For years, Putin’s government has sought to influence several Latin American countries, particularly those with leftist governments less likely to collaborate with the United States, through a web of propaganda-driven media outlets. Now, it is using its state nuclear energy company to influence public opinion in these countries in favor of its business in the region.
Pablo Medina Uribe (CLIP), Carolina Méndez Valencia and Sabrina Lanza (Bolivian journalists), José Cardoza (República 18) and students in Professor Giannina Segnini’s Using Data to Investigate Across Borders course at Columbia University, Alec Gitelman, Laura Jensen, and Elena Shirokikh.
At the end of June of this year, President Luis Arce of Bolivia announced that his government had signed agreements with two companies to apply direct lithium extraction technologies in two Bolivian salt flats. One of these companies is Citic Guoan of China. The other is Russia’s Uranium One Group, a conglomerate of Russian state-owned mining and nuclear energy companies with branches and subsidiaries in several countries.
The deal did not happen spontaneously; it followed several years of agreements and collaborations between the two governments on mining and atomic issues, as well as several years of influence operations deployed by the Kremlin in Bolivia (as well as in other Latin American countries). These seek to gain political allies in the region and, in the process, take over nuclear energy and mining contracts.
As part of Digital Mercenaries, an investigation in partnership with 20 media outlets, five organizations specializing in digital research and students in a master’s course at Columbia University, coordinated by the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism, CLIP, we put together the pieces of the puzzle of the Russian influence campaigns in Bolivia and Nicaragua and tied the loose ends of how some of them have worked. These include scholarships for students and journalists to become ambassadors of Russian nuclear energy, coordinated actions in social networks and in the press to generate a good image of Russian nuclear companies, and even expert communication consultants – also with a background in disinformation and propaganda – advising political campaigns.
The battery of the future
Bolivia has sought to exploit its large lithium reserves since the first government of Evo Morales but has lacked the special technologies required for its extraction, which are different from those used in other more traditionally extracted materials. Both Bolivia and Russia see lithium as a great business opportunity because this metal is used in batteries, particularly in electric car batteries, the production of which is expected to increase drastically as many countries follow their plans to ban the sale or use of combustion engine vehicles in the coming decade.
Uranium One Group is one of several subsidiaries of Rosatom, a state-owned conglomerate that includes more than 350 companies registered in several countries. In addition to building and managing nuclear power plants for power generation, this holding company is responsible for scientific research related to nuclear technologies, nuclear armaments, and the mining of materials useful for electricity generation in general (such as lithium, or uranium, used in nuclear power plants). Its companies carry out these activities both in Russia and in other countries with which the Kremlin is interested in building alliances.
Uranium One is not only looking to take Bolivia’s lithium. According to an article in Kommersant, an independent Russian media outlet, in July 2021, the Russian holding company was exploring buying stakes in companies with subsoil exploitation rights in Argentina and Chile, with the plan to start mining lithium in 2027 and 2029, respectively. In November of that year, Uranium One invested US$30 million in Alpha One Lithium BV (a subsidiary of Canada’s Alpha Lithium Corporation) in exchange for a 15% stake in the Tolillar salt flat in Argentina (owned by Alpha) and the possibility of investing a further US$185 million to take a 50% stake in the salt flat.
This journalistic team found that, in November 2022, Uranium One Group signed a contract in Russia with RAL Consultoria e Representação Comercial LTDA for $484,800 with the purpose of providing “consulting services to support the implementation of the strategy for the development of the nuclear energy industry complex abroad in the fields of lithium mining, production and trade.”
RAL Consultancy was registered in 2015 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Two of its partners are subsidiaries of Rosatom: RusatomInternational Network and Rosatom Central Europe. The other two partners are Sergey Krivolapov and Ivan Dybov, president and vice president respectively of Rosatom Latin America. The contract signed by Uranium One with this company in 2022 specifically mentions the Bolivian departments of Potosí and Oruro, where there are salt flats with lithium deposits, and asks to monitor media coverage of Rosatom’s activities, as well as, “if necessary at the request of the client, to provide response proposals (…) in order to ensure the predominance of balanced neutral and positive publications in the media of the Plurinational State of Bolivia”.
Accordingly, Uranium One Group has appeared as a bidder in projects of the Bolivian state-owned lithium company, Yacimientosde Litio Boliviano (YLB), since at least 2022. This journalistic alliance found that since March of that year editorials appeared in Bolivian media talking positively about Rosatom, with texts very similar to each other, referring to a new bidding process of YLB.
For example, both La Razón and Opinión published two practically identical texts on March 24 (and Correo del Sur published another on March 26) in which they recall that “one of the finalists in this international EDL [direct lithium extraction] tender is Uranium One Group, which also wants to contribute to the lithium industrialization program and to Bolivia’s economic development”. They also praise Rosatom saying that “the Russian corporation has more than 80 years of experience in lithium processing and is one of the largest and oldest lithium producers in the world” and conclude that “an international tender has confirmed the existence of technologies that make it possible to extract lithium without damaging the environment in the Bolivian salt flats, and there are large corporations willing to invest money. The world needs lithium today. It is good that YLB continues the dialogue with the other participants who have successfully passed each step of the bidding process”.
The articles in La Razón and Correo del Sur do not name an author, nor do they clarify whether it is paid content. This alliance contacted the head of management control at La Razón by WhatsApp to ask if the media outlet had received any payment for publishing this content. The manager answered that “the business space takes into account content related to our clients within a commercial framework. This content is produced directly by them”. When asked if this particular article had been produced by a client who paid for the space, she added that this was information that she could not provide because “this is within a commercial framework that is handled with our clients”.
For its part Opinión, also through WhatsApp, told this alliance that they had not received money for this publication and that the piece came from Erbol, a Bolivian news agency, as can be seen in the article’s credits. However, the article does not appear on Erbol’s website and the agency’s digital manager told this alliance that he had no record that they had produced the article, and that the media “sometimes make mistakes in attributing articles”.
Other similar texts that, although using a different structure, also replicate phrases from these pieces, were published by other smaller media, such as Eju TV, Radar Energético and Bolivia Energía Libre, between March 24 and 26. On the other hand, when searching for links to these articles on social networks through the CrowdTangle and Meltwater tools, we found that they had a very short reach, with less than 200 interactions and re-publications each between Twitter, Instagram and Facebook (except for the Opinión article, which had 3,000 interactions on Facebook).
This alliance also found that, in December 2022, Uranium One Group signed another contract, this one with RusatomInternational Network (one of Rosatom’s subsidiaries, which in turn is one of RAL Consultoria’s partners in Brazil), to operate in all countries of Latin America and the Caribbean and with the object of providing “a series of information, consulting and marketing services … in the field of mining … including the collection and analysis of information and market research”.
Yet these are only Rosatom’s most recent activities in Bolivia, part of an approach almost a decade old with a history of secrecy that goes back to Soviet times.
Rosatom International press contact replied to this alliance, in an official written commentary from the nuclear agency, stating that “the contracts between these organizations have as an objective the implementation of transparent activities in the region where they are present.” The response also added: “Rosatom does not do paid placement of news and illegal press releases that are not very ethical on news outlets under the guise of editorial content.”
Because of their strategic importance to the Russian state, Rosatom manages some closed administrative territorial entities in Russia (or “zatos” for their name in Russian), also known as “closed cities”. During the Soviet Union, some cities with military, space or nuclear industries were closed to the public. At that time, special permits were required for entering or leaving these cities, and, in some cases, the very existence of these places was a secret. Today’s zatos are descendants of these secret cities, but in modern Russia their existence is public (in most cases) and, although there are certain rules to preserve the state-owned companies operating there (such as restricting the entry of foreigners), their citizens are free to enter or exit whenever they wish and to elect their own rulers.
These cities are considered independent of the regions surrounding them and are managed by the state institutions they house. Most are managed by the Ministry of Defense, three by Roskosmos, the Russian state space company, and ten by Rosatom. One consequence of this management is that these state entities are fully involved in the public affairs of the cities under their authority.
For example, according to a 2017 Kommersant article, Rosatom campaigned for the 2016 parliamentary elections on behalf of United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s party, in the 10 territorial entities it manages. While the article notes that Rosatom’s work in the elections was not very successful (in its 10 closed cities, United Russia polled below the national average), it does prove that this state-owned company is not only in the nuclear power business, but in the electoral business as well.
As political strategist Ekaterina Kurbangaleeva says in the Kommersant article, having state-owned companies like Rosatom organize election campaigns is a benefit for the Kremlin as these represent “a disciplined, numerous and extensive network (as well as a voter database) that does not require additional financial resources.” So, when Rosatom reached out to other countries to seek to sell nuclear technologies or obtain mining contracts, it already had political strategists in its ranks who would help it position itself among public opinion in those nations.
According to an October 2019 article in the Russian media outlet Proekt, these advisors intervened in Bolivia to favor the campaign of then-President Evo Morales. This was part of Rosatom’s international strategy to preserve its business outside Russia.
Both a person close to Rosatom management and a political consultant with ties to the Kremlin assured Proekt (who kept both sources confidential) that the nuclear energy company uses political consultants to ensure that its foreign contracts are executed. One of the sources told the Russian daily that, before deploying this strategy, Rosatom’s contracts “repeatedly fell through” because they were often criticized by environmentalists, and because Russia’s geopolitical rivals, such as the United States, China,and France, imposed the narrative that it was impossible to build nuclear power plants in those places.
Rosatom’s worst defeat happened in South Africa in 2017. The company had signed an agreement in secret with then South African President Jacob Zuma whereby South Africa would pay Rosatom $76 billion for the construction of a nuclear power plant. However, since 2014, two South African environmentalists challenged the legality of the deal in South African courts, arguing that it did not comply with the necessary procurement process relative to nuclear power, and, furthermore, that it financially benefited Zuma’s family. In 2017, a court ruled in their favor on the first point and blocked the construction of the nuclear power plant until it went through a public bidding process. Rosatom had to settle for building a “small-scale hydroelectric facility” in South Africa. One of Proekt’s sources told them that, after this impasse, Rosatom began sending political consultants “to all parts of the world where it has interests, in order to create a favorable information field.”
It was precisely in Bolivia that Rosatom had several interests. In 2016, the Morales government signed an agreement with Rosatom for this company to build a nuclear technology center in El Alto, a neighboring city of La Paz, at a cost of USD300 million. By 2019 the nuclear center had not been built, and Morales was competing in his fourth presidential run, which many in Bolivia considered unconstitutional, as the law allowed for a maximum of three terms in office. Even so, Bolivia’s Constitutional Court allowed him to be a candidate in the October elections, and Russia saw an opportunity to support him while protecting its interests.
On July 11, 2019, Morales received an honorary doctorate degree from the Russian Peoples’ Friendship University in Moscow. That same day, the Bolivian president and several representatives of his government were meeting in the Kremlin with Putin and his ministers, and the two countries signed several collaboration agreements.
As reported at the time by the Russian state agency TASS, several agreements were signed that day between representatives of both governments. One of them was a pact to establish commercial relations between Yacimientos Petrolíferos FiscalesBolivianos (YPFB), the Bolivian state-owned hydrocarbons company, and the Russian government. In addition, three agreements directly related to Rosatom’s interests were made: a memorandum of understanding on the safe use of nuclear energy and radiation, another on energy cooperation and yet another, this one signed by Rosatom’s general director, Alexei Likhachev, to advance research related to the lithium industry.
As the source close to Rosatom told Proekt, if Morales lost the elections that October, the future of nuclear energy contracts in Bolivia “would be uncertain” as a new government could change the country’s public policies “under pressure from the United States”. According to the Proekt article, a team under Sergey Kiriyenko (who was the first director of Rosatom between 2005 and 2016 and, since then, has been the chief of staff of the Presidential Administration in the Kremlin and head of Rosatom’s board of directors) selected 10 political consultants to travel to Bolivia and help Morales’ campaign. In turn, Andrey Polosin, director of Rosatom’s Department for Integration with the Regions and a close collaborator of Kiriyenko, organized the mission.
Proekt managed to identify three of the consultants. One of them is Valery Solovyov, known to be the founder of a consulting firm whose name in Russian could be translated either as Internet Election Campaign Agency, or Internet Agitation Agency.
This agency had been mentioned in a previous Proekt article in July 2019 for having created social media bots (i.e., accounts that automatically post content) to position the good image of Alexander Beglov, the mayor of St. Petersburg, in preparation for his re-election campaign. Although the article does not mention Solovyov, it does name his associate Andrey Tsepelyov as one of the directors of a center in St. Petersburg from which the social media of several mayors close to Putin were managed. The other director of this center was Vladimir Tabak, who had been sent directly by the Kremlin to work on Beglov’s social media accounts. According to Proekt, Solovyov was in charge in Bolivia of promoting “Prisma”, a system developed by the Russian company Medialogia to monitor narratives in “the blogosphere”.
Another advisor was Alexander Sheremetev, a political consultant who had worked with United Russia candidates in the city of Yekaterinburg. The third name identified by Proekt is Vladimir Ryabinin, who posted photos of La Paz on his Facebook account between June 4 and September 25, 2019. The confidential sources told Proekt that the consultants focused on campaigning on the internet and were dedicated to publishing posts with the theses of Morales’ program “A Bolivia for all people” and running smear campaigns against his opponents.
Although the preliminary results of the vote count on October 20 seemed to put Morales in a second round with Carlos Mesa, the president assured that he had obtained enough votes to win in the first round, while the opposition claimed fraud. This led to several weeks of demonstrations and unrest that ended with Morales resigning and opposition candidate Jeanine Añez assuming the presidency.
Sources that spoke to Proekt assured that the mission of the consultants sent to Bolivia was strictly secret and both Solovyov and Ryabinin denied having worked for the Morales campaign. A few days after the publication of Proekt’s article, Rosatom’s website in America published a statement assuring that “Rosatom had never undertaken any kind of action that could be qualified as an attempt to ‘influence’ local elections or domestic politics in any country”. Also, in their response to this alliance’s questions, Rosatom stated that it “never sent political advisors to Latin America, and denies any suggestion of intervening in political processes in Latin America.”
But this was not the end of Russian contracts and influence in Bolivia.
Nuclear diplomacy in Bolivia
The nuclear center contracted in 2016 by the Morales government would consist of three parts: a nuclear medicine center, a food processing center (through ionizing radiation) and a nuclear research reactor. The reactor only began construction in 2021, one year after the triumph of Luis Arce (who was elected president in 2020 by MAS, Morales’ party). According to Sputnik, a Russian propaganda agency, the reactor will become operational in 2025. Yet the nuclear medicine and food processing centers, according to Rostom, became operational in March of this year.
The nuclear center is being implemented jointly by the Bolivian Nuclear Energy Agency (Aben) and Rusatom Overseas JSC. The latter, which according to Rosatom’s website is one of its subsidiaries, is based in Moscow and is engaged in “promoting the integrated supply of nuclear power plant construction projects on the international market.”
One of its employees, Oleg Bochkin, director of strategic communications, was in La Paz on March 30 giving a workshop for Bolivian journalists on how to cover nuclear energy. The workshop was organized jointly with Aben and Freddy Aguilar, the head of communications, and speaking at the event was Hortensia Jiménez, the agency’s director. Jiménez was present at another moment of Russian-Bolivian collaboration. On April 12 this year (when Russia celebrates Cosmonauts’ Day), Jiménez was a guest of honor at the unveiling near La Paz of a bust of Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet cosmonaut who in 1961 became the first man to travel into space. The bust was installed at the Amachuma Earth Station, a satellite control station located about 8 km from El Alto.
These are just some of the most recent activities in Russia’s diplomatic efforts to create a positive image around its nuclear services in Bolivia. It is an endeavor that has been going on for several years and has many other arms. In May 2022, for example, Aben and Rosatom jointly published a children’s book, called “Science and Nuclear Technology in El Alto,” in which Andean birds discuss the benefits of nuclear power.
Since at least 2019, Rosatom has additionally been offering scholarships to Bolivian students to pursue nuclear-related subjects in Russia. Since that year, Rosatom has given scholarships to Bolivian teenagers to become “ambassadors of nuclear eeducation”, that is, to learn about courses given on this technology and then share what they have learned in Bolivia.
In May 2016, a month after the agreement for the construction of the nuclear center in El Alto was signed, Rosatom representatives visited that city. Following the visit, it was announced that Aben would have a new office near the headquarters of the Yellow Line of the Teleférico, El Alto’s public transportation system.
In August, a service order was signed requesting the preparation of an office for that agency, but on another line of the Teleférico, the Red Line. After the 2019 elections, this raised some suspicions, as Bolivian media denounced that some of the so-called Digital Warriors used an audiovisual laboratory located in a station of the Teleférico’s Celeste Line to create disinformation and propaganda in favor of MAS. Liliana Rengifo, former manager of Mi Teleférico, was arrested for these allegations in 2020.
On the other hand, both the nuclear power plant and lithium exploitation contracts have been recurrently mentioned by the Spanish versions of the Russian propaganda media Actualidad RT and Sputnik in the last year. The Twitter accounts of these two media outlets have mentioned one of these two topics at least 96 times since July 18, 2022, as this alliance found through an analysis with the Meltwater tool. The tweets link to articles or videos produced by these media outlets that sometimes simply report the signing of a new contract, but at other times appear to promote Rosatom and its subsidiaries.
For example, on July 18, 2023, Sputnik published an article titled “‘A more efficient process’: the benefits of the Russian project to produce lithium in Bolivia.” On August 22, 2022, Actualidad RT published an article entitled “An ambitious Russian-Bolivian nuclear center offers new technologies and boosts local development”, which includes this text: “supporters of the project believe that, in addition to the infrastructure benefits it will bring to neighboring areas, the project will have a positive impact for the Bolivian people”.
According to an analysis made by this alliance on CrowdTangle, a video associated with the second article (originally published on Facebook by the Spanish-language RT page), had its highest number of views on Facebook (144,000) in a post in Russia Today’s page. According to the transparency information of that social network, the page has two administrators living in Peru and was created in June 2022. And, although the page uses RT’s logo, shares RT’s contents and has a name similar to that network (which until 2009 was called Russia Today), it does not claim to be affiliated with it.
One of the most popular posts on Facebook referencing this information, with more than 1,000 reactions, was published by the page Patria Grande. According to Facebook, its five administrators live in Bolivia. The page is dedicated to publishing pro-Kremlin content, including many RT articles.
In its response to this alliance’s questions, Rosatom said that its projects “are, first of all, purely commercial and are not related to the political situation.”
Russia has also used Rosatom to reach out to another Latin American country: Nicaragua. In February of this year the government of Daniel Ortega signed a cooperation agreement with the Russian corporation for the peaceful use of atomic energy. Although the Central American country does not have the same mineral resources as Bolivia, the Kremlin has made many overtures to the government in Managua, probably to ensure that it aligns itself with Moscow and not with Washington, its main geopolitical rival.
On April 7, 2017, Russia inaugurated a Glonass ground station (Russia’s GPS-equivalent system) on the west side of the Nejapalagoon in Managua. According to the report “Dangerous Alliances: Russia’s Strategic Advances in Latin America”, by the US Institute for National Strategic Studies of December 2022, this is “a key center of Russian activity … In addition to allowing the permanent presence of some 250 Russian military personnel on the ground. The report further adds that “Nicaragua is the Russian base for its GLONASS and also hosts a multimillion-dollar vaccination plant that -surprisingly- does not produce vaccines, a little-known police academy, a cyberwarfare and training center in the state telecommunications building, and a Russian Interior Ministry building that enjoys the diplomatic status of an embassy.”
On the other hand, since November 2022 Nicaragua has signed some agreements with Russia to strengthen its “digital communication strategy”. However, these agreements are not publicly available in Nicaragua. We consulted with the signatory entities in Nicaragua (the Communication Council, the government agency ProNicaragua and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) to obtain access to the documents, but did not get a response. The documents about agreements in communication aren’t listed in the Russian government website, nor in the Foreign Affairs Ministry site (where the agreements on nuclear collaboration can indeed be found). What little is known of their contents is reported in the official Sandinista press and Russian media.
In November 2022, Nicaragua and Russia signed another agreement for the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), with the supposed objective of “preventing, detecting and investigating” their misuse.
On December 5 of that year, Daniel Edmundo Ortega, son of the president, signed, in his capacity as Media Coordinator of the Communication and Citizenship Council, a memorandum of understanding for cooperation with RT in Spanish (originally Russia Today) to “provide support for coverage of events”. The RT network of international television channels is seen by Russia as a propaganda tool in various regions of the world. In Latin America, in particular, RT in Spanish has been used to promote left-wing content (often misinforming) in order to create tensions with the United States (in other languages, RT focuses on broadcasting right-wing propaganda).
For its part, the Council of Communication and Citizenship is seen in Nicaragua as a body to control official information. According to a Voice of America article that covered the signing of this agreement, “analysts say Managua will make available more than 20 official channels to broadcast Russian content.” In addition, the article reported that several Russians visited Managua for the signing of the agreement. Among them were Victoria Vorontsova, director of RT in Spanish, Alexander Luchaninov, the deputy director, and Karina Melikyan, director of international cooperation.
In September, in addition, the Council had already signed another collaboration agreement with Sputnik, a Russian news agency used to create propaganda, in a similar way as RT. This agreement was signed in Vladivostok, Russia, where Daniel Edmundo participated in a panel entitled “The multiplicity of truth, how to win the information battle” together with Maria Zakharova, director of the information and press department of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Dmitry Kiselev, director of Rossiya Segodnya(a media conglomerate owned by the Russian government, which in turn owns Sputnik) and pro-Kremlin comedians Vovan and Lexus.
More recently, on July 22, RT revealed in a program on TN8, a channel owned by the Ortega family, that it had conducted training for Nicaraguan journalists close to the government. In the report the spokesman said that they had been taught “talent, good ideas and skills”.
Boris Kuznetsov, deputy director of Spanish-language programming for RT in Spanish, said: “we have had the opportunity to come to different places, we visited different regions of the country and we can highlight the culture and history of Nicaragua”.
Mercenarios digitales es una investigación de Chequeado (Argentina), UOL y Agência Pública (Brasil), LaBot (Chile), Colombiacheck y Cuestión Pública (Colombia), CRHoy, Interferencia y Lado B (Costa Rica), GK (Ecuador), Factchequeado (EEUU) Ocote (Guatemala), Contracorriente (Honduras), Animal Político y Mexicanos Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad (México), Confidencial y República 18 (Nicaragua), Ojo Público (Perú), El Surti (Paraguay), La Diaria (Uruguay) y tres periodistas investigativas (Bolivia y España/Colombia); las organizaciones de investigación digital Cazadores de Fake News (Venezuela), Fundación Karisma (Colombia), Interpreta Lab (Chile), Lab Ciudadano (Honduras) y DFRLab (EEUU); y estudiantes del curso de maestría Using Data to Investigate Across Borders de la profesora Giannina Segnini (Universidad de Columbia EEUU), con la coordinación del Centro Latinoamericano de Investigación Periodística, CLIP. Revisión y asesoría legal: El Veinte.
Con apoyo financiero de Free Press Unlimited, el programa Redes contra el silencio (ASDI), Seattle International Foundation y Rockefeller Brothers Foundation.