US-born Sarah Bils, 30, admitted 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 “Donbas girl”. 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, Bils expressed her admiration for Vladimir Putin while promoting pro-Russia views on the Ukraine war.
The former US military professional had a security clearance as part of her Navy career. She has been building a “small disinformation empire on Twitter and Telegram” from her in Oak Harbor, Washington state since 2021 with the help of more than a dozen people, 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, posting four of those documents to its 65,000 followers on Telegram, according to The Wall Street Journal. Those were posted by another administrator, according to Bils, adding that she is one of 15 administrators “all over the world” involved in running the Donbass Devushka network.
When the war in Ukraine broke out in February 2022, Bils created multiple accounts on Twitter promoting pro-Kremlin views by claiming that Kyiv was sponsoring “Nazi marauders” while downplaying the setbacks of Russian forces in Ukraine.
Most of Bils’ accounts on Twitter have since been shut down, including the first, @PelmeniPusha, which counted more than 60,000 followers before its suspension from the platform. Bils used the platform at times to celebrate the killings of Ukrainian soldiers while defending ultra-violent methods employed by the Wagner mercenary group.
Her YouTube channel, meanwhile, only has some 3,000 followers. Despite the low audience figures, 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, an expert on Russian disinformation and propaganda at the University of Copenhagen.
From US Navy to Russian propagandist
Bils joined the US Navy in 2009 and had left active service by November 2022 due to medical reasons which Bils said were linked to “post-traumatic stress disorder”, The Wall Street Journal reported, while adding that the US Navy had not corroborated Bils’ version of events.
While serving in the Navy, Bils ran a small business selling fish food and had even participated in podcasts discussing the subject of fish.
Her passions were soon to shift toward spreading Russian propaganda. 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.
And yet she is far from the only American who has chosen to serve as a mouthpiece for Moscow’s interests. “The vast majority of these English-speaking supporters of Russia come from the United States or Europe,” says Jeff Hawn, a Russia specialist and non-resident fellow at the New Lines Institute, a US geopolitical research centre.
To seize an opportunity
However, this does not necessarily equate to genuine support for Putin, says Hawn.
“In the US, most of these Moscow supporters promote Russia because it embodies the antithesis of an America they can no longer stand,” he says, adding that expediency probably plays a part.
“It’s a niche market that can make a lot of money,” Hawn notes.
Indeed, 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, Hawn continues – but these new English-speaking propagandists can help Moscow appear to have broad popular support.