WASHINGTON (AP) — A Russian operative who worked on behalf of one of the Kremlin’s main intelligence services has been charged with recruiting political groups in the United States to advance pro-Russia propaganda, including during the invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, the Justice Department said Friday.
Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov is accused of using groups in Florida, Georgia and California to spread pro-Kremlin talking points, with prosecutors accusing him of funding trips to Russia and paying for travel for conferences.
He is charged in federal court in Florida with conspiring to have U.S. citizens act as illegal agents of the Russian government. It was not immediately clear if he had a lawyer who could speak on his behalf, and he is not currently in custody.
The indictment alleges Ionov directed one of the political activists to post a petition on the website created by former President Barack Obama’s team, change.org. The petition, entitled “Petition on Crime of Genocide against African People in the United States,” could still be found on change.gov on Friday and had more than 113,000 signatures.
The organizations were not identified in the indictment, which was filed in a federal court in Florida.
The Treasury Department also announced sanctions against Ionov Friday, accusing him of giving money to organizations that he and Russian intelligence services thought would create a social or political disturbance in the U.S. and also looked into ways to support an unspecified 2022 gubernatorial candidate.
“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,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen, the head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, said in a statement.
The case is part of a much broader Justice Department crackdown on foreign influence operations aimed at shaping public opinion in the U.S. In 2018, for instance, the Justice Department charged 13 Russian nationals with participating in a huge but hidden social media campaign aimed at sowing discord during the 2016 presidential election won by Republican Donald Trump.
FBI Special Agent in Charge David Walker in Tampa called the Russian efforts “some of the most egregious and blatant violations we’ve seen.”
“The Russian intelligence threat is continuous and unrelenting,” Walker said at a news conference in St. Petersburg, Florida. “Today’s actions should serve as a deterrent.”
Associated Press writer Michael Schneider in Orlando contributed to this report.