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U.S. charges Russian lawmaker, others with running disinformation scheme

U.S. charges Russian lawmaker, others with running disinformation scheme
The Justice Department on Thursday indicted three Russian nationals on accusations of running a multiyear scheme attempting to influence U.S. foreign policy. Pool File Photo by Win McNamee/UPI | License Photo

April 14 (UPI) -- Federal prosecutors have charged a high-ranking Russian legislator and two of his staff on accusations of running a disinformation campaign designed to advance the Kremlin's interests.

According to the indictment released Thursday, the trio of Russian nationals ran the operation through a front nonprofit organization to weaken U.S. partnerships with European allies, undermine sanctions and promote "Russia's illicit actions designed to destroy the sovereignty of Ukraine."

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The scheme specifically sought to affect U.S. policy toward Russia through staged events, paid propaganda and the recruitment of at least one American they attempted to use to do their biddings, the prosecutors said, adding the defendants also sought to recruit U.S. and European politicians as well as citizens from Western nations to be used as proxies to obscure their intentions of advancing Russia's foreign policy.

"Today's indictment demonstrates that Russia's illegitimate actions against Ukraine extend beyond the battlefield, as political influencers under Russia's control allegedly plotted to steer geopolitical change in Russia's favor through surreptitious and illegal means in the Untied States and elsewhere in the West," U.S. Attorney Damian Williams for the Souther District of New York said in a statement. "Such malign foreign interference will be exposed, and we will pursue justice against its perpetrators."

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Legislator Aleksandr Mikhailovich Babakov, 59, and his staff Aleksandr Nikolayevich Vorobev, 52, and Mikhail Alekseyevich Plisyuk, 58, have been charged with conspiring to have a U.S. citizen act as a Russian agent without notifying the U.S. government and conspiring to commit visa fraud, which each come with maximum sentences of five years' imprisonment. They've also been charged with conspiring to violate and evade U.S. sanctions, which is punishable with up to 20 years' imprisonment.

The three were sanctioned by the U.S. treasury in 2017. Babakov was also sanctioned by Britain in 2020.

"Russian legislator Aleksandr Babakov and two of his staffers allegedly orchestrated a covert Russian propaganda campaign in the Untied States in order to advance Russia's malevolent political designs against Ukraine and other countries, including the United States," Williams said.

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According to the indictment, the scheme to influence U.S. policy began in January 2012 and ran until at least June of 2017 when they came under U.S. sanctions.

Federal prosecutors state the trio used the Russia-based nonprofit Institute for International Integration Studies, which they hold senior leadership positions within, as a front for their influence campaign.

Through the nonprofit, they hired at least two Europe-based consultants to work on their behalf from 2011 to 2019.

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One of the consultants in 2011 began to recruit a New York City-based person with international relations and media experience to work on the Russians' behalf to broker meetings between U.S. congressmembers and Babakov.

According to the indictment, the consultants offered free travel to at least one congressmember. Prosecutors said the American agent offered the unnamed congressmember an all expenses paid trip to meet European dignitaries and receive a purported award.

The American also sent emails to at least three U.S. House representatives offering them an invitation to a European government to meet with unspecified senior officials.

The Justice Department said no U.S. politician agreed to the meetings.

In March 2017, the defendants also offered at least one U.S. congressmember a free trip to a Babakov-affiliated conference in Yalta, which is located in the area of Crimea that Russia had annexed years earlier.

Prosecutors said the defendants worked to promote the conference through soliciting Americans to attend for the benefit of Sergey Aksyonov, who was Russia's prime minister of Crimea and under U.S. sanctions since 2014.

The unnamed congressman also rejected the Russians' offer.

The Justice Department also accuses the trio of submitting fraudulent visa applications in February 2012 in order to travel to the United States for a so-called vacation. though prosecutors state they planned to conduct unofficial meetings with U.S. politicians and advisors to further their influence objectives.

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"The indictment alleges that a high-ranking [Russian President Vladimir] Putin-aligned legislator and his closest staffers, all three of whom are sanctioned, engaged in a global campaign to influence and gain access to U.S. elected officials,"said Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen of the Justice Department's National Security Division. "The Department will not hesitate to prosecute those who seek to covertly influence the American political process and evade sanctions."

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