The Evolution of a Russian Troll
Alexander Malkevich, whose employees were detained in Libya, is part of Moscow’s efforts to create a “concert of chaos” around the globe.
Last summer, when the Russian media manager Alexander Malkevich came to Washington to launch a news website called USA Really—reported to be linked to the infamous Russian troll factory that interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election—he did not receive a warm welcome. He was ejected from his office near the White House—a WeWork rental—within hours of arriving, and Facebook and Twitter blocked access to the website.
During another trip to Washington for the U.S. midterms in November 2018, Malkevich was detained for questioning at Washington’s Dulles Airport and the next month was added to the U.S. sanctions list for attempted election interference.
But that hasn’t stopped him. Though Malkevich seems more toy soldier than information warrior, his seemingly amateurish forays into the United States over the past year offer a glimpse at the scrappy but ever evolving nature of Russia’s influence operations around the globe—an effort that has been expanding into Africa.
Last week, Bloomberg reported that two of Malkevich’s employees had been detained in Libya in May and were accused of seeking to influence elections in the country. Authorities from the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli accused the two men of trying to set up a meeting with Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, the son of former leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, who was overthrown in 2011 after four decades in power. Saif al-Islam, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on allegations of crimes against humanity, is reported to be in contact with Moscow and has received the backing of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Middle East envoy, Mikhail Bogdanov.
In an interview with Foreign Policy this week, Malkevich confirmed that the men had met with Qaddafi’s son but denied that they had sought to interfere in the country’s factious politics. He said they were only conducting research and described the allegations as a project of the “deep state” in the United States.
Malkevich is likely just one of an untold number of players who form part of Russia’s “concert of chaos,” said Alina Polyakova, an expert on Russian political warfare at the Brookings Institution. She said it is hard for Western observers steeped in countries with rule of law and checks and balances to understand how Moscow operates—especially the degree of strategic freelancing that goes on within Russia and in its operations abroad.
Russia’s political structure is often described as a power vertical, in which all power flows down from the top. But the scrutiny of Russian meddling abroad in recent years has revealed that the system is actually more diffuse than was once thought: While the ultimate goals—be it playing spoiler for Western democracies, scrambling for natural resources, or projecting power—are set by the Kremlin, the day-to-day management is often carried out by a wide network of opportunists, some more capable than others.
“The chaos and the strategy are not mutually exclusive things,” Polyakova said.
A recent white paper by the U.S. Defense Department for the Joint Chiefs of Staff found that the United States is ill-equipped to counter this scattershot type of political warfare. “Russia lacks in resources but not determination. The West has the resources but lacks a clear vision,” wrote one of the report’s contributors, Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute.
The report examines Moscow’s so-called “gray zone” tactics—a blend of proxies, paramilitaries, propaganda, and political influence—used to achieve its goals around the world. In a preface to the report, the Joint Chiefs deputy director for global operations, Navy Rear Adm. Jeffrey Czerewko, wrote that “[t]hese strategies must be proactively confronted, or the threat of significant armed conflict may increase.”
With players such as Malkevich just one pixel in the bigger picture of Russia’s interference efforts, it can be difficult to strike the right balance when assessing Moscow’s capabilities. Multiple experts have also cautioned against playing into the Kremlin’s narrative by overstating its capabilities. On the other hand, the spectrum of its efforts is often strikingly wide, ranging from dubious-looking news sites such as USA Really all the way to the coup attempt in Montenegro, Polyakova said.
“We kind of end up oscillating between ‘don’t bother looking at this one example, it’s irrelevant’ and having heart attacks over Putin as this grand mastermind pulling the strings on global events. It’s actually neither of those things,” she said.
Malkevich’s activities in recent years may offer a window into such efforts. Despite his limited success in the United States, back home in Russia Malkevich was promoted from deputy to the head of the Russian Civic Chamber’s Commission on Mass Media, a public advisory body. This spring, he left USA Really, although it continues to operate, and launched the Foundation for National Values Protection. The foundation, which he said was funded with donations from small and medium-sized businesses, seeks to protect the conservative way of life, Malkevich said. It also runs a series of discussion clubs about Africa.
The foundation quickly made international headlines when Bloomberg reported that two of its employees were arrested in Libya. Malkevich’s evolving career reflects the broader Russian approach that starts off as ad hoc but is then refined over time, said Lee Foster, the senior manager of information operations intelligence analysis at the cybersecurity company FireEye.
Malkevich’s new focus on Africa—he was in Ethiopia in May for the World Press Freedom Day Global Conference in Addis Ababa—also fits within a wider picture of Russia’s increasing outreach on the continent. Russia has signed more than 20 new military cooperation agreements with African states since 2015.
Many of these efforts have been led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of Putin whose companies have spearheaded high-profile influence operations around the world, including the Internet Research Agency, the so-called troll factory that sought to sow division among U.S. voters in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. Leaked documents revealed how Prizoghin’s companies sought to cultivate political clout in more than a dozen African countries and suggested that their efforts were coordinated with officials from Russia’s foreign and defense ministries.
Malkevich has strenuously denied ties to Prigozhin, although in an interview last year he admitted that the start-up money for USA Really had come from Russia’s Federal News Agency, which is allegedly funded by Prigozhin. In an interview with Foreign Policy in February, Malkevich said USA Really was temporarily disrupted by the U.S. military’s cyberattack on the Internet Research Agency on the day of the U.S. midterm elections last year.
The two men detained in Libya—Maxim Shugaley and his interpreter, Samer Hassan Seifan—had been working there for around six weeks and were arrested in May by the Libyan authorities. A third man, Alexander Prokofiev, avoided arrest and was able to return to Moscow.
In Libya, where the capital is caught in a bitter battle between pro-government militias and forces working for Gen. Khalifa Haftar, Russia has courted multiple sides in the conflict, positioning itself to have inroads in Libya no matter who wins out.
“If they are trying to back Qaddafi’s son, then it all the more gives strength to the argument that they are trying to position themselves as an arbiter rather than a backer of one individual group,” said Borshchevskaya of the Washington Institute.
Echoing this Libya strategy, an investigation by the BBC published this year found that a team of Russian operatives had offered cash to at least six candidates in Madagascar’s 2018 presidential elections. Among the group was Shugaley, one of Malkevich’s employees who was later arrested in Libya. Shugaley, who was registered as an election observer, led a team that offered $2 million to one of the candidates, former Prime Minister Jean-Omer Beriziky.
There is little information available about Shugaley online, and he is described by many Russian news sites as a sociologist. He appears to be best known for having physically eaten several documents during a meeting of the electoral commission to ensure that they could not be brought to court, after he ran for office in the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly for the right-wing Liberal Democratic Party.
Foster of FireEye underscored the fact that just because Malkevich has turned his attention to Africa, it doesn’t mean that Russia has lost interest in political maneuvering in the United States.
As for whether Russia will try to interfere ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, he said it can be difficult to predict what will happen as Russia and other actors that engage in this type of behavior are always trying to refine their approach. Foster said it would be misguided to expect Russia to simply repeat the tactics it used in 2016.
“That would suggest they haven’t learned anything in the interim period,” he said.