From the ICYMI Files: The Bizarre Campaign to Free a Notorious Russian Political Operative (Now With U.S. Sanctions!)

ALEXANDER MALKEVICH has been sanctioned by the Biden administration for spreading Kremlin propaganda. Here’s a round-up of my reporting from 2019–2020 about his global campaign to free Russian political operative Maxim Shugaley from a Libyan prison, which successfully weaponised Charlie Sheen, Maria Butina, and the Washington Post.

Poster for action-propaganda film Shugaley (source)

Alexander Malkevich will likely be familiar to readers of this blog. Throughout 2018, I gleefully documented his misadventures as editor of Russian propaganda site USA Really — for which he was sanctioned later that year in connection with Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Robert Mueller-indicted Russian oligarch behind St. Petersburg’s infamous troll farm.

I continued to follow Malkevich’s efforts to wage Russia’s “information war” (his words) after he left the site in February 2019 in order to start a new company based in Moscow, the Foundation for National Values Protection (FNVP). This eventually led me to Libya, where in May 2019 one of Malkevich’s employees, Russian political operative Maxim Shugaley, was arrested for his alleged involvement in a Kremlin-backed plot to install the fugitive son of deposed dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Since then, my reporting via this blog, BuzzFeed News, and Foreign Policy (joined by FP’s national security and intelligence reporter Amy Mackinnon), has shown that:

Malkevich and Prigozhin used a shell company to co-finance two big-budget action-propaganda films, Shugaley and Shugaley 2, which depict their namesake as an innocent but no-nonsense sociologist who brawls, spouts witty one-liners, and drinks whiskey straight from the bottle.

— Malkevich may have paid Charlie Sheen, Dolph Lundgren, Vinnie Jones, and Danny Trejo to record video messages of support for Shugaley through the American pay-for-videos app Cameo (Malkevich denies this).

— Malkevich placed a now-deleted advertorial on the Washington Post’s site, calling on Libya’s president to free Shugaley.

— Two of FNVP’s senior consultants, Mikhail Potepkin and Petr Bychkov, advised Sudan’s former president Omar al-Bashir on ways to quell anti-government protests prior to a violent crackdown in 2018.

On the heels of that reporting, the U.S. Treasury Department has sanctioned Malkevich for a second time, accusing him and his foundation of having “facilitated Prigozhin’s global influence operations since at least 2019.” (The announcement further states that Bychkov, FPNV’s consultant, has been sanctioned for leading Prigozhin’s “Africa back office.”)

Per the Treasury’s Apr. 15 announcement:

Today, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) took sweeping action against 16 entities and 16 individuals who attempted to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election at the direction of the leadership of the Russian Government…

Russian national Alexander Malkevich (Malkevich) and his company, the Foundation for National Values Protection (FZNC), have facilitated Prigozhin’s global influence operations since at least 2019. Malkevich, who was previously designated in 2018 pursuant to E.O. 13694 for directing USAReally, another designated Prigozhin-financed influence entity, has continued to support Prigozhin’s disinformation operations. Malkevich runs the FZNC website. Malkevich utilized the FZNC website along with other Prigozhin operatives to spread messages on behalf of Prigozhin […] Malkevich and the FZNC were designated pursuant to E.O.s 13848, 13694, and 13661 for supporting Prigozhin’s global influence operations. FZNC was also designated pursuant to E.O. 13848 for being owned or controlled by Malkevich.

When I asked Malkevich for his response to the above allegations, this was his reply:

It is difficult for me to comment on the actions of American bureaucrats. Everyone knows that I have been working for the fourth month as the head of a large TV channel in St. Petersburg. In addition, all my civil society activities over the past two years have been absolutely public and open. And there was nothing wrong and criminal in them […] As for my work at the foundation, I repeat that it has not taken any hostile actions against America. What does the activity of this organization have to do with the life of the United States of America?))

The full scope of FNVP’s activities in Africa is not known. In my interviews with Malkevich throughout 2019 and 2020, he denied any wrongdoing and insisted that FNVP’s sole enterprise is conducting sociological research to later sell to “businessmen and for other people who are in need of them.” (FNVP’s research is routinely published on its site free-of-charge.)

Shugaley — who was made FNVP’s president shortly after his release from prison in December — did not return multiple requests for comment.

If he’d answered my emails, I would have asked him about his relationship to Alexander Ivanov, who recently attended a meeting of FNVP’s “African debating club” during which there appeared to be discussion of a UN report published last month that accused Russian mercenaries of committing “grave human rights abuses” in the Central African Republic.

Ivanov is listed online as “director general” of the Officers Union for International Security, a self-proclaimed “association of people advocating for peace and stability.” Further research shows that Ivanov is, in fact, an advisor to Valery Zakharov, who is Vladmir Putin’s national security advisor to Faustin-Archange Touadéra, president of the Central African Republic.

A video of the meeting was livestreamed on YouTube by the Coordinating Council of Russian NGOs, whose chairman, Anton Tsvetkov, also chairs the pro-Putin “Strong Russia” movement.

Shugaley and Ivanov have both published open letters addressed to the UN demanding that it produce evidence for its claims. Meanwhile, studies published on FNVP’s site indicate that the foundation recently sent Russian operatives to the Central African Republic. It’s unclear what they’re doing there.

Notes from the cutting room floor

— Maria Butina, convicted in 2018 of being an unregistered foreign agent of Russia, has been added to the FNVP’s website as an “expert.” Malkevich donated money to Butina’s fundraising campaign in 2019, paying her U.S. lawyers through a third-party Russian NGO in order to circumvent U.S. sanctions preventing him from paying them directly. Butina later penned an article on the foundation’s site titled “Oh please, make me a tool of American propaganda!” lambasting the American press and judicial system. Here’s her newly added bio on the foundation’s site:

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— FNVP is using pirated software to prepare PDF versions of studies published on its site, per a review of the associated metadata.

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— The Officers Union for International Security site has not been properly secured, enabling visitors to browse files uploaded to the site’s WordPress library.

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