Did a Russian Fighter ‘Cripple’ the USS Donald Cook’s Missile Defense System?

A tense incident between a Russian military jet and the USS Donald Cook in April 2014 showed how disinformation from that country — obvious and otherwise — spread from the Internet to right-wing American outlets and circulated in perpetuity.

The ship was first deployed to the Black Sea on April 9 2014, following Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea. Three days later, a Russian Su-24 fighter was spotted repeatedly flying near the Donald Cook over a 90-minute period. As Reuters reported at the time:

The Russian plane, accompanied by another Fencer that did not fly close to the U.S. ship, did not respond to multiple attempts by the Donald Cook to communicate with its pilot, he said.

Pentagon officials have not yet discussed the incident with the Russian government, Warren said.

Tensions have grown between Moscow and Washington in recent weeks over the situation in Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists on Monday ignored an ultimatum to leave occupied government buildings and another group of rebels attacked a police headquarters.

Analysts for the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFR Lab for short) reported in May 2017 that Russian state-run outlets — specifically the newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta (the Russian Gazette) and the German edition of Sputnik — ran stories claiming that the fighter had “crippled” the Donald Cook. The latter outlet further claimed:

After the incident, the foreign media reported that “Donald Cook” was rushed into a port in Romania. There all the 27 members of the crew filed a letter of resignation. It seems that all 27 people have written that they are not going to risk their lives. This is indirectly confirmed by the Pentagon statement according to which the action demoralized the crew of the American ship.

There are no credible reports corroborating a mass “letter of resignation” from the ship. However, DFR’s researchers found that the claims would go on to gain more traction as Facebook posts:

These posts have a number of common features. They are couched as a letter to “My favorite Mary” (likely a direct translation of Russian любимая, meaning either “beloved” or “favorite”) from a Cook crew member called “Johnny.” They are written in what is obviously non-native English, probably machine translated (“We thrice cried ‘hip-hip hurrah’ and prepared to show the Russians that awaits them if they raise their hand for the second half of Ukraine”), and they link to a Russian post which first appeared on a website called fondsk.ru on April 17, 2014.

The fondsk.ru article provides the full text of the Johnny-Mary letter, in Russian. However, it is not presented as a news report or a transcript of an English-language original: it is presented as an opinion piece (“мнение”) by an author called Dmitriy Sedov, a regular contributor to the site.

Screenshots show that Sedov’s post was republished verbatim, but without any explanation or disclaimer that he was behind the “letter”:

The researchers further found that the post took on new life in April 2017, when the news show Vesti (which airs on a Russian state-owned channel) used it as the basis for a story claiming that the Su-24 had actually jammed the Donald Cook‘s systems through the use of the Khibney electronic weapons system. The story (aired to coincide with a state holiday honoring “electronic warfare specialists”) depicted Sedov’s “letter” as an actual social media post by an American sailor, and included what Vesti claimed was a statement from Gen. Frank Gorenc, the former U.S. Air Force commander for Europe.

“Russian electronic weapons completely paralyze the functioning of American electronic equipment installed on missiles, aircraft and ships,” Gorenc supposedly said. (He would later refute ever making this statement.)

Ironically, the makers of the Khibiny system themselves would go on to debunk Vesti’s “reporting” in a 2015 article promoting it:

By the way, nowadays Khibiny is being installed on Su-30, Su-34 and Su-35, so the famous April attack in the Black sea on USS Donald Cook by Su-24 bomber jet allegedly using Khibiny complex is nothing but a newspaper hoax. The destroyer’s buzzing did take place. This EW system can completely neutralise the enemy radar, but Khibiny are not installed on Su-24.

Despite that, however, Vesti’s claim that Russia possessed an “electronic bomb” were promoted across not only British tabloids like the Sun but the right-wing Fox “news” network in the U.S.:

The New York Times reported that after the newspaper asked Fox about its version of the article, “it was deleted from the FoxNews.com website.”

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, which began in late February 2022 (not to be confused with the previous Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014), provided another example of the information cycle linking Russian rhetoric and the Fox cable network.

Rossiya-1, the channel that aired Vesti’s 2017 “story” on the Donald Cook, aired monologues by Fox presenter Tucker Carlson praising Russian President Vladimir Putin and calling Ukraine a “client state” of the United States. Mother Jones reported on March 13 2022 that a Russian government memo called it “essential” to feature Carlson’s monologues on state-run outlets. Five days later Putin’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, also praised Fox by name, describing it as the only western media outlet presenting an “alternative point of view.”

The same day that Sergei Lavrov cast Fox as a sympathetic news outlet, The Guardian reported that Carlson also helped spread the conspiracy theory that Ukraine was secretly a host for a biological weapons production program, which had also been pushed on Russian outlets:

Carlson pursued the story on three different episodes of his show over the past week. On 10 March he brought on writer Glenn Greenwald. “When the government comes out and emphatically denies that they have biological weapons,” Greenwald said. “We know they’re not telling the truth.”

These claims have led to an active feedback loop with Russian state propaganda.

Tass, the Russian news agency seen as a mouthpiece for the Kremlin, has recently accused “Ukrainian radicals” of planning to use “toxic chemicals” against Russian forces or even Ukrainian civilians. The Russian foreign minister, [Lavrov], has said publicly that these labs are “deadly threats” to the Russian state. These claims have been promoted widely by an array of Russian social media channels, television stations and commentators.

Further cementing that “feedback loop,” NBC News reported on March 24 2022 that Sputnik had claimed that Hunter Biden — son of U.S. President Joe Biden and a frequent target of conspiracizing by the far right — was funding the “biolabs.”

Update 3/25/2022, 1:33 am: This article has been revamped and updated. You can review the original here. — ag