US & World

Russian accused of using US groups to spread propaganda – NBC10 Philadelphia

A Russian operative under surveillance by one of the Kremlin’s top intelligence services has been accused of recruiting political groups in the United States to promote pro-Russian propaganda, including during the invasion of Ukraine, the Justice Department said Friday.

The indictment of Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov reflects what US officials say is the ongoing efforts of the Russian government to interfere in the American political process, shape public opinion and sow discord and discord on pressing social issues.

In this case, authorities say, from 2014 to last March, Ionov recruited political groups in Florida, Georgia and California and directed them to spread pro-Russian theses. He also paid for members of the group to attend government-sponsored conferences in Russia as well as a protest rally in the US to counter efforts to silence online support for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, the indictment said.

“According to court documents, Ionov allegedly orchestrated a brazen influence campaign, turning American political groups and US citizens into tools of the Russian government,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen, head of the Department of Justice’s national security division.

Ionov worked under the supervision of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), which conducts domestic intelligence and counterintelligence, and reported his activities to the agency, prosecutors said. He is the founder and president of the Russian Anti-Globalist Movement, a Moscow-based group that prosecutors say advocates a fully sovereign Russia.

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

The indictment did not name any of the organizations that Ionov tried to recruit, but it did identify one as a group in St. Petersburg, Florida, whose leaders knew that Ionov and his group were agents of a foreign government.

Prosecutors say Ionov in 2015 ordered the group to post a petition titled “The Crime of Genocide Against African People in the United States Petition.” The petition celebrates the history of slavery in America and the denial of civil rights to black people. It alleges that the US government continues to fail to “protect our health and well-being as expected of full citizenship” and commit “state or state-sponsored violence and terror against us.”

The petition is listed as being from the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement, an international black socialist organization. Representatives of the group said that the FBI raided their center in St. Petersburg on Friday.

Akile Anai, who describes herself as the African People’s Socialist Party’s campaign and propaganda director, said agents searched her car on Friday and took a mobile phone and laptop computer in addition to raiding Uhuru’s home.

Anai said her organization never received money from Ionov or any other Russian intelligence operatives.

Members of Uhuru’s movement first met Ionov in Russia when they were invited to an anti-globalist conference, and Anai said she was also in contact with Ionov via email and on a webinar after Russia invaded Ukraine because “ we got one side of the story about Russia and Ukraine.”

Officials said Friday that Ionov sought to enter local politics in 2017 by endorsing one of the group’s members for office. Anai said all money received by companies outside the US has been returned.

“Their premise is that these were Russian companies. This is a really offensive statement,” Anai said. “It was the black community that campaigned on our behalf. It’s insulting to think that black people can’t do anything for themselves.”

Prosecutors say Ionov also controlled a separate organization in California that advocated for the state to secede from the United States and helped finance a demonstration at the state Capitol in 2018. According to the indictment, he sent a message about the event to one of his FSB contacts and said the officer had asked for “upheaval” and “that’s it.”

Most recently, prosecutors say, Ionov paid for an unnamed group to travel from Georgia to join a protest outside a California social media company that had imposed restrictions on messages supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Treasury Department also announced sanctions against Ionov on Friday, accusing him of funneling money to organizations that he and Russian intelligence agencies believed could cause social or political unrest in the United States.

The case is part of a much broader crackdown by the Justice Department on foreign influence operations aimed at shaping US public opinion. In 2018, for example, the Ministry of Justice indicted 13 Russian citizens for participating in a large but covert social media campaign aimed at sowing discord. Republican Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election.

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

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

Schneider reported from Orlando. Nomaan Merchant in Washington contributed to this report.

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