27.04.23 Prigozhin Review

The New Insincerity: Prigozhin’s associates are receiving contracts to create a new media system to spread propaganda in the occupied territories

The Kremlin has prioritised the total integration of the occupied Ukrainian territories into Russia: this involves significant financial investment, a harsh crackdown on Ukrainian resistance and expressions of Ukrainian identity, and propaganda aimed at the indoctrination of the local population. Alexander Malkevich, who has made a career for himself within Yevgeny Prigozhin's organisations, has been creating pro-Russian media outlets in the occupied territories designed to serve as intermediaries between the federal propaganda narrative of Russification and the local agendas of these regions. Reporters Without Borders has traced Malkevich's trajectory from a little-known media manager to a key figure in the creation of the Kremlin's ‘new type of propaganda’ in Ukraine's occupied regions. Prigozhin's active participation in these ‘ideological integration’ projects will help him expand his media influence in Russia and beyond.

According to an investigation by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Alexander Malkevich, the Chairman of the Russian Civic Chamber’s Commission for the Development of the Information Society, Mass Media and Mass Communications  assumed control over audiovisual propaganda in the occupied territories of Ukraine in July 2022. In Melitopol, Malkevich established the ZaMedia group, launched Mariupol 24, a new television channel in Mariupol, as well as the Tavria TV channel in Kherson, whose editorial office relocated to Henichesk following the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the autumn. All of this took place within an incredibly short amount of time, even before the fake referendums held in the occupied territories (ZaMedia was involved in the coverage of the referendums). According to Malkevich, the ZaMedia holding was set up in two weeks, and the regional channel was built ‘in 10 days from scratch’. The primary focus has been to occupy the role of a ‘local’ media channel, as these are less likely to be perceived as under ‘the thumb of Moscow’ (unlike federal channels). This means that these media outlets can bridge federal propaganda narratives and local agendas, furthering the integration of the Ukrainian population into the Russian state. Ukrainian media resources continue to be accessible within the occupied territories, so the task of these media projects set up by the occupiers is to wrestle audiences away from them.

Malkevich denies any connection to Prigozhin and claims that his activities in Ukraine are voluntary. However, he owes much of his career to Prigozhin. In 2018, Malkevich headed an English-language news portal called USA Really — intended to ‘awaken’ Americans. This was part of Prigozhin's FAN project. Shortly after its launch, the publication's accounts on Western social media platforms were blocked, and the editorial team was evicted from the office space that it had been renting near the White House. Malkevich was sanctioned by the United States for collaborating with Prigozhin, who by that time was already on America’s sanctions list. RSF investigators note that it was specifically Western sanctions (he was later included on the EU’s and Britain’s sanction lists as well) that helped Malkevich to attain more prominent positions in Moscow. The Kremlin has a history of promoting individuals who they view as having been treated unfairly by the West. As a result, Malkevich became the head of the Public Chamber’s media committee.

The RSF investigation also uncovered additional evidence of Malkevich and Prigozhin’s cooperation. In 2019, the Foundation for the Protection of National Values (FZNC), which was ‘managed by Alexander Malkevich in the interests of Yevgeny Prigozhin,’ was sanctioned by the United States. According to The Insider, FZNC’s employees provided media support for the participation of Wagner PMC fighters in the civil war in Libya, and also interfered in local elections. Shortly after the sanctions were imposed, Nikolay Stolyarchuk, a lawyer at FZNC, became the head of the Patriot media group owned by Prigozhin.

In order to launch his media campaign in the occupied territories of Ukraine, Malkevich used resources from not only the local occupying administrations but also from the television channel ‘Saint Petersburg’ and the Foundation for New Media Development (FRNM), which he created in 2017 and previously headed. The exact source of funding remains unknown, but RSF obtained a recording of a phone call in which a person claiming to represent Malkevich offered a Russian journalist a job in the occupied territories ‘under the aegis of the presidential apparatus and Prigozhin's people.’ Due to a shortage of personnel, Malkevich has been forced to recruit staff from within Russia and offer them salaries above the market rate. The journalist in question was offered a salary of 200,000 rubles, while the starting salary for an inexperienced intern was 150,000 rubles. According to Verstka, FRNM sought funding from the Presidential Grants website for their Media Volunteers project, applying for 4,993,115 rubles to train 50 ‘young professionals... who dream of becoming heroes of the information front.’

According to the RSF’s investigation, Malkevich has been filling key positions in his new media projects in the Ukrainian occupied territories with individuals who have prior connections to Prigozhin. These individuals were recruited through the St. Petersburg branch of the veteran organisation ‘Combat Brotherhood’, which is also known for conducting recruitment for the Wagner PMC. The rank-and-file employees of Malkevich's media projects are a small number of journalists who relocated from Russia, including a former RT employee named Oleg Klokov (who was subsequently killed in an artillery attack), as well as former employees of various propaganda outlets from the self-proclaimed DNR. Despite offering high salaries, Malkevich has struggled to attract Russian journalists to work in Ukraine, and has resorted to actively recruiting individuals in the field. To do this, he opened a school of journalism in Kherson with the support of Alexei Nikolov, the Managing Director of RT. The investigators from RSF note that Malkevich has also recruited local underage girls with no experience in journalism to work for his channels. One of them, a 16-year-old Kherson schoolgirl named Vlada Lugovskaya, was even awarded the Order of Courage by the Kremlin. She was presented with this award by Prime Minister Mishustin and Malkevich himself in January 2023.

According to the RSF’s investigation, Malkevich's new media focuses on producing three types of content to achieve their propaganda goals. The first type, referred to as ‘positive Soviet agitation,’ consists of reports on the accomplishments of the occupying administration, plans for the development of the occupied territories, and the humanitarian activities of the ‘liberators.’ The second type aims to eradicate Ukrainian history and convince the audience that the occupied territories will be a part of Russia forever. For instance, TV channel Tavria airs lectures by Vladimir Medinsky, who claims that Ukraine is a ‘historical phantom’ and that Russians and Ukrainians are ‘one great nation.’ The third type of content is devoted to combating ‘internal enemies’ within the occupied territories and disseminating fake news about the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

The authors of the investigation have concluded that Malkevich's propaganda network in the Ukrainian occupied territories aligns with Prigozhin's broader plans to strengthen his media influence in Russia and create an alternative media landscape, producing content inUkraine that would compete with that produced by the Russian Ministry of Defence.