DOJ charges Russians in ‘foreign influence and disinformation’ case

Russian businessman and politician Alexander Babakov on February 22, 2021, in Moscow, Russia.

Mikhail Svetlov | Getty Images

The Department of Justice charged a high-ranking Russian legislator and two of his staffers with running a yearslong scheme to influence U.S. officials by peddling disinformation to advance the Kremlin’s interests, according to court documents made public Thursday.

The three Russians, who have previously been sanctioned by the U.S., worked to undermine America’s international alliances and policies and “promote Russia’s illicit actions designed to destroy the sovereignty of Ukraine,” alleged an indictment filed in federal court in Manhattan.

Their scheme included “staged events, paid propaganda, and the recruitment of at least one American citizen to do their bidding in unofficial capacities,” the indictment alleged.

Aleksandr Mikhaylovich Babakov, 59, Aleksandr Nikolayevich Vorobev, 52, and Mikhail Alekseyevich Plisyuk, 58, are charged with conspiring to act as Russian agents in the U.S. without notifying the attorney general and conspiring to commit visa fraud. Those counts each carry a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

The three men also are charged with one count each of conspiring to violate and evade U.S. sanctions in violation of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, a crime with a 20-year maximum prison sentence.

“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 United States and elsewhere in the West,” U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a press release from the Justice Department.

“Such malign foreign interference will be exposed, and we will pursue justice against its perpetrators,” Williams said.

The indictment, filed last week in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and unsealed Thursday afternoon, alleges the operation spanned from January 2012 through at least June 2017.

Babakov, a former Russian senator and currently the deputy chairman of the State Duma, has become a leader in the “For Truth” party, which backs Russian President Vladimir Putin, the DOJ said. Vorobev is Babakov’s longtime chief of staff and Plisyuk is a staffer for Babakov.

The three men used a Russian nonprofit called the Institute for International Integration Studies as a front for their global influence campaign, the indictment alleged.

Through that group, and with the help of the American they recruited to their cause, the defendants allegedly tried to contact and secure meetings with members of the U.S. Congress. They offered free travel to at least one member of Congress on Babakov’s behalf, with the American associate dangling an “all expenses paid” trip to meet with European politicians and receive “an award,” according to the Justice Department.

All of the Congress members solicited for meetings rebuffed those offers, according to the indictment.

In March 2017, the accused allegedly contacted at least one U.S. lawmaker to offer a free trip to a conference in Yalta, located in the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia had invaded and annexed from Ukraine in 2014. That conference was aimed to benefit Sergey Aksyonov, leader of the Russia-backed government in Crimea whom the U.S. sanctioned due to his role in “threatening the sovereignty of Ukraine.”

The member of Congress declined the offer, the DOJ said.

The indictment also accused the three Russians of submitting fraudulent visa applications in February 2017, when they each falsely claimed to be traveling to the U.S. alone on vacation but secretly planned to hold meetings with U.S. politicians.

The Treasury Department sanctioned Babakov, Vorobev and Plisyuk in June 2017. Their visa applications were denied in January 2018.

This is breaking news. Please check back for updates.

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