An American administrator of the Donbas Girl blogger network uses a pro-Russian persona across online platforms
By Yaroslav Trofimov and Bob Mackin
April 16, 2023
The Wall Street Journal
A social-media account overseen by a former U.S. Navy noncommissioned officer—a prominent online voice supporting Russia’s war on Ukraine—played a key role in the spread of intelligence documents allegedly leaked by Airman First Class Jack Teixeira.
A purported Russian blogger known as Donbass Devushka, which translates as Donbas Girl, reposted the files from obscure online chat rooms. The blog is the face of a network of pro-Kremlin social-media, podcasting, merchandise and fundraising accounts. But the person who hosted podcasts as Donbass Devushka and oversees these accounts is a Washington-state-based former U.S. enlisted aviation electronics technician whose real name is Sarah Bils.
Russia first intervened in the Donbas part of eastern Ukraine in 2014, and most of the recent fighting has focused on that area.
Ms. Bils, 37 years old, served at the U.S. naval air station on Whidbey Island until late last year, even as the accounts she had established and supervised glorified the Russian military and the paramilitary Wagner Group. They are among the most widely followed English-language social-media outlets promoting Russia’s views.
In an interview Saturday at her home in Oak Harbor, Wash., Ms. Bils said she is an administrator of the Donbass Devushka persona, and acknowledged raising funds and hosting podcasts under that name. She added, however, that she is one of 15 people “all over the world” involved in running the Donbass Devushka network. Ms. Bils declined to identify these people.
On April 5, the Donbass Devushka Telegram account posted four of the allegedly leaked classified documents to its 65,000 followers, according to a screenshot seen by The Wall Street Journal. That led several large Russian social-media accounts to pick up on the documents, after which the Pentagon launched an investigation. Ms. Bils says another administrator posted the four files.
There is no evidence that Ms. Bils, who had a security clearance during her Navy service, has used that access to steal any classified information herself. “I obviously know the gravity of top-secret classified materials. We didn’t leak them,” she said.
Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, a spokesman for the Pentagon, referred requests for comment on Ms. Bils and her role in reposting classified information to the Justice Department, which declined to comment.
In a statement in response to questions, Gen. Ryder said U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered a review of intelligence access, accountability and control procedures within the Pentagon to help prevent future leaks.
The U.S. Navy also declined to comment.
Airman Teixeira’s posts had languished online for months, shared among a small circle of fellow war and computer-game enthusiasts who had joined his invitation-only server on the Discord platform. Even after another member reposted the files to a larger Discord server, they remained unnoticed by the broader public. It
was only after the posting of some of the files on Donbass Devushka’s account that they turned into fodder for military enthusiasts and Russia supporters across the internet. Several dozen other classified files have been found in Discord since then, mostly dealing with the war in Ukraine but also containing a variety of secrets about other nations.
Airman Teixeira was arraigned on Friday for unauthorized retention and transmission of classified documents he allegedly took from the U.S. military. Airman Teixeira didn’t enter a plea in his court appearance and a judge ordered him jailed until a detention hearing on Wednesday.
The federal public defender’s office in Boston didn’t respond to a request for comment. Airman Teixeira’s family members couldn’t be reached for comment.
The Donbass Devushka Telegram account that Ms. Bils oversees describes itself as engaging in “Russian–style information warfare.”
Linked accounts using the same name on other platforms also promoted the Russian agenda after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The Donbass Devushka network hawked merchandise featuring Wagner and the Russian military, promising to send proceeds for the “freedom of Donbass” and to help “our men on the front.”
Ms. Bils was promoted to the E-7 rank of chief aviation electronics technician in late 2020, a senior NCO position, according to promotion records posted on the Navy website and photographs of the ceremony on her former installation’s Facebook page. Ms. Bils left the military in November last year with an honorable discharge and with the lower rank of E-5, according to military records. The reason for that significant demotion couldn’t be immediately determined. Ms. Bils said she left the Navy for medical reasons, after suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. “Some very interesting potential intel,” the Donbass Devushka Telegram account posted on April 5, attaching images of four files that Airman Teixeira allegedly stole from the U.S. military. “The authenticity cannot be confirmed but looks to be very damning nato information.” The post remained online for several days.
Ms. Bils said that another administrator had posted these images, and that she was the one who later deleted them. “I don’t even know the authenticity of the documents or what they say. I am not very well versed in reading documents like that,” she said.
In addition to the Telegram account, established a year ago, the Donbass Devushka persona operates popular accounts on Twitter, YouTube, Spotify and other platforms. The Twitter account has been in existence since 2012.
Some of the slides reposted on the Telegram account overseen by Ms. Bils had been altered from the otherwise identical photographs allegedly posted by Airman Teixeira on Discord—changed to inflate Ukrainian losses and play down Russian casualties. A subsequent post on the Donbass Devushka Telegram channel, on April 12, denied that the image had been doctored by the administrators. “We would never edit content for our viewers,” the post said.
Ms. Bils has recorded podcasts with guests advocating for Russian President Vladimir Putin and opposing U.S. aid to Ukraine, according to a review of the podcast content. As a podcast host, Ms. Bils, originally from New Jersey, spoke with a slight Russian accent and claimed to have been born in Luhansk, in the Russian-controlled Donbas. In an interview, Ms. Bils said she had “some” Russian heritage, without providing details.
Rachel Stevens, a former Navy colleague who worked at the Naval Air Station Whidbey Island with Ms. Bils, said a person in Ms. Bils’s position and rank would have typically held a top-secret clearance because she worked on sensitive avionics. Whidbey Island is the main naval aviation installation in the Pacific Northwest, and is home to all Navy tactical electronic attack squadrons flying the EA-18G Growler, in addition to eight squadrons of P-3 Orion, P-8 Poseidon and EP-3E Aries patrol and reconnaissance aircraft, according to the U.S. Navy website.
No evidence has emerged that anybody associated with Donbass Devushka played a role in Airman Teixeira’s alleged theft and posting of government secrets.
On Saturday, Ms. Bils said she doesn’t have access to classified information anymore.
Ms. Stevens, a photo of whom in a Navy uniform can be seen on the Facebook page of the Whidbey Island facility, said she worked with Ms. Bils in the same room in 2018-2020, before leaving military service. Ms. Stevens said she realized that her former colleague had “started this faux Russian persona online and asking for donations” after Donbass Devushka followed her small Twitter account.
The fact that Donbass Devushka isn’t a Russian from Donbas, as she presented herself online, but an American residing in Washington state, was first disclosed by pro-Ukrainian online open-source intelligence analysts and activists known as NAFO.
One of them, Pekka Kallioniemi, a fellow at the University of Tampere in Finland, posted on Saturday a series of tweets outlining the evidence, including the matching birth date of Ms. Bils in official documents and Donbass Devushka’s online solicitation of birthday donations.
The Donbass Devushka network has become a significant part of the pro-Russian war propaganda campaign, Mr. Kallioniemi said: “They were definitely one of the fastest growing English language, pro-Russian communities.”
Ms. Bils said in the interview that she doesn’t hate Ukraine or Ukrainians, and that she has long been interested in Eastern Europe. She added that it was “hypocritical” for the International Criminal Court to charge Mr. Putin with war crimes.
The Donbass Devushka Telegram account remains active, posting this weekend a video of a bear stretching and describing the governor of a Ukrainian region with the Nazi term “gauleiter,” for a top regional official. Addressing the NAFO campaign, the Donbass Devushka account posted an item referring to herself Saturday on Twitter and Telegram as “a woman who is proud of being Russian and Jewish, and of the country and its people.”
In a post soliciting funds and noting a bitcoin wallet number on another platform, Donbass Devushka describes itself as “a group of dedicated individuals.”
Another post, in September, announced a partnership with Rybar, a Russian open-source intelligence channel on Telegram with more than a million followers. In December, Rybar’s chief editor, former Russian ministry of defense press officer Mikhail Zvinchuk, became one of Mr. Putin’s advisers on mobilization.
A now-deactivated MyShopOnline page, linked in a post on the Donbass Devushka Telegram account, shows merchandise for sale as part of a partnership with Rybar, a Russian open-source intelligence channel on Telegram, in addition to other merchandise.
All the proceeds from the sale of Rybar-branded merchandise will go toward “efforts to help our men on the front,” according to a screenshot of the Donbass Devushka post. The linked page on the website MyShopOnline has since been removed.
Donating to the Russian military, a sanctioned entity in the U.S., is illegal. Asked in an interview whether she sent funds to Russia, Ms. Bils said she used the proceeds to fund the operations of the Donbass Devushka platforms, including buying podcast equipment for another administrator, and sent money to charities in Serbia, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Palestinian territories. She added that she has raised only a “small” amount.
An archived version of the Donbass Devushka page on MyShopOnline shows merchandise praising Mr. Putin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, and items with the “Z” symbol of the Russian invasion. The main image of the “For Fun” section is a redheaded woman in a Russian uniform pointing a finger at a submissive pig.
The Discord group where the classified files were originally leaked was called “Bears versus Pigs,” in line with Russian memes depicting Ukrainians as hapless pigs being slaughtered by the mighty Russian bear.
Gordon Lubold and Sadie Gurman contributed to this article.
Yaroslav Trofimov is the chief foreign-affairs correspondent of The Wall Street Journal. He has covered the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021 and has been working out of Ukraine since January 2022. He joined the Journal in 1999 and previously served as Rome, Middle East and Singapore-based Asia correspondent, as bureau chief in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and as Dubai-based columnist on the greater Middle East. He is the author of two books, Faith at War (2005) and Siege of Mecca (2007).