US charges Russians, Americans for ‘malign’ influence campaign

Washington accuses Russian agents of trying to exert influence through small US groups and interfering in local vote.

US Justice Department seal
Department of Justice charged four US citizens with illegally acting as Russian agents [File: Andrew Kelly/Reuters]

Washington, DC – The United States has charged four American citizens and three Russian nationals with conducting a “malign influence campaign“, a move the Department of Justice described as “essential” to protect the country against foreign interference.

On Tuesday, the department accused Moscow of recruiting and funding US political groups to act as “unregistered illegal agents of the Russian government”.

The organisations that the US government alleges had links with Russia include the African People’s Socialist Party and its Uhuru Movement (APSP), a self-described anti-colonialist organisation based in St Petersburg, Florida, as well as Black Hammer, a fringe Black separatist group.

Three APSP officials were indicted on Tuesday, including Omali Yeshitela, the group’s chairman, whose home was raided by the FBI last year. Black Hammer leader Augustus Romain Jr, known as Gazi Kodzo, was also charged.

Yeshitela has previously denied being a Russian agent, saying that the US government was targeting him because of his activism.

“This case is not about whether or not I went to Russia, or whether or not I have a position around the war in Ukraine that was the same as what the Russians had,” Yeshitela wrote in an article late in 2022. “This attack was perpetrated against us because we have always fought for the liberation of Africa and African people everywhere.”

Among the Russian citizens charged on Tuesday was Aleksandr Ionov. The Department of Justice accused him of using a government-funded organisation called the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia (AGMR) to carry out an influence campaign in coordination with Russia’s security forces.

Two Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officers were also charged for allegedly being part of that push.

The Department of Justice had already charged Ionov last July for allegedly interfering in US politics. He rejected the charges at that time as unfounded.

The Russian embassy in Washington, DC, did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

Earlier this year, the US Department of State’s Rewards for Justice (RFJ) programme offered up to $10m for information on Ionov and others it has accused of engaging in election interference.

On Tuesday, the Department of Justice said Ionov and the FSB officers “conspired to directly and substantially influence democratic elections in the United States by clandestinely funding and directing the political campaign of a particular candidate for local office in St Petersburg, Florida, in 2019″.

The statement did not specify the election race or the candidate in question. St Petersburg held city council elections in 2019, in which the APSP fielded a candidate who lost by more than 60 percent of the votes in the general elections.

“Today’s announcement paints a harrowing picture of Russian government actions and the lengths to which the FSB will go to interfere with our elections, sow discord in our nation and ultimately recruit US citizens to their efforts,” Kurt Ronnow, a senior FBI official, said in a statement.

“All Americans should be deeply concerned by the tactics employed by the FSB and remain vigilant to any attempt to undermine our democracy.”

It is not clear how Russia was trying to exert influence by forging ties with small US groups or attempting to influence local elections in St Petersburg, a city of 260,000 people.

The indictment said Ionov drafted a report to one of the FSB officers in 2020 saying that the local campaigns he supported in Florida make it possible to “carry out more effective campaigns during municipal elections” and “lay the groundwork for a new electoral base”.

Washington has long accused Moscow of trying to interfere in American elections and sow divisions in the country — allegations that Russia has rejected. The US has pledged to crack down on what it calls Russian disinformation, including Ukraine war propaganda.

Tuesday’s charges also coincided with a Russian court upholding the detention of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in Moscow, on espionage charges the White House has dismissed as “ridiculous”.

In a separate criminal complaint on Tuesday, the Department of Justice charged Russian citizen Natalia Burlinova of acting illegally as a foreign agent in the US.

Burlinova, a Moscow resident, “conspired with an FSB officer to recruit US citizens from academic and research institutions to travel to Russia to participate in a public diplomacy program called Meeting Russia”, the Department of Justice said.

Source: Al Jazeera