Russian man spent years as puppeteer behind US political groups, officials say | US politics

A Russian man orchestrated a yearslong effort to puppeteer political groups in Florida, Georgia and California to sow discord in the US, spread pro-Russia propaganda and meddle in American elections, justice department officials alleged on Friday.

Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov of Moscow was charged with conspiring to have US citizens act as illegal agents of the Russian government, according to a justice department statement. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison.

The indictment against Ionov was linked to a raid by federal agents of the Uhuru Movement’s headquarters in St Petersburg, Florida, on Friday, the Tampa Bay Times reported, citing US officials.

The Uhuru Movement belongs to the African People’s Socialist party and purports to unite “African people as one … for liberation, social justice, self-reliance and economic development”.

At a news conference on Friday, a Uhuru leader declared openly that his group was “in support of Russia” and dismissed the raid as an attack meant to isolate Africans in the US who are fighting for liberation.

“We can have relationships with whoever we want to make this revolution possible,” said the leader, Eritha “Akile” Cainion.

The movement’s St Petersburg headquarters recently made headlines for unrelated reasons after a man using a flamethrower set fire to a flag flying outside the building, leading to his arrest.

According to the justice department, Ionov was acting on behalf of the FSB Russian intelligence agency when he financially supported the groups at the center of the case, none of which are explicitly named in the indictment. He allegedly ordered them to publish pro-Russian lies and coordinated actions by them intended to further Russian interests.

The department also claimed Ionov influenced a US political group in Florida under his control to interfere in local elections, supporting the St Petersburg, Florida, political campaigns of two people in 2017 and 2019. It listed the group and individuals as “unindicted co-conspirators” but did not name them.

From at least December 2014 to March 2022, the department said, Ionov and at least three other Russian officials engaged in a malign foreign influence campaign targeting the US.

Separately, the US treasury department on Friday imposed sanctions on Ionov, his fellow Russian national Natalya Valeryevna Burlinova, and four Russian entities it accused of backing the Kremlin’s mission of interfering in elections abroad, including in the US and Ukraine.

According to the justice department, the four entities in question are: the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia (AGMR), which Ionov founded and presides over; Ionov Transkontinental; Stop-Imperialism; and the Center for Support and Development of Public Initiative Creative Diplomacy (Picreadi).

The Russian embassy in Washington did not immediately reply to an email seeking comment on the indictment or the US sanctions, which among other things block the property in American jurisdiction of those named.

Reuters contributed this report

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