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A Russian national is charged with interfering in St. Petersburg elections

a man in a black suit and blue tie stands at a podium. the St. Petersburg Police seal is behind him.
St. Petersburg Police Department
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David Walker is the FBI special agent in charge of the Tampa field office.

Prosecutors say the man targeted a political group, worked with an unnamed candidate for local office in 2017, offering campaign finance, and interfered with elections in 2019. Representatives from Uhuru movement say the FBI raided their center Friday.

A Russian operative has been charged with using political groups in the United States to advance pro-Russia propaganda in St. Petersburg and two other U.S. cities, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov was charged in federal court in Tampa with conspiring to have U.S. citizens act as illegal agents of the Russian government.

David Walker is the FBI special agent in charge of the Tampa field office. Speaking during a news conference in St. Petersburg on Friday, Walker said Ionov worked with an unnamed St. Petersburg candidate for local office in 2017, offering campaign finance. Ionov is also accused of interfering with St. Petersburg elections in 2019.

The indictment 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.

”The facts and circumstances surrounding this indictment are some of the most egregious and blatant violations we've seen by the Russian government in order to destabilize and undermine trust in American democracy,” Walker said.

Prosecutors say three search warrants were executed to unnamed individuals in St. Petersburg.

According to the Associated Press, representatives from the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement, a Black international socialist organization, said the FBI raided their center in St. Petersburg.

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 on 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.

Officials alleged that Ionov sought to inject himself into local politics by supporting members of the group for office. In 2017, the group put forth candidates for mayor and city council, and again in 2019 for a city council race. The candidates lost. Any money the campaigns received outside the U.S. was returned, Anai said.

Although the indictment does not identify by name any of the organizations Ionov recruited, it does say a St. Petersburg group whose leaders were aware that Ionov and his group were agents of a foreign government.

“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.”

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

In May 2015, prosecutors say, Ionov funded an all-expense paid trip to Russia for a leader of the group order to “communicate on future cooperation” between the group and AGMR. Following that trip, and for at least the next seven years, Ionov exercised direction and control over senior members of the St. Petersburg group.

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 also a webinar after Russia invaded Ukraine since “we were getting one side of the story on Russian and Ukraine.”

“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 Department of Justice will not allow Russia to unlawfully sow division and spread misinformation inside the United States.”

According to the indictment, Ionov also worked to influence elections in Atlanta and Sacramento, California.

Ionov is charged with conspiring to have U.S. citizens act as illegal agents of the Russian government.

He is not in custody and appears unlikely to stand trial in the U.S., but the indictment is nonetheless intended to warn Americans about the reach of foreign influence operations and to send a signal to Russia that the U.S. government is aware of its actions.

However, if convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

“The prosecution of this criminal conduct is essential to protecting the American public when foreign governments seek to inject themselves into the American political process,” said U.S. Attorney Roger B. Handberg for the Middle District of Florida. “We will continue to work with our partners at the FBI to investigate these events, and we will continue to follow the evidence to ensure justice is done.”

Separately on Friday, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Ionov, accusing him of efforts to “manipulate and destabilize the United States and its allies and partners.”

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

I took my first photography class when I was 11. My stepmom begged a local group to let me into the adults-only class, and armed with a 35 mm disposable camera, I started my journey toward multimedia journalism.