Russian Troll or Clumsy Publicity Hound?
A Russian media executive says he’s come to Washington to test the limits of American freedom
Alexander Malkevich might be the new face of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to subvert American democracy. Or he might be a bumbling provocateur.
Malkevich, a Russian media executive with ties to the Kremlin, arrived in Washington this week to launch USA Really, an English-language news site that spreads the kind of disinformation and discord attributed to Russian trolls in a high-profile indictment earlier this year.
It has not been a soft landing.
First, WeWork ejected him from the co-working space he’d rented across the street from the White House — just two hours after he entered the building.
Then, his plan to stage a rally in front of the White House to mark the website’s launch was dashed because he sent his permit request to the wrong office.
On Wednesday of this week, he showed up at a coffee shop in central Washington D.C. for his first interview with an American reporter. He wore a white t-shirt emblazoned with the face of the Russian foreign minister and the phrase “debili blyat,” which roughly translates as “fucking morons.”
“This is my answer for these strange people that are frightened by us,” he said.
His new website is no less sophomoric. In the past few days, it has included stories headlined, “Man Served His Friends Tacos Made From His Severed Limb” and “The New Little Ice Age Can Start in Montana.”
Malkevich is a former manager of local television and radio stations in Russia. He’s also a member of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation, which advises the government on policy-making.
He says he was approached by a group of Russian journalists and businessmen to found USA Really after he gave a speech to the Russian Civic Chamber, a parliamentary advisory body, about the need to establish more media outlets abroad.
“We only have a few media working abroad. It’s so hard for them to stand against all this oppression,” he said.
Though he declined to say whose idea it was to launch the site, Malkevich admitted that his startup capital came from Federal News Agency, a Russian news outlet tied to the infamous Internet Research Agency, better known as the troll factory.
In February, the Internet Research Agency and 13 Russians alleged to have worked with it were indicted as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the American presidential election. Among them was Yevgeny Prigozhin, one of Putin’s close allies who is suspected of bankrolling the troll factory.
But if the launch of USA Really suggests Russia is still determined to spread disinformation among Americans, it also offers insight into the often clumsy nature of Russia’s information war.
The news site was featured on the Rachel Maddow Show earlier this month but Malkevich said his own attempts to reach out to U.S media outlets about the launch have been fruitless.
“They totally ignore me,” he said. (Malkevich’s emails to this reporter somehow ended up in a spam folder.)
News that USA Really would be operating from an office just a block away from the White House did attract some press attention. WeWork declined to comment on its reasons for terminating Malkevich’s membership.
“Now we see that there is real freedom of speech in Russia,” he said. “But a Russian media company cannot do anything in the USA.”
Social media websites, heavily criticized for serving as a megaphone for the Russian disinformation campaigns during the U.S. election campaign, have been aggressively policing USA Really.
Facebook shut down the website’s page within a day of its launch in May. On Twitter, USA Really has been prevented from posting direct links to its website, forcing it to route articles through Google Plus posts.
On Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, Malkevich said the site has been able to post photos but is blocked from adding captions and hashtags.
The reasons for the crackdown are not totally clear. While the website is connected to individuals and entities subject to U.S. sanctions and indictments (through its affiliation with Federal News Agency), Malkevich is not included on either list and was able to enter the United States on a tourist visa.
Alina Polyakova, a Fellow at the Brookings Institute, argued that his ability to launch USA Really highlights the whack-a-mole nature of using sanctions and indictments against people who carry out the Kremlin’s bidding abroad.
“They will always be able to find a new person who we’ve never heard of before, who will be willing to do their dirty work,” she said.
“Am I concerned that this website is going to get millions and millions of views? No, but we shouldn’t look at it in isolation” she said, adding: “It’s really just one small part of a much broader ecosystem of disinformation.”
Malkevich admitted that he’s had difficulty recruiting native English speakers, but he has high hopes for the project.
“I want to make this media interesting and very much involved in the everyday life of Americans,” he said. “And maybe, in some years I can be a Pulitzer Prize winner.”
Towards the end of the interview, an employee wiping down the table behind him splashed cleaning fluid on his phone.
“Spies from the FBI. Poison,” he joked.
“Of course, I am being sarcastic” he added. “But there is still some concern.”
This piece was co-published with our editorial partner Foreign Policy.