The Washington Post may have violated US government sanctions when it ran an ad online from Russian propagandist Alexander Malkevich — and handed a propaganda coup to a man who appears to have been part of Russia’s interference with the 2018 midterm elections in the United States and has been pushing false information to sow political chaos across the globe.
Malkevich, the chair of the Foundation for National Values Protection (FNVP), a Moscow-based think tank, confirmed to BuzzFeed News that he paid for the ad posted on Jan. 30, an open letter addressed to Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj, calling on him to release two Russian nationals.
“President of the Foundation Alexander Malkevich demands from the head of the Libyan government […] free the employees of the Foundation Maxim Shugalei and Samer Hassan Ali Seifan, who were arrested by the Libyan militaries in Tripoli in May 2019,” read the letter, published last Thursday.
The United States currently forbids business transactions with Malkevich after he was sanctioned in 2018 for "attempted election interference" while working as the editor of the Russian propaganda site USA Really (he has since left the site).
Under Malkevich’s leadership, the site “engaged in efforts to post content focused on divisive political issues but is generally ridden with inaccuracies,” the US Treasury Department said in a December 2018 press release. “In June 2018, USA Really attempted to hold a political rally in the United States, though its efforts were unsuccessful.”
Articles published during Malkevich's tenure mirror the same kind of false, misleading, and purposefully offensive content peddled by the Internet Research Agency, the Kremlin troll farm that interfered in the 2016 presidential election in the US. Headlines include the anti-Semitic “Star of David Spotted Amidst Migrant Caravan: Who’s Behind the Invasion?" and the anti-trans "New Shocking Facts About Michelle Obama's Gender."
"The advertiser did not align with our advertising standards, and the ad never should have run," a spokesperson for the Washington Post told BuzzFeed News. "We removed it quickly from our site, and the advertiser is in the process of being refunded."
The ad was published on the site’s branded content platform WP BrandStudio, which offers advertisers "the Washington Post's award-winning investigative lens and a deep understanding of our audience to create compelling multimedia stories — from concept to production," according to marketing materials.
BrandStudio clients include Amazon, JPMorgan Chase, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, among others.
"The Washington Post Newsroom is not involved in the creation of this content,” reads a disclaimer on the site.
Malkevich told BuzzFeed News he hoped to “draw the attention of the international community” to Shugalei, a political strategist, and Seifan, an interpreter, both of whom work for the FNVP.
Libyan authorities arrested the men for attempting to set up a meeting with Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, the fugitive son of the toppled dictator, as part of an alleged Kremlin-backed plot to interfere in national elections last year. Libyan authorities claimed to have evidence linking them to the infamous Kremlin troll farm.
Malkevich denied wrongdoing and said the men were carrying out sociological research to later sell to “businessmen and for other people who are in need of them."
The publication of the ad garnered headlines in Russia Today, which is funded by the Russian government, and the Federal News Agency, the parent company of USA Really and a founding member of Patriot Media Group, created last October by Robert Mueller–indicted catering oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s cook.”
“The Washington Post will help free Russians from Libyan captivity,” read one headline on Nation-News.ru, another Patriot group member.
None of the Russian-language sites reported that Malkevich had paid for the letter, with some sites falsely claiming that the Post had endorsed Malkevich’s demands. One news outlet deceptively cropped a screenshot of the letter to remove a message informing readers that it was a paid ad.
In an interview last Friday on Ren TV, an independent Russian television network, Malkevich obfuscated his role in placing the ad, expressing delight that the “liberal” Post had “published material” critical of the “Tripolitan bandits” who, he claimed, “are finding it increasingly difficult to explain to the world community why they behave in this way.”
Malkevich described Libya’s treatment of Shugalei and Seifan as “a flagrant violation of human rights" and said he had sent a copy of his letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, asking him to intervene in their case.
It’s not the first time Shugalei has been linked to Russian interference efforts. In April, BBC Africa identified him as a member of a group of Russians masquerading as tourists and election observers in the lead-up to Madagascar’s 2018 presidential election.
According to the BBC, Shugalei worked for Omer Beriziky, one of 36 candidates vying for president.
"[Shugalei] said that he would help us and would provide us with technical support,” Beriziky's campaign manager Onja Rasamimanana told BBC Africa. “It's like they decided what we should do, and we had to just do it.”