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US Imposes Sanctions, Files Charges Over Alleged Russian Influence Campaign

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FILE - Matthew Olsen of the U.S. Justice Department speaks at a news conference in Washington, March 16, 2022. On July 29, 2022, the department charged Russian operative Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov with recruiting political groups in the U.S. to advance pro-Russia propaganda.

The United States has imposed sanctions on two Russians and four Russian entities in connection with U.S. claims of Russian interference in U.S. elections, and it formally charged one of the sanctioned individuals with using U.S. citizens and political groups to spread Russian propaganda.

The U.S. Treasury Department said Friday that the designated individuals and entities played various roles in Russia’s attempts to manipulate and destabilize the United States and its allies and partners, including Ukraine.

The sanctioned individuals and entities raised funds and spread misinformation to disrupt the American electoral process and were backed by Russian intelligence to "create or heighten divisions within the country," the government said.

Brian Nelson, the department's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement that the sanctions were in response to the Kremlin's repeated attempts to "threaten and undermine our democratic processes and institutions."

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said it was crucial for democracies to hold free and fair elections without malign outside interference.

Separate from Ukraine measures

He said the Treasury Department's action was separate from the broad range of economic measures the United States and its allies and partners have imposed in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, "which constitutes another clear example of Russia’s disregard for the sovereignty and political independence of other states."

The sanctions announced Friday followed a series of designations designed to "expose and disrupt Russia’s persistent election interference and destabilization efforts against Ukraine," he added in a statement.

One of the individuals sanctioned is Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov, president and founder of the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia (AGMR), one of the entities designated.

AGMR's English-language website claims it is a sociopolitical movement that opposes “certain aspects of the globalization process” and seeks to stop “manifestations” of the so-called “new world order,” the Treasury Department said.

AGMR has maintained connections with anti-establishment groups in the U.S. and other countries, holding conferences and protests in opposition to U.S. policy, according to the department. AGMR has received funding from Russia’s National Charity Fund, a trust created by Russian President Vladimir Putin, that gathers money from Russia’s state-owned companies and oligarchs.

The criminal charge was filed against Ionov in connection with a foreign malign influence campaign that the United States says lasted from at least December 2014 until March 2022.

“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 Matthew Olsen, the assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s National Security Division.

Recruited in several states

According to the indictment unsealed Friday, Ionov worked under the supervision of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and had the Russian government’s support. He recruited political groups within the U.S., including in the U.S. states of Florida, Georgia and California, "and exercised direction or control over them on behalf of the FSB."

The Justice Department's statement does not identify the U.S. political groups by name but provides details of their alleged engagement with Ionov.

The leader of the political group in Florida, for example, received an all-expenses-paid trip to Russia in May 2015, and for at least the next seven years, Ionov "exercised direction and control over senior members of the group," the department said.

Ionov "provided financial support to these groups, directed them to publish pro-Russian propaganda, coordinated and funded direct action by these groups within the United States intended to further Russian interests, and coordinated coverage of this activity in Russian media outlets," the indictment says.

The indictment also says Ionov’s relationship with the Florida political group continued until at least March 2022, and in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the group hosted him in virtual conferences to discuss the war.

Ionov falsely stated during the conferences that anyone who supported Ukraine also supported Nazism and white supremacy. Ionov then reported to the FSB that he had enlisted the group to support Russia in the “information war unleashed” by the West, the indictment says.

Charge, penalty

Ionov is charged with conspiring to have U.S. citizens act as illegal agents of the Russian government. If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison. It was not immediately clear if he had a lawyer who could speak on his behalf, and he is not currently in custody.

The sanctions imposed on him and the others freeze any assets they hold in the United States and ban people in the United States from dealing with them.

The other individual sanctioned by the Treasury Department is Natalya Valeryevna Burlinova. Her Center for Support and Development of Public Initiative Creative Diplomacy (PICREADI) is one of the four entities designated for its work on behalf of the Russian government.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

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