Molly McKew, a recently hired adjunct professor teaching a course on Russian disinformation campaigns for the School of Foreign Service, has faced criticism from colleagues and news outlets for her former status as a foreign lobbyist.
McKew, who holds a masters degree in Russian and Post-Soviet Studies and has served as an advisor to political parties in Georgia and Moldova, is teaching her first course at Georgetown this semester. The course, entitled “Russian Hybrid Warfare,” focuses on the history of Russian ideology and information warfare. McKew also currently serves as the CEO of Fianna Strategies, a consulting firm.
Greg Afinogenov, an assistant professor of Imperial Russian History at Georgetown, criticized the university’s hiring of McKew. In a series of tweets, Afinogenov wrote that McKew’s history as a foreign lobbyist posed several conflicts of interest to her role as a professor.
“A student who takes her class will not know which of her ideas are truth, which are credible suppositions, and which are complete fabrications,” Afinogenov wrote in a Jan. 10 tweet.
McKew has written articles for several publications, including Politico and The Washington Post, and has also served as a commentator for TV and radio shows such as Frontline.
McKew’s writings are not academic in nature and do not qualify her as a scholar or an expert, Afinogenov wrote in an email to The Hoya.
“McKew is an example of exactly the kind of journalist whose articles should be corrected by scholars: the claims she makes are outlandish, escalationist, and rooted in a history of working for foreign governments with an interest in influencing public debate in the United States,” @Afinogenov wrote.
McKew stated that her critics are furthering an effort to discredit her and the threat of Russian hybrid warfare. Her history as an advisory to political leaders in Moldova and Georgia only made her more qualified for the position at the university, she wrote in an email to The Hoya.
“The idea that being a ‘foreign agent’ disqualifies my experience ignores that what I know about how the Kremlin attacks its opponents comes from working as an advisor to countries under attack,” McKew wrote.
McKew is respected by many within her field, which is what led to the university’s initial contact with her, Vice Dean of the School of Foreign Service Daniel Byman said in an interview with The Hoya.
“She came to us well-recommended from a number of individuals in the national security committee, and that was the kind of basis for reaching out to her,” Byman said.
The university hired McKew in response to Russia’s growing prominence in international relations following its interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, according to Byman.
U.S. intelligence agencies following have since determined that the Kremlin likely engaged in information warfare to sow distrust and support President Donald Trump’s campaign.
McKew plans to use her work in countries previously attacked by Russian hybrid warfare to explore how the United States can best respond to interference in its elections, according to her course’s description.
Criticism for McKew has not stopped with Afinogenov’s tweets, as other media outlets reported and similarly cast doubt over McKew’s qualifications for her position at Georgetown.
Leonid Bershidsky, a columnist for Bloomberg, also questioned McKew’s credibility on Russian disinformation campaigns, arguing that McKew, among many other American experts, replaces nuanced arguments with those based on simplified Cold War models.
Afinogenov’s tweets criticizing McKew were referenced in an article on RT, a Russian state-backed news outlet charged by the Columbia Journalism Review as acting as a propaganda.
Afinogenov wrote that he was disappointed to see his tweets on RT.
“This was not my intent; I do not endorse propaganda channels like RT and was not invited to comment on the article that quoted my tweets,” Afinogenov wrote.
McKew has come under criticism from RT before for “anti-Russian rhetoric.”
RT targeting McKew is evidence of the her qualifications, Joel Harding, a consultant for information operations and cyber warfare, wrote in a Jan. 12 blog post.
“If RT notices you and writes a smear piece on you, that means you’ve made it,” Harding wrote.
Those currently attacking the credentials of McKew, who has twice testified in front of Congress on Russian interference in the 2016 election, are actually aiding Russian disinformation campaigns, Harding wrote.
“None of these so-called experts have the bona fides she does against Russian propaganda and disinformation programs, yet they seemingly gleefully contribute to Russia’s efforts to undermine US counter-Russian disinformation efforts by attacking her.”