Agitation and PropagandaRussian Indicted for Using US Political Groups as Foreign Agents
A Russian national backed by the Russian state has been indicted by the US Justice Department for funding and using members of American political groups as foreign agents of Russian Intelligence in nearly a decade of malign influence operations
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Moscow resident Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov has been indicted by the United States in collaboration with at least three Russian agents for engaging in foreign malign influence campaigns targeting the country.
Founder of the Anti-Globalisation Movement of Russia (AGMR) – a body financed by the Russian Government – Ionov is accused of funding Russian propaganda designed to exploit divisions in the US, at a time of heightened economic, racial and social tension.
Ionov is alleged to have connections with three groups which have worked to spread pro-Russian propaganda in the US, as well as conspiracist and divisive rhetoric. The political groups appear to be Yes California, Black Hammer, and the Uhuru Movement.
He, along with three Russian FSB agents, are all accused of directing the three organisations to push pro-Putin, pro-Russian narratives, in order to splinter Americans by promoting extreme anti-democratic ideologies.
The US Justice Department does not name the individual groups. However, the 25-page indictment provides specific clues to the identity of each organisation – referred to as Political Group No. 1, 2 and 3.
Some of their members have been arrested in recent days. Federal agents said Ionov has been working on his propaganda campaigns since December of 2014, right up until the date of the indictment in July 2022.
The indictment alleges that Ionov used these American political groups as foreign agents of Russia, working on behalf of the FSB. It lists pages of examples of electronic correspondences between Ionov and various groups, instructing them to plant news stories sympathetic to Russia, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and more recently, the invasion of Ukraine. It also indicates that Ionov backed multiple American political candidates.
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Byline Times‘ investigation into the court documents suggests that Political Group 3 is Yes California – an organisation set up in 2015 by Louis Marinelli, a New Yorker living in Russia. It advocates for California breaking away from the rest of the United States.
The campaigns to divide California in two countries and to secede from the Union – known as ‘Calexit’ – was repeatedly covered by Russian state media in 2016 and 2017.
Yes California’s Marinelli opened an “embassy” in Moscow in 2016, with the Anti-Globalisation Movement of Russia providing the office space rent-free. A right-wing activist who had campaigned against LGBTQ rights, said he left his home in Yekaterinburg, about 1,000 miles outside Moscow, to fight for California’s secession.
Although the campaign never achieved majority support – it peaked at 32% support – Yes California established 53 chapters across the Golden State. In 2017, however, it was reported that Russia was funding the effort to weaken America and cause chaos. It then halted its campaign in April. The BBC reported trolls were boosting the movement’s popularity on the night of the 2016 US Presidential Election.
Such chaos had already been rehearsed via Russian interference in Brexit. Little surprise then, that in 2017, the architects of Brexit – Leave.EU’s Arron Banks and Nigel Farage – were recruited for the Calexit campaign by Republican Scott Baugh, a former member of the state assembly, and lobbyist Gerry Gunster.
Exploiting Racial Strife
The attempt to break up the US via Calexit is just one of many ways in which the Russian state is supporting divisive movements to create civil unrest and hatred across the troubled country.
Political Groups 1 and 2 are believed to be self-proclaimed anti-colonialist organisations, Uhuru Movement and Black Hammer Party. A review of the groups’ social media accounts revealed links to pro-Russian and anti-democratic narratives.
Black Hammer of Atlanta, Georgia, calls itself a “symbol of hope for the colonised working class”. Advertising itself as a separatist group, it was founded in 2019 and has been described as a black nationalist movement that mixes conspiracy theories around anti-vaccine myths and elections in its rhetoric.
Its leader Gazi Kodzo released a video wearing Joker make up and calling Holocaust victim Anne Frank a “Karen” among other derogatory terms, and said he was going to burn copies of her diary for warmth. The group also supported the overturning of Roe versus Wade and the Russian war in Ukraine.
Accused of being a cult leader, Kodzo – real name Augustus C. Roman – was arrested on 20 July on kidnapping charges, among other felony charges. It was unclear if the arrest had any relation to the Justice Department indictment.
A glance at the Atlanta-group’s Twitter timeline revealed recent tweets decrying Russian sanctions and a Russian flag is embedded in the title @BlkHmmrTimes.
The 25-page indictment includes an electronic message Ionov sent about a Russian news story on 23 March 2022, to Political Group No. 2 – Black Hammer – and to Godzo “about a protest.. at a social media company’s headquarters in California, and defendant Ionov commented: ‘900,000 followers’ and ‘1500 likes.’”
It is believed this was a demonstration staged outside the Facebook headquarters to protest against censorship of Russian state-affiliated media after the invasion of Ukraine.
The second anti-colonialist group, understood to be Group 1, is the Uhuru Movement, which has two headquarters – in St. Petersburg, Florida, and St. Louis, Missouri.
Uhuru House in Florida is the local headquarters for the International Uhuru Movement that is “under the leadership of African People’s Socialist Party, which states its goal is to unite African people as one people for liberation, social justice, self-reliance and economic development”.
According to federal prosecutors, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the group repeatedly hosted Ionov by video-conference to discuss the war. During the meetings, Ionov falsely stated that anyone who supports Ukraine also supported Nazism and white supremacy.
In a report to the Russian Federal Security Service, Ionov wrote that he had contacted the St. Petersburg group to support Russia in the “information war”.
On 18 June 2015, the Florida branch leader Omali Yeshitela gave a speech after returning from a trip to Russia, where he proclaimed that the country was an ally to all Africans. He is also a cofounder of the African People’s Socialist Party.
That same year, Yeshitela wrote how he and his “party members” were “met at the airport by the president of the Anti-Globalisation Movement, Alexander V. Ionov”.
On 29 July, Yeshitela said in a YouTube statement that he and his wife were handcuffed and taken out of their home in St. Louis, Missouri by armed federal agents. It was the same day the Ionov indictment was released. Affiliate properties in St. Louis and Florida were also raided. Yeshitela said that federal agents took multiple cell phones, laptops, additional electronic devices, as well as financial documents.
The indictment indicated small sums of money were paid to the political group in exchange for promoting a petition on genocide against African people in the United States. The change.org petition, which was signed by 113,000 people, was removed from the platform on 1 August.
Byline Times contacted the Black Hammer Party and Uhuru Movement for comment but did not receive a response. Yes California leader Marinelli referred this newspaper to this posted piece on his Substack, where he denied that Ionov ever funded the California independence campaign.
Along with the groups mentioned in the indictment, Ionov also appears to have had connections to three other American organisations.
They include the United National Anti-war Coalition (UNAC). In October, the group posted a statement where it said that the ex-wife of UNAC’s coordinator, Joe Lombardo, had been questioned by the FBI. UNAC said the agents asked her about his trips to Russia and Venezuela, and also raided a UNAC affiliate in Minnesota.
Lombardo denies that his organisation had ever partnered with Ionov.
“UNAC is not a partner with Alexander Ionov and has never been,” he told Byline Times. “In 2014, we attended a conference that he sponsored to express solidarity with the people in Donbass that the Ukrainian military was bombing and to support peace between our 2 countries. He has not funded any project that UNAC has been involved in.
“That said, we are opposed to the US sanctions against him and the attacks on the African People’s Socialist Party in the US.”
It should be noted that Lombardo’s response is a regurgitation of Russian propaganda, and that Russia’s “little green men” were the 2014 aggressors that started the conflict in the region.
Another partner organisation listed on Ionov’s website is the Minnesota-based Committee to Stop FBI Repression. It did not respond to a request for comment.
The third is the Stop Imperialism Global Agency, which was sanctioned alongside Ionov last week. In 2015, Stop Imperialism included the aforementioned blog post on its website by the Uhuru movement, which discussed the group’s trip to Russia. Stop Imperialism did not respond to a request for comment.
Investigative researcher Brent Allpress said he sees a bigger, more sinister picture behind Ionov’s malign campaigns as alleged in the court documents.
“They aren’t the most significant ops the Russians have run but they give an indication of their divisive modus operandi,” he told Byline Times. “This pattern of polarisation undermines national social cohesion more generally.”
Allpress noted that Russia is a petro-state that shares interest with the extreme-right fossil fuel factions in America. “Divisive noise and rancour in the US distracts from and masks a common far-right US Council for National Policy and Russian vested interest in maintaining oil, gas and coal economies.”
‘Evacuate the Moderate Centre’
The ultimate Russian geopolitical goal is to seed social and political discord in the US, polarise public opinion and evacuate the moderate centre.
“The extremist political positioning of these three allegedly Russia-backed US campaign groups is unsurprising,” Allpress told Byline Times. “They operate on the far-left and the far-right ends of the political spectrum in a horseshoe configuration where extremist poles are closer to each other than they are to the centre.”
“This ready mobility from the far-left to the far-right is a common expedient trait of Russia-backed agents of influence,” Allpress added. “It’s a tell.”
The indictment claims that Ionov raised money for Russian spy Maria Butina, who infiltrated the Republican Party through her work with the National Rifle Association (NRA). A US Treasury Department press release linked Ionov to the Putin oligarch and controller of the Wagner mercenary group, Evgeny Prigozhin.
According to the Treasury Department, Ionov reached out to Prigozhin to request using his foundation to support a 2022 US gubernatorial election. Special Counsel Robert Mueller identified four years ago how Prigozhin also controlled the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg-based ‘troll farm’ accused of interfering with the 2016 Presidential election.
The US Treasury Department has now offered up to ten million dollars for information that could lead to the arrest of Prighozin and others involved in the 2016 and 2018 subversion operations, and any other foreigners trying to interfere in American elections.