Justice Department’s Russia Indictment Reminds to Look Beyond Online Influence
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) unsealed an indictment last week of a Russian national who allegedly orchestrated a “years-long foreign malign influence campaign that used various U.S. political groups to sow discord, spread pro-Russian propaganda, and interfere in elections within the United States.” From “at least” December 2014 to March 2022, the document says, the Russian national coordinated with the Russian government to finance domestic U.S. political groups, used them to launder pro-Kremlin narratives, funded and coordinated these political groups engaging in “direct action” on the ground in the United States, and coordinated coverage of their activities in Russian media.
For all the post-2016 focus on digital influence—state-propagated disinformation, hack-and-leak operations, troll farms from St. Petersburg to Ghana—the indictments remind us that we can’t forget about the old school subterfuge of human-to-human influence. The digital is just one piece of a larger puzzle.
Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov, the Russian citizen in question, lives in Moscow and founded and runs the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia (AGMR), a Russian “think tank” that has promoted separatist movements in the United States and even convened a 2015 conference with separatist groups from the United States, Europe, and Ukraine. The Russian government funds the AGMR via grants, and Ionov is a known Putin supporter—a thank-you letter from Putin, for Ionov’s “work to strengthen friendship between people,” is on the AGMR office walls.
Per charging documents, since 2014, working with two unnamed Federal Security Service (FSB) officers, as well as an unnamed “Russian official,” Ionov financed three unnamed U.S. political groups in Florida, Georgia, and California “on behalf of the FSB.” Moscow’s covert support of these organizations spanned funding, providing ideas, giving instructions, and even supplying propaganda materials. According to concurrent media reports, these political groups possibly included the Uhuru Movement, the African People’s Socialist Party, the Black Hammer Party, the CalExit campaign, and the Yes California political action committee.
The tradecraft detailed in the indictment is reminiscent of Soviet-era “active measures,” by which witting or unwitting agents and organizations abroad were co-opted—either directly or through intermediaries—including to, as scholar Thomas Rid details, “exacerbate existing tensions and contradictions within the adversary’s body politic, by leveraging facts, fakes, and ideally a disorienting mixture of both.” While Moscow’s 21st-century model notoriously incorporates the amplifying power of social media and the legitimizing aura of pseudo-think tanks and academic journals, the tried-and-true methods of interpersonal relationships remain.
For example, the indictment alleges that the Florida group’s founder flew to Russia, met with Ionov, and began a partnership with knowledge that Ionov was a Russian government agent. In one case, the Florida political group accepted $12,000 from Ionov to organize a “four-city tour” in January 2016 to support the “Petition on Crime of Genocide against African People in the United States”—which the group submitted to the United Nations at Ionov’s direction. Ionov and the AGMR routinely promoted these U.S. political groups in the Russian media, and in 2018, Ionov offered money to the organizer of a Yes California-planned protest, supplied posters, and even “urged” one individual to “physically enter the governor’s office,” though the protest remained peaceful. Ionov sent an FSB officer photographs of the demonstration afterwards: Ionov said the FSB officer had asked for “turmoil” in the United States.
When the Putin regime launched its large-scale, illegal war on Ukraine in February, Ionov emailed the Florida political group, the indictment outlines, absurdly blaming the war on the United States—after which the organization held a video presentation about the “U.S. imperialist-created” crisis. Ionov then virtually spoke at another event for the organization, regurgitating Kremlin propaganda about Ukraine, and he later told the FSB that he urged the Florida political group to support Russia in the West’s “information war” against the country. Remarkably, Ionov even financed a related protest, paying around $2,883 for the Georgia political group to fly to protest “at the headquarters of a social media company” (which was unnamed) in California—“holding a Russian flag and posters that defendant Ionov had designed.”
Meanwhile, the fact that the FSB oversaw such an operation so far beyond Russian borders and those of the former Soviet space—the agency’s apparently traditional remit—and not the more externally focused Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) or General Staff’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), is noteworthy. This, however, is the second such case in recent history where some degree of FSB orchestration has been documented. Russian national Maria Butina—who pleaded guilty of the same charge facing Ionov (conspiracy to act as an unregistered foreign agent) in 2018—was allegedly in close contact with FSB officers throughout her efforts to make inroads with conservative political circles in the United States. Whether these episodes are indicative of an FSB bureaucratic focus on political warfare against the United States, of preference within the Kremlin that such politically sensitive human operations (however shoddily executed) be run by the agency, or are merely happenstance, remains unclear. However, the Intelligence Community has publicly “assess[ed] that influence campaigns are approved at the highest levels of the Russian Government—particularly those that would be politically sensitive.”
Even as far back as the era of the Soviet KGB, senior officials viewed racial diversity and political pluralism in the United States as “weaknesses to be exploited.” Against that backdrop, the thematic elements and target audiences outlined in the Ionov indictment appear to share commonalities with a range of recent Russian influence activities. Both the GRU and the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency unleashed social media campaigns since 2014 designed to exacerbate racial tensions and fuel secessionist and extremist sentiment across the political spectrum within the United States—even going so far as to recruit Africa-based operatives to do so. These commonalities, while circumstantial, suggest at least the possibility that Ionov’s activities, even if unbeknownst to him, were complementary to a broader campaign—conceived of and coordinated at higher levels in Moscow.
As the 2022 midterms approach—and as policymakers and practitioners begin thinking about election security for 2024—there's much reason to be concerned about Russian cyber and information operations aimed at the United States. Yet, as we have detailed previously, traditional intelligence operations are still a viable form of influencing political systems abroad. Understanding the nature and scope of Russia’s foreign influence activities means policymakers—even those focused on cyber issues—cannot fixate solely on the digital.
Justin Sherman (@jshermcyber) is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative. Gavin Wilde (@gavinbwilde) is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Technology and International Affairs Program.