EU sanctions: How do Putin propagandists finance themselves?


As of: February 2nd, 2023 9:28 a.m

Alina Lipp spreads Russian propaganda through her channels. However, the EU sanctions are making financing more difficult for Putin supporters like her. However, questionable models make it possible to circumvent this.

Pascal Siggelkow, SWR

“My bank accounts in Germany were blocked, the amounts on them were confiscated and the account closed. Payments to my Russian bank details are prevented by EU sanctions that the banks are following,” writes the German-Russian Alina Lipp in her Telegram channel “News from Russia”, one of the most widespread channels of Russian propaganda in Germany.

Lipp now has more than 180,000 subscribers, and her following has increased rapidly since the Russian invasion began almost a year ago. In her channel she consistently spreads Russian narratives, for example she always speaks of a “special military operation” instead of a war – as well as the alleged “genocide” against the Russian population in eastern Ukraine.

Donation options via Telegram

In order to continue to get money despite blocked accounts, Lipp has set up a donation link on her website and a bot from the Telegram messenger service. This is like a separate channel on Telegram and users can send donations there with a click. In the case of Lipp’s donation bot, the whole thing is handled by the payment service provider Smart Glocal, which is based in Hong Kong. From there, the money is transferred to their Russian account “twice a month,” as can be read on their website and also in the donation bot’s channel.

At the request of ARD fact finder Lipp says she doesn’t know anything about a special payment service provider and is using “the service offered by Telegram in Russia”. This service is very well known and popular in Russia.

Lipp’s content probably violates Smart Glocal’s terms of use. On its website it states, among other things, that the content of the donation bot user on his channel must not contain any political propaganda.

Smart Glocal announced in writing that Lipp and her channel “News from Russia” had “never” been registered with the payment service provider. It goes on to say that the channel could “never” be registered as it would violate the terms of use. Lipp’s donation bot is registered under “another person”. “Therefore, this will be interpreted as an attempt to circumvent our identification and moderation mechanisms, which is a violation of our Terms of Service,” writes Smart Glocal. The link to the donation bot was therefore blocked.

Telegram refers to the responsible authorities

According to Josef Holnburger, Managing Director of the Center for Monitoring, Analysis and Strategy (CeMAS), Telegram has intensified its efforts to offer payment processing directly via the messenger service: “I have not seen any measures to curb this and that is why actors like Alina Lipp can easily circumvent the EU sanctions that actually apply.” The development of Telegram actually suggests that offers that help to avoid sanctions are being expanded. Among other things, via crypto wallets and their integration via Bitcoin or the Toncoin cryptocurrency developed by Telegram.

Telegram itself points out that the donation bots are managed by third-party companies. These would “create their own guidelines independently of each other” and Telegram had “little insight” into them. “If a relevant authority has made a decision about the bot, we can act accordingly,” the company said.

Technical support from an Austrian

News reports and our own statements suggest that the companies Fancy Nerds and VPN Tester Lipp have set up the new donation options. She refers to VPN Tester as her “web team” in a Telegram post and the company names keep cropping up by chance in relation to donation options. Both companies are after ARD fact finder-Research apparently traced back to Martin Held, an Austrian living in Russia. Held also runs the Telegram channel “Voice from Russia”, in which he also spreads Russian propaganda in German.

In a video he portrays himself as an entrepreneur who fights against censorship with idealism. Among other things, he confirms that he provides technical support to Lipp in order to be able to circumvent blocks, but she is not his only customer of this kind. “I help the bloggers so that they are technically able to make their channels available and maybe also “Have options to bypass or override any blockages that might happen.”

Questionable Corporate networks

When asked how Held could do business in the EU from Russia, he said in the same video: “We have subsidiaries in Western Europe, and of course we can also service customers through them and can also make offers and can also invoice.” His company networks remain opaque.

According to the imprint, Fancy Nerds is based in Vienna, VPN Tester is based in Krasnodar, Russia. The Fancy Nerds imprint is currently not available, and employee photos have also disappeared from the site, at least one of which comes from a stock photo database. Some of the same employees are shown for both companies.

The imprint of the VPN Tester website now shows Alexandra Stepanenko as editorial director; the English version still says Martin Held. The same imprint also contains different information in different languages. The publisher in German is a company called OOO GEROY, in English Fancy Nerds. However, there is also a note in the English imprint that the site is not operated by Fancy Nerds, but by OOO GEROY.

This company is also based in Krosnodar and is according to research by t-online also to be associated with hero. OOO GEROY is behind a project that is expressly intended to give people in the EU access to blocked Russian channels. And VPN Tester actually makes it possible to watch the live stream of the Russian state broadcaster RT in German, which is actually blocked in Europe, in a channel on Telegram.

“We are happy to provide information about ourselves and our activities. We have nothing to hide,” says the request on the VPN Tester website ARD fact finder but remained unanswered. Lipp said that she knew “little” about the VPN Tester project and had no relationships with Fancy Nerds: “My service partners, who help me technically, are official Russian companies that only operate within Russia. And they are also my contacts in Russia.”

height of Donation income not clear

It is unclear how much money Lipp actually earns from donations from her subscribers. However, since Lipp shares the link publicly via her “News from Russia” channel, she is potentially addressing all of her followers with her calls for support. “And if only a small part of it transfers money every month, then you can definitely finance yourself with it. So the theoretical capacity is at least there. We don’t know whether it’s also the case in practice,” says Holnburger. This financing option is definitely an important point for Lipp. Not just monetarily, but also for them to know that people are willing to transfer money for their activities.

Lipp provides other ways to support her on her website and her Telegram channel. She refers to her crypto wallets and provides affiliate links to books by Thomas Röper. Röper runs a blog, Telegram and YouTube channel in which he spreads Russian propaganda and often cooperates with Alina Lipp.

In addition, Lipp is a regular guest on Russian state television, where, among other things, she presents distorted views of Germany, says Julia Smirnova, senior researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue Germany (ISD): “She tells a lot about the alleged censorship that prevails in the West “And about the alleged problems with the energy crisis and about protests against the sanctions against Russia.”

It is unclear whether and how much money there is for such performances. “We know, for example, that she is provided with accommodation and flights for these regular television recordings, at least according to her own information,” says Holnburger. “That’s nothing unusual, though.”

The pro-Russian and AfD-affiliated association Vadar also says it supports Lipp: Among other things, the association provided a lawyer for her and the costs were covered. The Foundation To Battle Injustice, run by Putin confidant Yevgeny Prigozhin, has also publicly pledged support to Lipp, says Smirnova. The foundation announced that it would contact the public prosecutor in Germany in the case of the investigation against Lipp and presented the case as an attack on freedom of expression.

Lipp said she does not receive any compensation for her appearances in Russian media. She also receives no support from the Foundation To Battle Injustice. She confirmed the legal help of the Vadar association, but this would also be available to any other injured party.

Investigations by the Public prosecutor

Because of her content, Lipp has already come into the focus of the German authorities – because the Hamburg native says she now lives in Russia and Donetsk, Ukraine, but is apparently also registered in Germany. The Lüneburg public prosecutor’s office began investigations against her in May for “rewarding and endorsing crimes” in connection with Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine.

According to the public prosecutor’s office, her statements are, among other things, likely to “incite the psychological climate within the population of the Federal Republic of Germany, to bring about dissent within society and to dissolve social cohesion due to at least distorting and sometimes even untruthful representations.”

The public prosecutor’s office had 1,608 euros confiscated from Lipp’s account because she had previously tried to transfer money from her German account to a Russian bank account. According to the public prosecutor’s office, the 1,608 euros is the amount that she received in donations in the first weeks after the start of the Russian war of aggression.

The Göttingen public prosecutor’s office, which has taken over the case in the meantime, announced at the request of the ARD fact finder that the investigations against Lipp have been temporarily discontinued “since the accused is not currently in Germany.”

Blocking of bank accounts

Not only the German judiciary, but also the sanctions of the European Union are troubling Lipp. According to her own information, her German account was closed and PayPal also blocked her account. In addition, the way to receive donations through her father’s account was prevented. Payments to her Russian account from an EU country would be prevented.

Due to EU sanctions, some Russian banks have been excluded from the SWIFT system, meaning that foreign transfers are not easily possible for these banks. In addition, some German banks have also excluded other Russian banks on their own initiative.

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