Three Russians charged in alleged disinformation scheme that targeted US lawmakers

Federal prosecutors have charged a high-ranking Russian lawmaker aligned with Putin and two of his aides with operating a network of foreign influence and disinformation in the United States, which included attempts to influence members of Congress.

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

US attorney Damian Williams said the alleged propaganda campaign was launched “to further Russia’s malign 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 Russian control allegedly conspired to direct the geopolitical shift in Russia’s favor through surreptitious and illegal means in the United States 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 escape. .

“Where we will be focusing in the next few days is on the escape,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told the Economic Club in Washington, DC, on Thursday.

The three Russian men in Thursday’s unsealed indictment are charged with one count of conspiracy to have a US citizen act as a Russian agent in the United States without informing 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 conspiracy to violate and evade US sanctions, a violation that carries a maximum sentence of 20 years.

The defendants also allegedly sought to fraudulently obtain visas to enter the United States, which could result in a maximum of an additional five years in prison if convicted.

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

The defendants allegedly used a Russian-based non-profit organization, the Institute for International Integration Studies, as a subterfuge for their foreign influence campaign, funneling money through the organization to 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, according to the indictment.

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 lawmaker met with Babakov, the indictment states, but his efforts included offering an unnamed member of Congress an “all-expenses-paid” trip to meet with European politicians.

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

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

NBC News has contacted the Russian Embassy in Washington and the Institute for International Integration Studies for comment.

julia jester contributed.

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