A Russian operative backed by the Kremlin meddled in United States politics for seven years and recently tried to undermine American support for Ukraine by recruiting local activists to spread pro-Moscow propaganda, the Justice Department announced Friday.
Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov, who worked with the Russian Federal Security Service and at least three unnamed "Russian officials," was charged with conspiring to have U.S. citizens act as illegal agents of the Russian government from December 2014 through March of this year, the agency said.
“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,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division. The 24-page indictment against Ionov was unsealed in Tampa, Florida.
Ionov, who lives in Moscow, was not in Tampa when the grand jury indictment was unsealed, and there was no immediate response to the revelations from the Russian government.
Neither Ionov nor any of his alleged Russian accomplices were “duly accredited diplomatic or consular officers,” the indictment states.
Ionov, founder of a nongovernmental organization called Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia, had already been on the DOJ's radar. In 2018, it was revealed his organization had been raising money to aid convicted Russian operative Maria Butina, who was deported to Moscow in 2019, an event mentioned in the indictment.
The DOJ said in its statement that Ionov targeted "political groups" in Florida, Georgia and California.
It did not identify the U.S.-based groups. But shortly after the Ionov indictment was announced, the FBI in Tampa confirmed to local media it had raided headquarters of the Uhuru Movement in St. Petersburg, Florida, in connection with the alleged conspiracy.
"The Uhuru Movement is a worldwide organization, under the leadership of African People’s Socialist Party, uniting African people as one people for liberation, social justice, self-reliance and economic development," the group said on its website.
The DOJ did not identify the members of the three groups who “co-conspired” with Ionov, but said it was fully aware Ionov and his organization “were agents of the Russian government."
In May 2015, Ionov sent the "leader" of the Uhuru Movement in St. Petersburg on "an all-expense paid trip to Russia" and for the next seven years "exercised direction and control over senior members," the DOJ said.
The Uhuru Movement did not respond to requests for comment Friday, but at an earlier news conference an Uhuru leader did not deny the group's ties to Russia.
“We can have relationships with whoever we want to make this revolution possible,” said Eritha “Akile” Cainion after the indictment was announced, The Tampa Bay Times reported. “We are in support of Russia.”
Four of the “unindicted co-conspirators” listed but not named in the indictment are U.S. citizens living in St. Petersburg, while the others live in Atlanta and California. One of the California residents also has a home in Moscow.
Based on the indictment, it appears Ionov was most active in St. Petersburg, where he allegedly tried to stoke racial resentment by having Uhuru members write a petition to the United Nations "alleging that the United States had committed genocide against African people" that would later be translated and disseminated across Russia.
Ionov, according to the indictment, also encouraged Uhuru members in 2017 and 2019 to get involved in local St. Petersburg elections and campaign on the issue of "reparations" for slavery, a divisive topic in the U.S. He also helped bankroll the campaigns, the indictment said.
In California, Ionov backed an unnamed group that wants the state to secede from the U.S., the indictment said. Ionov paid $500 for posters for a 2018 demonstration outside the state Capitol in Sacramento and encouraged the participants to "physically enter the governor's office."
In March, after the Russians invaded Ukraine, Ionov worked to rally support for Moscow and Russian President Vladimir Putin by taking part in a video conference hosted by "U.S. Political Group 1," which the FBI has identified as the Uhuru organization.
During the video conference, Ionov repeated the bogus claims pushed by the Kremlin that "Nazis were in power in Ukraine and were killing innocent people."
Ionov, the DOJ said, also paid for members of an unnamed Georgia group to travel to California and take part in a protest outside an unnamed social media company that had placed restrictions on posts supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.