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Russian charged with using U.S. groups to spread propaganda

U.S. Attorney Roger B. Handberg and other members of law enforcement stand near a U.S. flag
U.S. Atty. Roger Handberg, alongside St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway, left, and FBI Special Agent David Walker, speaks to reporters at St. Petersburg Police Department headquarters on Friday.
(Martha Asencio-Rhine / Tampa Bay Times via Associated Press)

A Russian operative under the supervision of one of the Kremlin’s main intelligence services has been charged with recruiting political groups in the United States to advance pro-Russia propaganda, including during the invasion of Ukraine, the Justice Department said Friday.

The indictment of Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov reflects what U.S. officials say are ongoing Russian government efforts to meddle in the American political process, to shape public opinion and to sow discord and dissent on hot-button social issues.

In this case, authorities say, Ionov from 2014 through March 2022 recruited political groups in Florida, Georgia and California and directed them to spread pro-Russia talking points. He also paid for group members to attend government-funded conferences in Russia, as well as a protest in the U.S. to counter efforts to silence online support for Moscow’s Ukraine invasion, the indictment says.

“As court documents show, Ionov allegedly orchestrated a brazen influence campaign, turning U.S. political groups and U.S. citizens into instruments of the Russian government,” Assistant Atty. Gen. Matthew Olsen, head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, said in a statement.

Ionov worked under the supervision of Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB — which conducts domestic intelligence and counterintelligence activities — and reported his activities back to the agency, prosecutors say. He is the founder and president of the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia, a Moscow-based group that prosecutors say advocates for a “fully sovereign Russia.”

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The indictment, in federal court in Tampa, Fla., charges him with conspiring to have U.S. citizens act as illegal agents of the Russian government. It was not immediately clear if he had a lawyer who could speak on his behalf, and he is not currently in custody.

The indictment does not name any of the organizations Ionov sought to recruit, but it does describe one of them as a St. Petersburg, Fla., group whose leaders knew that Ionov and his group were agents of a foreign government.

Prosecutors say Ionov in 2015 directed the group to post a petition titled “Petition on Crime of Genocide against African People in the United States.”

The change.org petition notes America’s history of slavery and denial of civil rights for Black people. It argues the U.S. government still fails “to protect our health and well-being as expected under full citizenship” and inflicts “state or state-supported violence and terror on us.”

The petition is labeled as being from the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement, a Black international socialist organization. Representatives from the group said the FBI raided their center in St. Petersburg on Friday.

Akile Anai, who describes herself as director of agitation and propaganda for the African People’s Socialist Party, said agents searched her car and took her cellphone and laptop computer Friday in addition to raiding the Uhuru House.

Anai said her organization had never received money from Ionov or any other members of the Russian intelligence service.

Members of the Uhuru movement first met Ionov in Russia when they were invited to an anti-globalization conference, and Anai said she also had been in contact with Ionov via email and a webinar after Russia invaded Ukraine since “we were getting one side of the story on [Russia] and Ukraine.”

Officials alleged Friday that Ionov sought to inject himself into local politics in 2017 by supporting one of the group’s members for office. Anai said any money the campaigns received outside the U.S. was returned.

“Their premise is these were Russian campaigns. It’s a really insulting statement,” Anai said. “It was the Black community that ran the campaigns in our own interests. It’s an insulting notion that Black people can’t do anything for ourselves.”

Prosecutors say Ionov also exercised control of an organization in California that promoted the state’s secession from the U.S. and helped fund a 2018 demonstration at the state Capitol. According to the indictment, he sent news coverage of the event to one of his FSB contacts and said that the officer had asked for “turmoil” and “there you go.”

More recently, prosecutors say, Ionov paid for the travel of an unnamed Georgia group to join a protest outside a social media company in California that had placed restrictions on posts supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Treasury Department also announced sanctions against Ionov on Friday, accusing him of giving money to organizations that he and Russian intelligence services thought would create a social or political disturbance in the U.S.

The case is part of a much broader Justice Department crackdown on foreign influence operations aimed at shaping public opinion in the U.S. In 2018, for instance, the Justice Department charged 13 Russian nationals with participating in a huge but hidden social media campaign aimed at sowing discord during the 2016 presidential election, mostly to benefit Donald Trump.

FBI Special Agent in Charge David Walker in Tampa called the latest Russian efforts “some of the most egregious and blatant violations we’ve seen.”

“The Russian intelligence threat is continuous and unrelenting,” Walker said at a news conference in St. Petersburg. “Today’s actions should serve as a deterrent.”

Tucker reported from Washington and Schneider from Orlando, Fla. Nomaan Merchant in Washington contributed to this report.


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