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Researcher or Spy? Maxim Shugaley Saga Points to How Russia Now Builds Influence Abroad

Among the many first Russians to reach in Kabul after the Taliban takeover in August was Maxim Shugaley, a shadowy determine working for Kremlin ally

Yevgeniy Prigozhin,

whom the U.S. holds accountable for interfering within the 2016 election.

Mr. Shugaley, a political operator and sociologist, got here to the Afghan capital with the purpose of discovering areas the place the Taliban might work with the political and safety community led by Mr. Prigozhin, a enterprise tycoon who’s near Russian President

Vladimir Putin

and is likely one of the strongest gamers in Russian political circles. Mr. Shugaley met prime officers within the Islamist group and performed opinion polls and interviews to find out the place Moscow’s alternatives would possibly lie.

“All roads are open for full-scale cooperation, which is why I’m right here,” Mr. Shugaley wrote in a message to The Wall Avenue Journal from Kabul, and recommended the scenario was ripe to develop a broader political and financial relationship with the Taliban.

From Libya to Madagascar and now Afghanistan, the weird profession path of Mr. Shugaley gives an perception into how Moscow seeks to make buddies and affect governments in locations where America’s sway is fading.

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Taliban fighters patrol Kabul, the place Maxim Shugaley met with leaders of the Islamist group after they seized town in the summertime.



Picture:

Rahmat Gul/Related Press

The 55-year-old usually casts himself as a researcher who will get caught up in occasions past his management. He was imprisoned in Tripoli for over a yr on espionage expenses throughout a sojourn there and have become the topic of an motion film, “Shugaley,” that premiered on Russian tv whereas he was locked up.

But Mr. Shugaley, who sports activities a cropped army haircut and favors darkish T-shirts, works below the direct supervision of Mr. Prigozhin. Collectively, they kind one in every of simplest pairings of freelancers advancing Mr. Putin’s strategic foreign-policy aims, in accordance with U.S. and different Western officers.

The Mueller investigation into the 2016 U.S. presidential election discovered that Mr. Prigozhin, a former restaurateur referred to as “Putin’s cook dinner” who secured a whole lot of hundreds of thousands of {dollars} in Russian authorities contracts, funded the St. Petersburg troll farm that attempted to skew the end result. U.S. intelligence companies say he maintains shut ties to their Russian counterparts, his main lever being the Wagner paramilitary pressure that has deployed mercenaries in Syria, Libya and Ukraine, in accordance with U.S. officers. The Treasury Division final yr added to its sanctions on Mr. Prigozhin, saying he’s believed to be the financier behind Wagner, which it described as a proxy for the Russian Protection Ministry.

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Yevgeniy Prigozhin, an influential Kremlin ally referred to as “Putin’s cook dinner,” serves meals to Vladimir Putin at his restaurant in 2011.



Picture:

Misha Japaridze/Press Pool

Extra lately Wagner has expanded operations to Sudan and the Central African Republic, individuals near Wagner say. The federal government of Mali has additionally inquired about its safety providers as France prepares to draw down the variety of troops it has within the Sahel area, Russian officers have stated.

Russians near the Protection Ministry have stated Mr. Prigozhin has funded and arranged the group, although he denies any hyperlinks.

Mr. Shugaley, now president of Mr. Prigozhin’s Basis for the Safety of Nationwide Values, has helped unfold Russian smooth energy in locations the place U.S. affect is receding, intelligence officers and analysts say, in a approach that may’t be traced again on to the Kremlin.

“Maxim Shugaley is each an unbiased agent and an assistant and facilitator of Russian state exercise,” stated Samuel Ramani, an affiliate fellow on the Royal United Providers Institute, a U.Ok.-based suppose tank.

Mr. Shugaley’s weeklong go to to Afghanistan included greater than 100 interviews with Afghans about attitudes towards the Taliban and the deposed American-backed authorities. He met with Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid and commenced work on a plan with Taliban approval to open a department workplace of Mr. Prigozhin’s suppose tank.

“It was vital for me to grasp whether or not there are conditions for the Taliban to kind a full-fledged state,” Mr. Shugaley stated. “I can say that most individuals have constructive expectations.”

Mr. Prigozhin recounted conversations with Mr. Shugaley through which the researcher described what he referred to as the rising pleasure in Afghanistan accompanying the return of the Taliban.

“They’ve kicked out the cursed Individuals, who’re operating round like rats, considering their ship is sunk,” Mr. Prigozhin stated in an announcement in August. “Maxim is having conferences and having fun with strolls via town streets.”

Mr. Shugaley’s mission in Afghanistan follows a sample set in 2018, when he started working with Mr. Prigozhin.

He was despatched to Africa as part of what U.S. officers and analysts say was an effort to advertise Russia’s pursuits and counter the affect of the U.S. and France. A British Broadcasting Corp. documentary uncovered him providing suitcases full of money to purchase the loyalty of political candidates in Madagascar. Mr. Shugaley maintains he was there to watch the nation’s elections.

He once more made headlines when he and his translator have been arrested in Libya in Might 2019.

This time he was accused of providing to assist Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, the son of late dictator Moammar Gadhafi, make a political comeback. Libyan officers stated Mr. Shugaley performed opinion surveys to gauge public help for a presidential run by the youthful Gadhafi, a part of a broader Russian effort to construct political help in oil-rich Libya, the place Moscow had signed billions of {dollars} of offers that have been misplaced when Gadhafi was toppled.

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Saif al-Islam Gadhafi appeared earlier than Libyan judges in 2014, following the autumn of his father’s regime.



Picture:

MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Pictures

Mr. Shugaley reported on to Mr. Prigozhin’s group whereas in Libya, in accordance with Libyan officers and emails seen by the Journal. The officers stated he admitted throughout questioning to coming into the nation on false pretenses and planning to intervene with elections that are actually deliberate for December this yr. Mr. Shugaley stated his conferences with Mr. Gadhafi have been purely for analysis functions.

“Everyone seems to be afraid he’s going to wreak revenge if he involves energy due to what occurred to his father and his household,” Mr. Shugaley stated.

Throughout his yr and a half in jail in Tripoli, Mr. Shugaley might hear explosions close by as combating raged between the internationally acknowledged authorities within the capital and Russian-backed opposition forces. The struggle ended with a cease-fire in mid-2020 and, after strain from the Russian authorities, Mr. Shugaley was launched final December.

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Fighters for Libya’s Authorities of Nationwide Accord battled the Russian-backed Libyan Nationwide Military in Tripoli through the nation’s civil struggle.



Picture:

Xinhua/Zuma Press

The motion movie “Shugaley” dramatized his ordeal and that of his translator, typically in graphic element. Mr. Prigozhin’s Web Analysis Company additionally launched a marketing campaign to safe Mr. Shugaley’s freedom, at one level securing the help of Charlie Sheen and different actors on the celebrity video platform Cameo.

Mr. Prigozhin later gave Mr. Shugaley 18 million rubles, or about $250,000, on his return to Russia, Mr. Shugaley stated. Mr. Prigozhin acknowledged the payout final yr.

Inside months, Mr. Shugaley was again on the highway, touring to Sudan and the Central African Republic, the place a whole lot of Russian mercenaries are supporting the federal government in its combat in opposition to insurgent forces. United Nations investigators have accused the Russian forces of torture, abstract executions and looting.

Mr. Shugaley performed opinion polls to evaluate attitudes to Russia and France, and arranged news conferences and movie screenings, together with one in a stadium, to attempt to enhance the Russian forces’ picture.

“A few of the Western press are portraying the Russian advisers as monsters,” he stated.

Since then, Mr. Shugaley has continued his travels, regardless of sanctions utilized by the U.S. Treasury Division on the muse that employs him. The U.S. beforehand sanctioned Mr. Prigozhin and one other particular person linked with the muse, Alexander Malkevich, for what it stated was their function in manipulating elections and spreading disinformation. However Mr. Shugaley is ready to preserve going, touring freely and sometimes working in corners of the world that the U.S. justice system finds onerous to achieve.

“I’m fortunately not sanctioned, no less than not but,” Mr. Shugaley stated.

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Maxim Shugaley now serves as president of Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s Basis for the Safety of Nationwide Values.



Picture:

Katya Rezvaya for The Wall Avenue Journal

Write to Jared Malsin at jared.malsin@wsj.com and Thomas Grove at thomas.grove@wsj.com

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