021, he was a member of the jury of the Light to the World Film Festival in Yaroslavl. The festival was organized by the Russian Orthodox Church at the expense of the Presidential Grants Fund. In September of the following year, Šimpraga participated in the journalistic forum All Russia-2022 in Sochi, where the presentation of the book 90 Days of War in the Donbas took place.

Goran Šimpraga (right) at the journalistic forum All Russia-2022

The media center, managed by Šimpraga, was founded by Goran Petronijević.

Goran Petronijević and Goran Šimpraga at a meeting with students of the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow, May 2022

Petronijević is known primarily as the lawyer of the first President of Republika Srpska, Radovan Karadžić, in the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. As a result of the case, Karadžić was imprisoned for life for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. In 2016, Petronijević undertook to defend Serbian General Bratislav Dikić, who was arrested for an attempted coup in Montenegro, the purpose of which was to disrupt the country's accession to NATO.

Goran Petronijević is a member of the Russian Valdai Discussion Club. In June 2021, he participated in the organization and work of the Russian-Serbian conference of the club in Belgrade. The partners of the event were Rossotrudnichestvo and Russkiy Dom.

In March 2022, shortly after the start of the full-scale invasion, Petronijević signed an article with the eloquent title Why Is Russia Right?, published in the Serbian edition of Pečat (Seal). Its editor-in-chief Miodrag Zarković also “observed” the pseudo-elections.

Spanish citizen Enrique Javier Refoyo Acedo calls himself a political scientist and translator and is a member of the organization with an eloquent name East – Solidarity – Donbass and the analytical centre Katehon. The mentioned centre is part of the holding of the “Orthodox oligarch” Konstantin Malofeev, which includes the public organization Tsargrad, the eponymous TV channel, the Internet site, the Telegram channel, and is the main platform for promoting the ideas of the odious philosopher Alexander Dugin.

Konstantin Malofeev and Alexander Dugin

Fernando Maragon heads another think tank with Russian roots — the Hispano-Russian Observatory of Eurasia Association. He regularly participates in various conferences, congresses, and round tables. In particular, at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum and the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok. As a political commentator, he cooperates with RT, Sputnik, and NTV.

Fernando Maragon on RT at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum

A similar activity is carried out by French citizen Arnaud Develay, who lived in the United States for a long time, and in 2022 settled in Russia. He gives interviews and comments to Russian media, and in January 2023, at an informal meeting of the UN Security Council, he said that Western weapons allegedly got to Africa from Ukraine.

Develay participated in the preparation of the report on “war crimes of Ukraine” as an expert of the International Public Tribunal for the Crimes of Neo-Nazis and Their Associates, presented in the capital of Russia in July 2023. The chair of the “tribunal” is Maxim Grigoriev, a member of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation, which is responsible for inviting pseudo-observers to fake “elections.” Develay is also connected with Grigoriev through his participation in the meetings of the French Club in Moscow.

Frenchman Andre Chanclu is a co-founder of two pro-Russian organizations: the France-Russia Committee and the France-Donbas Committee, and Indian citizen Purnima Anand heads the International Federation of Indian-Russian Youth Clubs.

Kline Preston Law Group, founded by Kline Preston, has been working with Russian clients in the United States for more than 20 years. The most high-profile was the cooperation with the former Deputy Head of the Central Bank of the Russian Federation Alexander Torshin. With the help of Preston's company, Torshin established contacts with the National Rifle Association (NRA), of which Donald Trump is a member, ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

Maria Butina, Torshin's assistant, was convicted as a participant in a conspiracy in the interests of the Russian authorities, and her patron was sanctioned. After her release from an American prison, Butina joined the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation, which invited “international experts” to participate in pseudo-elections.

Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin (Maria Butina / Instagram)

Preston's company is incorporated in Nashville, Tennessee. Steve Gill, a political commentator, lives in the same city. In 2019, he was arrested on charges of violence against his ex-wife and evasion of alimony.

In January 2023, Gill and Preston participated in the America Z programme on the Z-studio YouTube channel. Both commentators spent an hour convincing the audience that the United States should stop providing military assistance to Ukraine and worsen relations with Russia.

The Cantiere Laboratorio organization, of which Pasquale Salatino is a member, declares Euroscepticism and advocates Italy's withdrawal from NATO, that is, promotes the destruction of the Western collective security system. Cantiere Laboratorio supported the publication and provided a platform for the presentation of the book Die for NATO? (Morire per la NATO?) by retired Lieutenant Colonel Fabio Filomeni in January 2023.

Presentation of Fabio Filomeni's book at Cantiere Laboratorio

Filomeni is present in the Russian media space as a “whistleblower” of the Alliance's crimes and an opponent of military assistance to Ukraine. He participated in a campaign to discredit the transfer of depleted uranium projectiles. 

In 2016, the Italian Vito Grittani took the position of the so-called “ambassador-at-large” in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia-controlled Abkhazia. In this status, he visited the occupied Transnistria in 2019 and met with officials of the so-called “Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic.” 

Vito Grittani in Tiraspol, 2019

Romanian citizen Camelia Dorina Pop lives permanently in Italy. She is connected to Vito Grittani through her participation in the non-governmental organization Association of Social Support to Friends of Romania in the EU (APSARUE), which they founded in Milan in 2014.

Vito Grittani (centre), Camelia Dorina Pop (second right), and other APSARUE members in Milan, 2014

Srđan Perišić is an advisor to Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik, who declares an openly pro-Russian position. In particular, he stated that he considered Crimea to be part of Russia and also justified Russian aggression against Ukraine by the actions of NATO and the “collective West.” The Dodik administration is blocking Bosnia and Herzegovina's accession to European sanctions against Russia.


The Soviet Union used higher education institutions as a tool for recruiting future agents of influence from among foreign students. Putin's Russia also follows this tradition. Among the “international experts,” persons whose connection with Russia is traced precisely through education have been identified. 

Lubica Blaškova heads the Slovak Association of Graduates of Russian and Soviet universities. In 1981, she graduated from Moscow State University as a teacher of Russian language and literature.

Portuguese violinist Manuel Pires da Rocha was also educated in Moscow, at the Gnessin Music School.

Dario Abdullah Camal from Mozambique graduated with a Master’s degree from the Moscow Higher School of Economics in 2019.

Prigozhin's Network

A group of persons affiliated with the Association for Free Research and International Cooperation (AFRIC) illegally visited the occupied territories of Ukraine in September. This organization was created as a network of agents of influence and political commentators to promote Russia's interests on the African continent.

One of the key activities of AFRIC was the influence operations of Yevgeny Prigozhin, in particular, the creation of fake missions to monitor elections in Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Africa, Mozambique, and Madagascar. In 2021, AFRIC, along with other organizations and individuals associated with Prigozhin, fell under U.S. sanctions.

Prigozhin's network of influence (U.S. Department of Treasury)

The Kremlin decided to use the technologies developed in Africa and persons from the network of the former chief “Wagnerite” in Ukraine. Among them are Nathalie Yamb from Cameroon, Purnima Anand from India, and Volker Friedrich Karl Tchapke from Germany.

Nathalie Yamb (centre) at AFRIC event

Ultra-Left and Ultra-Right

The willingness to serve Putin's regime was shown by representatives of radical parties and movements from Europe, Africa, and Latin America. Among the “observers” are both the Communists and their ideological antagonists from among the ultra-right. All of them are united by anti-globalism and hatred of imperialism. However, it is exclusively Western: none of them “notices” the imperialistic and neocolonial nature of Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Portuguese Manuel Pires da Rocha and Brazilian Henrique Domingues are members of communist parties in their respective countries. Robalino de la Torre Michel Andrea ran for the Parliament of Ecuador from the left-wing Izquierda Democratica party, Mohammad Hamzeh was a member of the Iranian Parliament from the Islamic Workers' Party. Leftist views are shared by the above-mentioned Kristel Nean, Sonja van den Ende, her daughter Mirjam Mahmoud, as well as Venezuelan activist Janlisbert Velasco.

The ultra-right was represented by former member of the liquidated Slovak party Vlast Lubica Blašková, co-founder of the French National Front Andre Chanclu, head of the separatist movement Liberation of Trieste Giorgio Deschi), and chair of the Prussian Society Berlin-Brandenburg Volker Tchapke.

“Experts” with experience

At least a third of the so-called “international experts” have already violated the law and illegally crossed the border of Ukraine to participate in fake “voting.”

Wyatt Reed, Thomas Röper, Lubica Blaškova, Arnaud Develay, Andre Chanclu, Sonja van den Ende, Mirjam Mahmoud, Henrique Domingues, Fernando Moragon, Erna Oldudottir, and Kristel Nean were involved as “observers” at the pseudo-referenda in Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk, and Kherson oblasts in September 2022.

Sonja van den Ende and Mirjam Mahmoud at the press conference after the 2022 pseudo-referendum

Miodrag Žarković visited the occupied Luhansk back in 2018 to be an “observer” in the fake “elections” of the leader of the “Luhansk People's Republic” and local “MPs.”

Kline Preston and Volker Tchapke were involved in pseudo-elections in the occupied territories for the first time. They used to participate in other Kremlin-organized voting. Preston was an “international expert” on Russia's single voting day in 2017 and on Russia's presidential election in 2018, Tchapke — on the 2020 single voting day.


The Kremlin has created an extensive network of agents of Russian influence from among foreign citizens. They are employed to create a vision of “international support” for Russia's illegal actions and to discredit Ukraine. Russian special services recruit foreigners by reaching out to students and graduates of Russian universities, marginal movements, far-left and far-right political parties, fund projects aimed at promoting Russian culture and “friendship with Russia.” Employees of Russian state media are engaged in spreading propaganda and disinformation not only across the TV channels they work for, but also on their social networks and directly “in the field,” including by playing the role of foreign “international experts” in fake “elections” and “referenda” in the occupied territories. Ukraine's international partners should impose sanctions on all such “observers” and pseudo-pundits mentioned in this piece. Ukrainian law enforcement should launch criminal proceedings against them and take all necessary steps to bring them to justice.

Center for Strategic Communication and Information Security

While citing and using any materials on the Internet, links to the website ukrinform.net not lower than the first paragraph are mandatory. In addition, citing the translated materials of foreign media outlets is possible only if there is a link to the website ukrinform.net and the website of a foreign media outlet. Materials marked as "Advertisement" or with a disclaimer reading "The material has been posted in accordance with Part 3 of Article 9 of the Law of Ukraine "On Advertising" No. 270/96-VR of July 3, 1996 and the Law of Ukraine "On the Media" No. 2849-Х of March 31, 2023 and on the basis of an agreement/invoice.

© 2015-2024 Ukrinform. All rights reserved.

Extended searchHide extended search
By period: