Saturday, April 20

Three Russians charged in alleged disinformation scheme that targeted US lawmakers


Federal prosecutors have charged a high-ranking Putin-aligned Russian legislator and two of his staff members with operating a foreign influence and disinformation network in the United States that included attempts to sway members of Congress.

According to an unsealed indictment Thursday in Manhattan federal court, Aleksander Babakov, who serves as deputy chairman in the lower house of the Russian legislature, and two of his aides, Aleksandr Nikolayevich Vorobev and Mikhail Alekseyevich Plisyuk, allegedly conspired to violate US sanctions and recruited a New York-based American with experience in international relations and media to act as an unregistered agent of Russia to help them gain access to elected officials and affect US policy toward Russia.

US Attorney Damian Williams said the alleged propaganda campaign was levied “to advance Russia’s malevolent political designs” against Ukraine, the United States and other countries.

“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 US and elsewhere in the West,” Williams said in a statement .

The unsealing of the indictment comes as the Biden administration tries to ensure that Russian officials and oligarchs who have been hit with sanctions over the war in Ukraine are not able to evade them.

“Where our focus will be in the coming days is on evasion,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said at the Economic Club of Washington, DC on Thursday.

All three Russian men in Thursday’s unsealed indictment are charged with one count of conspiring to have a US citizen act as a Russian agent in the United States without notifying the attorney general, punishable by up to five years in prison. The three men, who were sanctioned by the Treasury Department in 2017, also face a single count of conspiring to violate and evade US sanctions, a violation which carries a maximum 20-year sentence.

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The defendants also allegedly sought to fraudulently obtain visas to enter the US, which could carry an additional maximum five years in prison if convicted.

Beginning in 2012, Babakov and his two deputies schemed to erode US partnerships with European allies and promoted Russian efforts to “destroy the sovereignty of Ukraine,” through staged events and paid propaganda, according to the indictment.

The defendants allegedly used a Russian-based nonprofit organization, the Institute for International Integration Studies, as subterfuge for their foreign influence campaign, funneling money through the nonprofit between at least 2011 and 2019 to pay two European citizens who served as “foreign consultants” charged with carrying out the group’s efforts, the indictment says.

The defendants and the American allegedly recruited for the scheme are accused of contacting members of Congress from at least 2012 to 2017, and requesting meetings for Babakov that were aimed at advancing Russian interests in the United States.

No US lawmakers met with Babakov, the indictment states, but his efforts included an offer to one unnamed member of Congress for an “all expenses paid” trip to meet with European political figures.

“The Department will not hesitate to prosecute those who seek to covertly influence the American political process and evade US sanctions, Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen said in a statement Thursday.

A federal district court judge will determine any sentence for Babakov, Vorobev and Plisyuk who are based in Russia but remain at large, the Justice Department said.

NBC News has reached out to the Russian embassy in Washington and the Institute for International Integration Studies for comment.

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Julia Jester contributed.


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