Leading voices in Russian interference efforts rally to support Maria Butina

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An upcoming press conference in Moscow to support jailed Russian agent Maria Butina will bring together some of the most notable voices in Russian interference efforts over the past few years, from the leading figure organizing American secessionists to a sanctioned Russian social media operator.

The press conference, scheduled for next Tuesday, will be hosted by Alexander Malkevich, a sanctioned Russian disinformation operative who helps run the Russia-based Foundation for the Protection of National Values. The foundation describes itself as “a non-profit organization whose activities are aimed at protecting the national interests of the Russian Federation,” including the “preserv[ation] of traditional culture.”

Malkevich is best-known for helping create a disinformation site called “USA Really,” which has previously been linked to media operations led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a sanctioned Russian official close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s Chef,” helped oversee Russia’s social media interference operations through 2016.

Malkevich will be joined by Alexander Ionov, a Russian lobbyist who, in 2015 and 2016, organized multiple conferences in Russia aimed at American secessionists. Ionov’s Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia helped fund travel to Moscow for secessionists from California and Texas, and later provided rent-free space in Russia for California secessionists from the “Yes California” group. The group used the space to open up their “Embassy of the Independent Republic of California.”

Duma deputy Vitaly Milonov, one of Russia’s most notorious anti-LGBTQ voices, will also be speaking, as will Butina’s father.

The press conference will focus on fundraising for Butina, who was recently sentenced in the U.S. to 18 months in prison for acting as an unregistered foreign agent working for Russia. Butina’s operations included infiltrating the National Rifle Association (NRA), and attempting to influence American policy while working closely with Russian official Alexander Torshin, who has also been sanctioned by the U.S. for playing a “key role in advancing Russia’s malign activities,” according to the Treasury Department.

On a video recently posted on Ionov’s Instagram, Butina asked for money from supporters to help pay for an appeal. She is currently housed in a prison in Oklahoma.

View this post on Instagram

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A post shared by Alexander Ionov (@antiglobalist1) on May 17, 2019 at 11:32pm PDT

In a statement, the Foundation for the Protection of National Values announced it had already raised some 5 million rubles — just over $75,000 — for Butina, and it hopes to help raise nearly 40 million more rubles to support her appeals process.

Friends in low places

The announced press conference is the latest blow to Butina’s efforts to position herself as some kind of naif, or an innocent victim wrapped up in anti-Russian hysteria, as her lawyers have previously claimed.

Malkevich, for instance, spearheaded perhaps the most notable Russian online effort to manipulate U.S. politics following the 2016 election. Running a website called “USA Really” — a site funded by the Federal News Agency, allegedly owned by Prigozhin — Malkevich’s efforts veered between the peculiar and the bizarre. Mixing outright conspiracy with the divisive content Russian troll farms pushed through the 2016 campaign, some of the site’s highlights included castigating the FBI for recognizing LGBTQ Pride Month or calling for Louisiana to secede.

Most of Malkevich’s efforts were laughable, and many — such as a failed attempt to hold a rally at the White House — were outright flops. Facebook and Twitter also took steps to restrict Malkevich’s reach, including banning “USA Really” accounts.

Still, that didn’t stop the Trump administration from imposing specific sanctions on Malkevich last December. As the release announcing the sanctions read, Malkevich, via “USA Really,” was “engaged in efforts to post content focused on divisive political issues.” Malkevich, as journalist Dean Sterling Jones has reported, has since left “USA Really,” but not before he decided to hang a Confederate flag on the office walls (as well as a flag in support of Russia-backed militants in eastern Ukraine).

A shot of Malkevich’s former office, with a Confederate flag hung near a photo of Trump. CREDIT: YOUTUBE

Ionov, who will be co-hosting the press conference with Malkevich, isn’t sanctioned, but has played an equally outsized role in broader Russian interference efforts. As the head of the Kremlin-funded Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia, he organized multiple conferences in Russia dedicated to supporting secession movements across Europe and the U.S. In addition to recruiting secessionists from Spain and Italy, American separatists from Hawaii and Puerto Rico also traveled to Russia to swap tactics with, and gain support from, other secession movements.

Ionov’s most notable successes came with secessionists from the Texas Nationalist Movement and Yes California, groups that are aiming to split Texas and California, respectively, from the U.S. Not only did both groups receive financial support from Ionov’s Kremlin-backed organization, but Russian troll farm operations took specific aim at backing these respective movements as well. (One of the most successful fake Russian Facebook pages is aimed squarely at Texas secessionists, for instance.)

Milonov, who is also not sanctioned, is perhaps the most homophobic member of the Russian Duma. In addition to recently attempting to shut down Russia’s lone LGBTQ film festival, Milonov has previously called for members of an LGBTQ charity to be “publicly hanged” and “mercilessly shot.” One of the most prominent supporters in the Russian legislature of Russia’s draconian anti-LGBTQ measures, Milonov has previously said that “it is better to kill a lesbian and a homosexual than an innocent child.”

As it is, associating with these three — a sanctioned Russian disinformation operative; the main organizer of American secessionists in Russia; one of Russia’s leading anti-LGBTQ voices — fits a prior pattern of behavior from Butina, her claims of innocence notwithstanding. Before she moved to the U.S. in the lead-up to the 2016 election, Butina’s efforts centered on supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and efforts to break up the country. As Mother Jones reported:

In the immediate aftermath of the invasion and annexation [of Crimea] in March 2014, Butina denounced retaliatory sanctions by the Obama administration and traveled to Crimea to promote the arming of pro-Russian separatists. Her efforts there included pledging support to a leader of a militia group that violently seized a Crimean news outlet it deemed “pro-American” and swiftly repurposed for a Kremlin propaganda operation.

For good measure, in a video she posted to YouTube in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion, Butina can be seen speaking in support of Russian-backed separatists — with a flag for the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” which Malkevich also hung in his office, flying in the background.

It’s unclear if Butina will make a video appearance at next week’s press conference. However, Malkevich wants to be sure viewers tune in nonetheless. As he said in the release announcing the press conference, “There will be surprises.”

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