Foreign Policy

How Russia Tried to Weaponize Charlie Sheen

“Do not give up, freedom will come,” said one-time sitcom actor Charlie Sheen, standing in what appeared to be his kitchen, jabbing his finger at the camera. “Freedom is, is, is, is in your future, on your horizon,” he stammered.

His audience? Maxim Shugaley, a Russian political consultant and operative who has been imprisoned in Libya for over a year, accused of meddling in the country’s chaotic internal conflict—a fight that Russia is very much in the thick of. Sheen, alongside actors Vinnie Jones and Dolph Lundgren, seems to have been unwittingly recruited to record messages of support for Shugaley through the pay-for-videos website Cameo.

The videos are just the latest twist in an increasingly bizarre international campaign to raise the profile of Shugaley’s detention. So far, that has included his election to a local council in Russia, two feature films, an advertorial in the Washington Post, a mixed martial arts tournament, and a one-woman picket in front of the Libyan Embassy in Moscow by Maria Butina, the gun-loving Russian who spent 15 months in prison in the United States after being convicted for conspiring to act as a foreign agent. 

It’s not clear what is motivating the determined campaign to free Shugaley. A “veteran political operative” who has been involved in at least one other Russian political influence operation in Africa, Shugaley may simply be too valuable to lose. Playing up the arrest has also proved to be a useful stick with which to beat the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya, which until this summer was locked in a bitter fight with the forces of renegade general Khalifa Haftar, who has been backed militarily by Russia, especially by its mercenaries. 

But the effort offers a glimpse into Russian overseas interference activities, in which celebrity pleas exist on the same plane as MiGs and mercenary activity from the Wagner group in Libya, where the U.S. military has warned that Russia is looking to establish a foothold. 

“For Russia, there is no direct break between war and peace between the way we think about it in the West. It’s a continuum,” said Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute. 

The campaign to release Shugaley and his interpreter has been spearheaded by Alexander Malkevich, a Russian government media policy advisor and head of the Moscow-based Foundation for National Values Protection, which works to “protect the national interests of the Russian Federation”. Shugaley and his translator were arrested in Libya last spring while ostensibly conducting sociological research for the foundation.

While Malkevich and Russian state media have portrayed Shugaley as a humble academic, Shugaley has been named in an investigation by the BBC as part of a team of Russians that travelled to Madagascar ahead of the 2018 presidential elections claiming to be tourists and election observers, while offering money to at least six candidates. He is alleged to have led a team which offered one of the candidates $2 million. 

In June, Libyan prosecutors formally charged Shugaley and his translator, accusing them of espionage and of working for Yevgeny Prigozhin as part of a wider plot to help Russia secure a military base in Libya. Prigozhin is the catering magnate believed to be behind Russia’s troll factory, the Internet Research Agency, and the linchpin of a shadowy group of Russian mercenaries known as the Wagner group. According to documents obtained by the London-based Dossier center and reported by various media outlets, Shugaley was part of an operation to bring Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, the fugitive son of deposed dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, to power in Libya.

If so, it would fit Russia’s pattern of betting on all horses in the Libyan quagmire to ensure that they are well-positioned no matter who wins. “I think that what this shows is that the Russians have a diversified portfolio approach,” said Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment. “It’s sort of opportunism: They’re pushing on a creaking door, there’s no counter force, the United States isn’t present.” 

If Malkevich is the public face of the campaign, Prigozhin, a close associate of Putin, appears to be bankrolling much of the effort. Prigozhin has been central to Russia’s efforts to increase its influence in Africa, where his operatives mix business interests, often in natural resources, with election interference efforts and mercenary activity.

Political strategists, mercenaries, and geologists associated with Prigozhin have been deployed to at least 20 African countries, including Libya, according to the Russian investigative news site Proekt. On Wednesday, the U.S. Treasury announced new sanctions on a number of individuals believed to be working on behalf of Prigozhin to advance Russia’s interest in the Central African Republic. 

A U.N. report published in May said that hundreds, if not thousands, of mercenaries from the nominally private Russian military contractor, the Wagner group—widely believed to be managed and financed by Prigozhin—have been dispatched to the country to fight alongside forces loyal to Haftar, who controls the east of the country.

The Kremlin denies any involvement in the Libyan conflict, which over the past decade has evolved into an international proxy war. U.S. Africa Command has accused the Wagner group of laying mines and improvised explosives, complicating ceasefire efforts; at least a dozen Russian aircraft are thought to have been deployed to Libya where they are being flown by Wagner fighters. 

This month, in an apparent bid to give the imprisoned Shugaley a higher political profile, he was elected to the regional parliament in the Komi republic in northwestern Russia. According to the independent Russian news outlet Meduza, Prigozhin personally funded the campaign in the hopes that his election to office would help secure his release from prison.

“I think that by converting him into a ‘politician’ rather than just a ‘spy caught in Libya,’ Prigozhin could leverage his links to Putin to have the Kremlin directly engage with Turkey and the GNA to negotiate his release as part of broader ongoing political and military talks,” said Emadeddin Badi, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Shugaley’s election was hardly the first or last effort to raise his profile. It followed a big-budget feature film about his arrest which aired on the pro-Kremlin channel NTV this spring, depicting Shugaley as an intrepid social scientist who uncovered “explosive evidence” that could undermine the GNA, for which he is imprisoned and tortured. The film’s copyright belongs to Aurum LLC—a company founded by Prigozhin, according to Russian company records. Malkevich, who contributed money towards the production of the film and supervised the writing of the script, declined to comment on Prigozhin’s involvement. 

A second feature-length film about Shugaley’s detention was released on Sept. 10, around the same time the video messages from Sheen, Lundgren, and Jones were posted online. 

Four days later, Malkevich posted a link to a YouTube compilation of the celebrity videos, but made no mention that they were a paid service. “(Lundgren) and his colleagues… who no one could accuse of having a special love for Russia, joined our indefinite, already long-standing international campaign in support of those captured by Libyan terrorists Maxim Shugaley and (his translator) Samer Seifan,” he wrote. Malkevich denied paying for the videos, which quickly made headlines on Russian news sites associated with Prigozhin. 

Malkevich has come to embody the “move fast and break things” nature of Russia’s overseas influence operations. His efforts to bring the information war to Washington in the summer of 2018 fizzled, as he was ejected from his White House-adjacent WeWork office space two hours after he entered the building, the social media accounts of his website USA Really were quickly blocked, and his efforts to hold a rally in front of the White House in support of Trump were dashed when he sent his permit request to the wrong office. On a subsequent trip to the United States during the 2018 midterm elections, Malkevich was detained for questioning at Washington’s Dulles airport; a month later he was subject to sanctions over his site’s ties to Prigozhin.

His U.S. ambitions scuppered, Malkevich last year launched the Foundation for National Values Protection, turning his focus to Africa. On the organization’s site, Malkevich publishes research he claims was carried out by Shugaley and other purported sociologists, including Mikhail Potepkin, who was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in July in connection with Prigozhin’s African mining operations. Potepkin previously co-owned an IT company with Anna Bogacheva, one of 13 Russians indicted by former Special Counsel Robert Mueller as part of his probe into Russia’s interference with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Elsewhere on the foundation’s site, Malkevich has chronicled his attempts to free Shugaley, which this year have included placing a since-deleted advertorial on the Washington Post website, a potential violation of U.S. sanctions, and recruiting convicted Russian operative Maria Butina to the cause. In March, she held a one-person protest in front of the Libyan Embassy in Moscow calling for Shugaley’s immediate release.

“Originally this situation was brought to my attention by Alexander Malkevich, who helped me a lot while I was detained in the U.S,” said Butina in response to questions. “I am doing everything I can to help him (Shugaley) as my Motherland helped me when I was in prison in the U.S. Russians don’t surrender and we must help each other.”

The videos of Sheen, Lundgren, and Jones was removed from YouTube on Thursday after Foreign Policy contacted the three actors for comment. They are still available on the Russian social networking site VKontakte. 

Jones’s agent Alex Cole confirmed that Jones received $300 to record his video through Cameo, but said he didn’t know the identity of the mystery client behind the request. “Vinnie gets many per day and doesn’t do the due diligence as to who these people are and we presume, harmless in tone. Apart from this, there is nothing to say and Vinnie has no idea who this person he was paid to mention is. A non-story, really,” Cole said.

Cameo’s CEO Steven Galanis said his site was looking into whether the videos were paid for by a Russian individual or entity. He did not respond to multiple follow-up questions. Lundgren and Sheen could not be reached for comment. 

Asked why he had mounted such an extensive campaign in support of Shugaley, Malkevich said, “It is clear to any normal person that we will not rest until our citizens return home.” 

But there might be a wider game afoot. Moscow has sought to keep channels of communication open with all the key players in Libya, including the internationally-recognized government in Tripoli–which the Kremlin has yet to blame directly for Shugaley’s arrest. 

Kirill Semonov, a Libya expert with the Russian International Affairs Council, said that Shugaley’s arrest was being used by the mercenaries’ financial backers as a wedge issue to prevent any strengthening of ties between Moscow and the GNA. 

“The Shugaley case is being used by forces who are opposed to a normalization of relations between Moscow and Tripoli, those magnates who oversee the activities of mercenaries in Libya and provide support to Haftar,” he said.

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