All the Kremlin’s Trolls

How Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put Moscow’s worldwide influence operations to the test.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin applauds as he hosts Russia's medal-winning athletes of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games and members of the country's Paralympic team at the Kremlin in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin applauds as he hosts Russia's medal-winning athletes of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games and members of the country's Paralympic team at the Kremlin in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin applauds as he hosts Russia's medal-winning athletes of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games and members of the country's Paralympic team at the Kremlin in Moscow on April 26. Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images

In the summer of 2018, a little-known Russian journalist arrived in Washington with a bold plan to test the limits of U.S. freedom of speech. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election was in full swing, and the media pulsated with stories of alleged Russian spies, collusion, and plots to undermine U.S. democracy.

Alexander Malkevich was the latest emissary of Russia’s hopes for poisoning U.S. political discourse, this time using a news site called USA Really, tied to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the wealthy ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin behind the infamous social media “troll factory” and sponsor of the mercenary outfit Wagner Group. Unlike previous Russian influence efforts, Malkevich spoke openly about his plans, which included opening an office a block from the White House. “I want to make this media interesting and very much involved in the everyday life of Americans,” he told Foreign Policy in an interview at the time. “And maybe, in some years I can be a Pulitzer Prize winner.”

His lofty ambitions were short-lived. Malkevich was ejected from his office—a WeWork—just hours after he arrived. Facebook shuttered the publication’s page within a day of its launch, and his attempts to hold a protest in front of the White House sputtered out. After being sanctioned by the Treasury Department later that same year, his days of headline-grabbing sojourns to the United States were over.

In the summer of 2018, a little-known Russian journalist arrived in Washington with a bold plan to test the limits of U.S. freedom of speech. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election was in full swing, and the media pulsated with stories of alleged Russian spies, collusion, and plots to undermine U.S. democracy.

Alexander Malkevich was the latest emissary of Russia’s hopes for poisoning U.S. political discourse, this time using a news site called USA Really, tied to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the wealthy ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin behind the infamous social media “troll factory” and sponsor of the mercenary outfit Wagner Group. Unlike previous Russian influence efforts, Malkevich spoke openly about his plans, which included opening an office a block from the White House. “I want to make this media interesting and very much involved in the everyday life of Americans,” he told Foreign Policy in an interview at the time. “And maybe, in some years I can be a Pulitzer Prize winner.”

His lofty ambitions were short-lived. Malkevich was ejected from his office—a WeWork—just hours after he arrived. Facebook shuttered the publication’s page within a day of its launch, and his attempts to hold a protest in front of the White House sputtered out. After being sanctioned by the Treasury Department later that same year, his days of headline-grabbing sojourns to the United States were over.

It is tempting to write Malkevich off as a bumbling provocateur. But his career trajectory is a microcosm of Russia’s move-fast-and-break-things approach to its overseas influence operations. Despite his inauspicious start, Malkevich was back in the headlines a year later after founding the Foundation for National Values Protection, which the State Department has described as seeking to “facilitate global influence operations on behalf of Yevgeniy Prigozhin.” Malkevich trained his sights on Africa, where political instability, suspicion of former colonial powers, and a lack of oversight from social media giants provided an opening for Moscow to expand its reach through official and unofficial means. The State Department’s Rewards for Justice program now offers a $10 million bounty for information about Malkevich and his activities.

Malkevich is just a single node in a worldwide influence network engineered by the Kremlin and its allies over the past decade, as Russia has assiduously sought to reestablish itself as a player of consequence on the world stage and undermine the West. The end goal has been clear from the start: “To end American primacy in world affairs,” said Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow with the Washington Institute. The toolkit has spanned conventional statecraft such as diplomacy, espionage, and the leveraging of natural resources to more shadowy means including covert political interference, cozying up to the far right, and the use of mercenary groups.

It’s always been tough to determine just how successful Moscow has been as it claws at countries’ weak seams, be it racial tensions, inequality, or xenophobia. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put these influence efforts to the test as Moscow seeks to undermine support for Kyiv, advance its own narrative about the war, and bolster its relationships in the global south in search of new markets to shore up its heavily sanctioned economy.

The question of whether it has worked will likely be answered in the coming months as the war drags into winter and Kyiv’s Western partners grapple with spiraling energy prices, stiff economic headwinds, and an uphill battle to win hearts and minds in the developing world. It will have profound implications for Ukraine and the rest of the world.

“What we’re seeing now play out are all these strands coming together,” said Angela Stent, author of Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and with the Rest. “Given the situation Russia is in, in terms of its poor performance in this war, it’s quite remarkable that they still maintain all of these partnerships and relationships with different countries and groups.”


Toward the end of his second term as Russian president, Putin took to the stage in the ballroom of the resplendent Hotel Bayerischer Hof at the 2007 Munich security conference to deliver a speech that would reverberate for years. Taking aim directly at the United States, he decried a world where “there is one master, one sovereign.” It was the clearest iteration at that time of the Russian leader’s darkening worldview, but it wasn’t until he returned to the presidency in 2012 that he began in earnest to try to reshape the global order.

While the overarching goal of Russia’s foreign policy has remained steadfast over the past decade, its means have been marked by flexibility, relentlessness, and at times a sadistic creativity. Earlier this year in Mali, the French military captured drone footage of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group staging a mass grave using real bodies at the site of a former French military base before attempting to use social media to pin the blame on Paris.

In the West, as diplomatic ties soured in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Moscow has relied on a spectrum of underhanded tactics to curry favor and sow division, from attempting to overthrow the government of Montenegro in 2016 to leaking thousands of emails from French President Emmanuel Macron’s campaign on the eve of his election in 2017.

“Across the board, there have been different wake-up calls,” said Kyllike Sillaste-Elling, undersecretary for political affairs at the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Since 2014, Russia has spent more than $300 million in covert financing of political parties across four continents, according to a U.S. intelligence assessment released earlier this year. Such sums are a drop in the ocean by the multibillion-dollar standards of U.S. elections, but they have the potential to go a lot further amid comparatively lean election spending elsewhere. In Europe, Moscow has sought to inflame political sore spots from Catalonia’s independence aspirations to tensions over immigration, all while courting fringe political figures on the far left and right. Before they were banned by the European Union in March in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s state-backed broadcasters RT and Sputnik put out a steady drumbeat of disinformation, amplified by constellations of fake social media accounts.

The shadowy nature of Russia’s exploits makes it difficult for Western countries to respond in kind. “The activities themselves are often not serious enough for you to respond in any sort of major way, if you don’t want to risk a really dangerous escalation, but it’s also not so insignificant that you can do nothing,” said Elisabeth Braw, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

In Germany, the cozy relationship between the Kremlin and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder gave rise to a new word—“Schröderization”—which has been used by analysts to describe the Kremlin’s efforts to win over European elites. As one of his last acts as chancellor in 2005, Schröder signed a deal giving the green light for the construction of the first Nord Stream gas pipeline, which runs from Russia to Germany, bypassing Ukraine and the Baltic states. Shortly after leaving office, Schröder received a call from Putin himself asking him to become chairman of the company overseeing the pipeline’s construction, and he later went on to work as a lobbyist for the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

The project would go on to become a lightning rod within Europe and in Germany’s relationship with the United States, where successive administrations argued that the pipeline would leave Europe dangerously dependent on Russian gas while depriving Ukraine of much-needed transit revenues. After years of fraught diplomacy, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz suspended completion of the pipeline in February when it became clear that Putin was on a war footing. But even as the pipeline lay unused, it was still utilized to send a message to Europe when a series of explosions ripped through both Nord Stream 1 and 2 in September, underscoring the vulnerability of the continent’s critical infrastructure in its northern seas. Although investigations are ongoing, suspicion quickly fell on Moscow.

“There’s one thing to bear in mind, and that’s that the Russians are opportunistic,” Braw said. “It’s highly unlikely that eight, 10, 12 years ago they thought, ‘We’ll build a pipeline, and then in the year 2022, we’ll sabotage it.’”

As tensions rose with the West following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Moscow sought to deepen its relationships with countries beyond the West, using a hybrid approach that included more conventional diplomacy as well as a suite of shadowy tactics. Facing Western sanctions, Moscow bolstered its ties with China while the Russian military’s intervention in the Syrian civil war in support of embattled President Bashar al-Assad in 2015 heralded Russia’s return to the chess board of the Middle East. “Putin was determined not to let the United States topple another dictator,” Borshchevskaya said.

Analysts will often describe Putin’s approach to his overseas exploits as playing a weak hand well, a maxim best exemplified by Russia’s decadelong effort to make inroads in Africa. By conventional metrics such as trade, investment, or foreign aid, Russia’s presence on the continent pales in comparison to those of the United States, China, and Europe. But by lending out its Wagner mercenaries and its expertise on political interference, Moscow has made itself indispensable to authoritarian regimes and power players from Libya to the Central African Republic, giving Russia outsized influence. In Africa’s Sahel region, which has experienced seven coups in just over two years, Russian disinformation networks tied to Prigozhin have sought to co-opt conversations about decolonization to stoke animosity toward France, the former colonial power in the region, while simultaneously calling for a greater Russian presence.

“It’s very cheap, and it’s a very good return on investment,” said a French official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.


There was a moment in the spring, as Russia pounded Ukrainian cities with missile strikes, when it seemed like the Kremlin’s years of trying to weave a global web of influence had amounted to nothing. In a rare display of global unity, 141 countries voted to condemn the Russian invasion at an emergency meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, while Europe underwent in months the kind of shifts that usually take a generation. Germany halted completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and vowed to ramp up its defense spending. Sweden and Finland abandoned their long-standing policies of nonalignment and applied to join NATO, while the EU put on a unified front to impose a series of increasingly punitive sanctions on Moscow and welcome millions of Ukrainian refugees.

“If the [General Assembly] vote tells you anything, and if the state of European policy tells you anything, it seems like in the end you can have all the influence networks you want, [but] if you do something so egregious, that network isn’t going to be able to deliver because it’s so beyond the pale,” said Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist with the Rand Corporation.

Perhaps the single most glaring failure of Moscow’s efforts to bend a country to its will is Ukraine itself. With extensive shared historical, linguistic, and cultural ties, Ukraine, in theory, should have been the easiest country for Moscow to woo. For decades, Russia invested heavily in maintaining a network of proxies at all levels of Ukrainian society, while the country’s intelligence agencies were widely reported to be infiltrated by Moscow’s spies. But the more stifling the Kremlin’s embrace became, the more Ukrainians pulled away, leading Russia to resort to an all-out invasion in a bid to permanently bring Kyiv to heel.

“If you have to keep invading your neighbor to get them to do what you want, it’s a sign of the weakness of your other means of statecraft,” Charap said. Not only did Russia fail to keep Ukraine within its orbit using a whole suite of influence and coercion tactics, it catastrophically misread how the country would respond to an invasion, as the opening phase of Russia’s military campaign appears to have been predicated on the assumption that Kyiv would fold within a matter of days.

Heading into the winter, Europe faces spiking energy prices, high inflation, and the possibility of a recession. Protesters have already taken to the streets across Europe in response to the spiraling cost of living. Many analysts fear that such tensions could provide an inroad for Russia to sow discord and undermine European support for Ukraine.

The election of a far-right coalition government in Italy, composed of parties with a history of being sympathetic toward Moscow, served as a stark reminder of how the consensus-based decision-making style of the EU and NATO could be easily disrupted by just one member, although new Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has vociferously supported Ukraine. For now, at least, current and former European officials are bullish about the fractious bloc’s ability to hang together.

“Actually, I’m quite optimistic,” said Mikk Marran, the former head of Estonia’s Foreign Intelligence Service. “I’m quite optimistic. I think that the West has been considerably or quite united.”

When it comes to the rest of the world, current and former Western officials see an uphill battle in efforts to isolate Putin as the global south contends with rising food and energy prices sparked by a war in which they have no immediate stake. While Biden called for Russia to be expelled from the G-20 group of the world’s leading economies in March, Putin received a standing invitation to the group’s meeting in Bali this week as its host, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, tried to tamp down tensions over the war.

“It seems like a lot of this so far has worked out,” Stent said. “What it hasn’t done is help their military performance, but it has enabled them to maintain a global influence and a global presence, which is not necessarily warranted by the nature of their economy and their form of government.”

While few countries beyond the global gallery of rogues—Belarus, Iran, North Korea—have openly sided with Moscow, many have proven willing to compartmentalize the war from their wider relationship with Russia. India and China abstained from both U.N. General Assembly votes condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine, while Beijing’s diplomats and state media have echoed the Kremlin’s talking points about the war. As Western nations have frantically sought to cut their dependence on Russian oil, Asian economies, most notably India, have capitalized on heavy resource discounts by Moscow to feed their refineries.

In the Middle East and North Africa, where rising grain and oil prices have been most acutely felt, governments have by and large sought to refrain from taking sides. “The region wanted to stay neutral, even American allies,” Borshchevskaya said. This was most glaring in the decision of the oil cartel OPEC, led by Saudi Arabia, to cut oil production, driving prices higher and blunting the impact of sanctions on Russia’s economy. “You can also see that other American allies were simply too nervous or too afraid to anger Russia,” she said.

In Africa, where Russia has sought to expand its reach in recent years, Moscow’s narrative that the war in Ukraine is a conflict between East and West has prevailed, said Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. After being ousted from Europe in the wake of the war, Russia’s overseas state broadcaster, RT, announced plans to set up its first African bureau in South Africa.

Just over half of the countries in Africa voted to condemn the invasion at the United Nations. For those that didn’t, there is a spectrum of considerations at play. “There’s the obvious reality that you have some regimes that are actively colluding with the Russians, like in the Central African Republic or Mali, and they’re highly indebted to and compromised by Russia,” Siegle said, while others, from Uganda to Guinea, would likely welcome a greater Russian presence.

And then there are the countries that see little gain in crossing one of the world’s more disruptive powers. “From the perspective of many African leaders, they don’t gain a lot from condemning Russia. But if they condemn Russia, there is a cost to that, and Russia has been clear that it will hold a grudge with those who vote against it,” Siegle said.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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