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Russian national charged with U.S. political influence operation

Florida activist group was used to sow discord and spread pro-Russian propaganda, Justice Dept. says

An American flag flies outside the U.S. Department of Justice Building in Washington. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)
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Federal authorities charged a Russian man Friday with a years-long malign influence campaign targeting American politics — alleging that he used American groups in Florida, Georgia and California to sow discord and push pro-Russia propaganda.

Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov, who lives in Moscow, worked for nearly eight years with Russian officials to fund and direct the U.S. groups, according to the indictment filed in Florida. The 24-page indictment does not name the groups but charges that Ionov also advised the campaigns of two unidentified political candidates in Florida.

Ionov “allegedly orchestrated a brazen influence campaign, turning U.S. political groups and U.S. citizens into instruments of the Russian government,” Matthew Olsen, head of the Justice Department’s national security division, said in a written statement.

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In 2017 and 2019, Ionov allegedly monitored and supported the campaigns of two Americans running for local office, identified in court papers only as Unindicted Co-Conspirator-3 and Unindicted Co-Conspirator-4. Before the 2019 primary, Ionov allegedly wrote to a Russian official that he had been “consulting every week” on one campaign. After one of the candidates advanced to the general election, a Russian intelligence officer allegedly wrote to Ionov that “our election campaign is kind of unique,” and asked, “Are we the first in history?” Ionov later sent the intelligence officer details about the election, referring to that candidate as the one “whom we supervise.”

In 2016, according to authorities, Ionov paid for a St. Petersburg, Fla., group to conduct a four-city protest tour in support of a “Petition on Crime of Genocide Against African People in the United States” — a document the group had previously submitted to the United Nations at Ionov’s behest.

Charging documents did not identify the group, but officials familiar with the case said it was an organization known as Uhuru House, which is run by the African People’s Socialist Party.

Akile Anai, a member of the group, said in an interview that the organization has spent 50 years “fighting for the freedom of Black people.”

“We are being attacked because of our relationship with forces internationally who support the anti-colonial struggle,” said Anai, who serves as director of agitation and propaganda for the African People’s Socialist Party. “What they are saying about Alex and this relationship with the Russian government — this is all the U.S. government’s attempt to use us as pawns in a propaganda war against Russia.”

She said police lured her out of her home early Friday by saying her car had been broken into, then searched her vehicle and seized her laptop and cellphone. Anai said the FBI conducted a similar early-morning search at the group’s national headquarters in St. Louis, Mo.

FBI Special Agent in Charge David Walker said at a news conference Friday that the case includes “some of the most egregious and blatant violations that we’ve seen by the Russian government in order to destabilize and undermine trust in American democracy. ... The Russian intelligence threat is continuing and unrelenting.”

Officials said they were executing search warrants in the St. Petersburg area Friday to gather more evidence against Ionov, the only person charged in the case.

“This indictment is just the first of our responses, but it will not be the last,” Walker said.

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U.S. authorities say Ionov is the founder and president of the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia, which is funded by the Russian government. He allegedly used the group to provide money and instructions to American political groups and instructed them on behalf of the Russian intelligence agency FSB.

“Secret foreign government efforts to influence American elections and political groups threaten our democracy by spreading misinformation, distrust and mayhem,” Kenneth A. Polite Jr., head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, said in a statement.

In 2015, Ionov allegedly paid for the leader of the group in St. Petersburg to travel to Moscow. For the next seven years, Ionov “exercised direction and control over senior members” of the group, according to the indictment.

At least one of the Americans dealing with Ionov seemed to understand that the Russian government was backing his efforts. According to authorities, after returning from Russia, the leader of the St. Petersburg group said it was clear that Ionov’s group was “an instrument” of the Russian government but added that did not “disturb us.” In a follow-up email discussion, leaders of the group discussed that it was “more than likely” that the Russian government was using Ionov’s group to sow division inside the United States, according to the Justice Department.

After Russia invaded Ukraine early this year, Ionov allegedly told his FSB handlers that he had enlisted the St. Petersburg group to support Russia in the “information war unleashed” by the United States and Europe.

Ionov is also accused of directing and controlling an unidentified political group in California that advocated for that state’s secession from the United States. In 2018, according to authorities, Ionov provided financial support for the group’s protest at the state Capitol in Sacramento, and tried to persuade the leader of the group to physically enter the governor’s office.

After the protest, Ionov allegedly wrote to an FSB officer, saying that the officer had asked for “turmoil,” and adding, “There you go.”

He is also accused of directing the efforts of a group based in Atlanta, paying this year for members of the group to travel to San Francisco to protest at the headquarters of a social media company that had restricted posts supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Ionov went so far as to provide designs for signs used at the protest, authorities said.

He is charged with conspiring to have U.S. citizens act as illegal agents of the Russian government.

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