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Three Russians charged in alleged disinformation scheme that targeted U.S. lawmakers

The operations were allegedly aimed at influencing foreign affairs, eroding U.S. partnerships with European allies and promoting Russian efforts to "destroy the sovereignty of Ukraine."
Image: Alexander Babakov
Russian businessman and politician Alexander Babakov in Moscow on Feb. 22, 2021.Mikhail Svetlov / Getty Images file

Federal prosecutors have charged a high-ranking Putin-aligned Russian legislator and two of his staff members with operating a foreign influence and disinformation network in the U.S. that included attempts to sway members of Congress.

According to an indictment unsealed Thursday in federal court in New York City, Aleksander Babakov, the deputy chairman of the lower house of the Russian Parliament, and two of his aides, Aleksandr Nikolayevich Vorobev and Mikhail Alekseyevich Plisyuk, conspired to violate U.S. sanctions and recruited a New York-based American with experience in international relations and media to act as an unregistered agent of Russia to help them gain access to elected officials and affect U.S. policy toward Russia.

U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said the alleged propaganda campaign was pursued “to advance Russia’s malevolent political designs” against Ukraine, the U.S. and other countries.

“Today’s indictment demonstrates that Russia’s illegitimate actions against Ukraine extend beyond the battlefield, as political influencers under Russia’s control allegedly plotted to steer geopolitical change in Russia’s favor through surreptitious and illegal means in the U.S. and elsewhere in the West,” Williams said in a statement.

The indictment was unsealed as the Biden administration tries to ensure that Russian officials and oligarchs who have been hit with sanctions over the war in Ukraine are not able to evade them.

“Where our focus will be in the coming days is on evasion,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Thursday at the Economic Club of Washington, D.C.

Each of the three Russian men in Thursday's unsealed indictment is charged with one count of conspiring to have a U.S. citizen act as a Russian agent in the U.S. without notifying the attorney general, punishable by up to five years in prison. The three men, whom the Treasury Department sanctioned in 2017, also face single counts of conspiring to violate and evade U.S. sanctions, a violation that carries a maximum 20-year sentence.

The defendants are also alleged to have sought to fraudulently obtain visas to enter the U.S., which could carry an additional maximum of five years in prison if they are convicted.

Beginning in 2012, Babakov and his two deputies schemed to erode U.S. partnerships with European allies and promoted Russian efforts to “destroy the sovereignty of Ukraine” through staged events and paid propaganda, according to the indictment.

The defendants are alleged to have used a Russian-based nonprofit organization, the Institute for International Integration Studies, as cover for their foreign influence campaign, funneling money through the organization from at least 2011 to 2019 to pay two European citizens who served as "foreign consultants" responsible for carrying out the group’s efforts, the indictment says.

The defendants and the American they are alleged to have recruited are accused of contacting members of Congress from at least 2012 to 2017 and requesting meetings for Babakov to advance Russian interests in the U.S.

No U.S. lawmakers met with Babakov, the indictment states. It says his efforts included an offer to an unnamed member of Congress for an “all expenses paid” trip to meet with European political figures.

“The Department will not hesitate to prosecute those who seek to covertly influence the American political process and evade U.S. sanctions,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen said in a statement Thursday.

A federal judge will determine any sentence for Babakov, Vorobev and Plisyuk, who are based in Russia and remain at large, the Justice Department said.

NBC News has reached out to the Russian Embassy in Washington and the Institute for International Integration Studies for comment.