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DOJ alleges Russian national used St. Pete-based Uhuru Movement to spread propaganda

The government accused Aleksandr Ionov of sowing discord and interfering in elections in the U.S., including in St. Petersburg.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A Tampa-based grand jury formally charged a Russian national with spearheading a multi-year influence campaign using U.S. political groups to spread pro-Russian propaganda and interfere in elections, including those in St. Petersburg.

The jurors' 24-page indictment was unsealed Friday, detailing a conspiracy prosecutors say played out over seven years.

Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov, who is a resident of Moscow, faces a charge of conspiring to have U.S. citizens act as illegal agents of the Russian government, according to a DOJ news release.

While not named in the indictment, the FBI confirmed its raid Friday morning at the headquarters of the Uhuru Movement in St. Petersburg is connected to the alleged conspiracy. 

Agents carried out what it called a court-authorized warrant at the Uhuru House, located at 1245 18th Ave. S., which is the Florida-based headquarters of a Black international socialist group. They were seen carrying out unidentified boxes for hours. 

The Uhuru House is home to the Uhuru Movement, which is part of the African People's Socialist Party, according to The Associated Press. The party's website says it aims to unite "African people as one people for liberation, social justice, self-reliance and economic development."

According to the DOJ, Ionov is the founder and president of the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia (AGMR); an organization funded by the Russian government. It's alleged he at least three other Russian officials targeted the U.S. from at least December 2014 until March 2022 as part of a "foreign malign influence campaign."

The DOJ says Ionov worked on behalf of the Russian government to "exercise direction or control over" three political entities on behalf of the Russian Federal Security Service; the successor to the Soviet Union's KGB, according to the University of North Carolina.

U.S. government officials allege Ionov recruited and used such political groups in Georgia, California and Florida to provide financial support, publish pro-Russian propaganda and coordinate action to further Russian interests.

The DOJ said Ionov funded an all-expense paid trip in May 2015 to Russia for an unidentified leader now believed to be of the Uhuru Movement to "communicate on future cooperation" between it and the AGMR. For at least the next seven years, the government alleges Ionov "exercised direction and control over senior members" of the Florida-based group.

"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," U.S. Attorney Roger B. Handberg for the Middle District of Florida said in a statement. "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."

Akile Anai, who said she's the director of the African People's Socialist Party's Department of Agitation and Propaganda, told 10 Tampa Bay the FBI seized her laptop and phone under false pretenses; agents claimed the government was concerned about "our relationships to forces in Russia," Anai said.

"What we know this to really be, one, is a propaganda war is being waged against Russia every single day throughout the news. The U.S. has a hold on what is being propagated about the war on — the defensive war — Russia's defensive war against Ukraine, against world colonial powers because that's what's happening right now," she said, repeating a point previously made by Russian President Vladimir Putin

Putin launched his country's invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, telling the Russian people he wanted to protect people from what he called eight years of genocide and bullying by the Ukrainian government, according to the BBC. Russia continues to call the war a "special military operation," Reuters reports 5,237 civilians have been killed, though actual casualties are believed to be higher.

Anai asserted the U.S. government is wanting to isolate Africans in the U.S. fighting for liberation — "this is an attack," she said, and the Uhuru Movement is a target. 

When asked whether the Uhuru Movement has relationships with any government, any party in Russia, she said: "We are able to have relationships with any forces who can unite with the anti-colonial struggle, so any force out there in the world that unites with the anti-colonial struggle, we pursue a relationship with unapologetically."

READ: Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov indictment

The DOJ alleges that senior members of the Florida group knew that Ionov was working on behalf of the Russian government, with one member saying that the AGMR was "a solid institution of Russian politic" and it being an "instrument of [the] Russian government" did not "disturb us."  

Ionov used his control over the Florida group to spread pro-Russian propaganda under the guise of a domestic political organization and to interfere in local elections, the DOJ said. In 2016, prosecutors say he guaranteed funding for a four-city protest tour supporting a "Petition on Crime of Genocide against African People in the United States." The petition was also submitted to the United Nations at Ionov’s instruction, according to authorities.

In 2017 and 2019, Ionov allegedly monitored and supported two unidentified political campaigns in St. Petersburg. Before the primary election in 2019, the government alleges Ionov wrote to a Russian official and said he had been "consulting every week" on one such campaign. 

After one candidate "advanced to the general election, FSB Officer 1 wrote to Ionov that 'our election campaign is kind of unique,' and asked, 'are we the first in history?' Ionov later sent FSB Officer 1 additional details about the election, referring to UIC-4 as the candidate 'whom we supervise.'"

The DOJ said since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Florida group hosted several video conferences with Ionov to discuss the war and falsely stated "that anyone who supported Ukraine also supported Nazism and white supremacy. In a report to the FSB, Ionov explained that he had enlisted [the Uhuru Movement] to support Russia in the 'information war unleashed' by the West."

"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,” FBI Tampa Special Agent in Charge David Walker said Friday.

Handberg said more federal warrants would be executed Friday at "multiple locations."

"This investigation is not over. It is ongoing,” Handberg said.

It's alleged Ionov also "exercised direction and control" over an unidentified group in California supporting the state's secession from the U.S. in 2018 and paid for members of another unidentified group in Georgia to travel to San Franciso and protest at the headquarters of a social media company that placed content restrictions on posts supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the DOJ said in its news release.

If Ionov is convicted of conspiring to have U.S. citizens act as illegal agents of the Russian government, he could face a maximum of five years in prison.

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