When federal authorities allege a massive, foreign-government-backed campaign to undermine America’s democratic institutions, the expected reaction from those accused of complicity is to put some distance between themselves and the culprits.
But when Elena Khusyaynova, the alleged financier of a sprawling Russian disinformation effort, was indicted last week, one Russian media outlet rushed to associate itself with the St. Petersburg accountant. USA Really, a conspiratorial website run by a Russian media executive and Kremlin policy adviser, quickly boasted on its website that Khusyaynova was the company’s chief financial officer.
It’s not clear what USA Really hoped to gain through the admission. The site is quick to deny that Russia had any involvement in the 2016 election. But its gleeful association with Khusyaynova suggests that USA Really is not the independent, inquisitive news organization that it claims to be, but rather an adjunct of a deep-pocketed propaganda apparatus that federal prosecutors say amounts to a criminal conspiracy against the United States.
Representatives for the website did not return a request for comment for this piece. But there are ties between the site and Khusyaynova.
In an indictment handed down last week, prosecutors accused Khusyaynova of orchestrating the flows of millions of dollars to various arms of a Russian digital information operation designed to stoke political, cultural, and racial divisions in the United States and Europe. Dubbed Project Lahtka, its goal, prosecutors alleged, was “to undermine faith in our democratic institutions.”
USA Really had a different take, calling the charge a “disgusting, monstrous octopus stretching its arms to choke free speech and independent journalism panicked upon hearing USA Really’s voice of truth.” Within the story was the admission “that Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova is CFO of the USA Really news agency and its parent organization, Federal News Agency. This is her only ‘crime.’”
The Federal News Agency (FAN) was one of a one of a number of entities that federal prosecutors say “employed hundreds of individuals in support” of Project Lahtka, and through which they allege Khusyaynova funneled money that financed social media disinformation campaigns in the U.S.
The FAN is allegedly run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian catering billionaire commonly known as “Putin’s cook.” Prosecutors claim that three of Progozhin’s catering businesses provided the primary source of funding for Project Lahtka’s U.S. election-meddling campaigns. The Justice Department indicted Prigozhin in February on charges related to Russian election-meddling efforts.
USA Really was not named in that indictment or last week’s one against Khusyaynova. But it has pushed back against both. In an “exclusive” video statement published by the site on Monday, Khusyaynova downplayed her alleged role in Project Lahtka, describing herself merely as “an ordinary Russian accountant.”
USA Really’s website is run by Alexander Malkevich, a Russian media executive and a member of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation, a private organization established by Russian President Vladimir Putin, through which Malkevich advises the Russian government on media policy. In that capacity, he has recently called for “more [Russian] mass media in order to fight back in the world information war.”
USA Really set up shop this year in a shared office space across the street from the White House. Its headquarters, adorned with a photo of President Donald Trump and a Confederate flag, previously shared the same St. Petersburg building that once housed the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Kremlin propaganda organ responsible for significant disinformation efforts in the U.S., and involved in Project Lahtka.
Malkevich and his website thumb their nose at allegations that they are simply Russian propagandists. “Major U.S. MSM considers all these stories to be ‘fake news’ and ‘Russian state propaganda’ because it didn’t fit with what all the ‘Important People’ from the Hill or Silicon Valley knew to be true,” declared one story written in characteristically broken English.
In June, cybersecurity firm FireEye investigated USA Really and determined it had ties to the IRA, a Kremlin propaganda organ responsible for significant disinformation efforts in the U.S., and involved in Project Lahtka. The Justice Department did not respond to questions about whether its investigation has probed those ties to USA Really.
The site is relatively obscure as a media organization, but its social media reach in the U.S. is significant. Hundreds of USA Really links have populated Reddit’s most popular pro-Trump forum. One August story on the site was shared on Facebook nearly 80,000 times.
Despite some social media success, USA Really and its parent company have borne the brunt of efforts by Facebook and other social media companies to crack down on disinformation on their platforms. USA Really’s Facebook page was shut down early this month, prompting furious and conspiratorial backlash from the site.
USA Really wrote this week that it has retained the law firm Whiteford Taylor & Preston and filed a lawsuit against Facebook in a federal court in California. Federal court records show no record of any such lawsuit being filed. A spokesperson for Whiteford did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
Meanwhile, USA Really’s U.S. government conspiracy theories have only deepened. On Thursday, the site posted screenshots of threats that it claims were leveled against the FAN.
“We’re watching you and know about your low-down work in the agency,” read one alleged threat, which was written by an unidentified sender in Russian to an unidentified recipient. “We don’t like what we see. Stop. You can’t imagine the consequences of your cooperation. You will answer for both the agency’s actions, and your own.”
USA Really somehow concluded that the messages came from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. A USA Really employee called the number that supposedly sent the text messages. In audio of the conversation that it posted on its website, an individual speaking in a heavy accent claims to be a “military adviser to the consulate” but refuses to give his name.
Asked to identify himself, the man says, “I’m not at liberty to tell you that. It’s a state secret.”