Russian legislator and 2 aides criminally charged in US

NEW YORK (AP) — A Russian legislator and two aides are accused of pushing a covert propaganda campaign to win U.S. government support for Moscow’s foreign policy agenda, including moves against Ukraine, according to a Justice Department indictment unsealed Thursday.

Prosecutors said the three Russians sought to co-opt American and European political officials, including members of the U.S. Congress, and of recruiting at least one U.S. citizen to advance their interests. They also allegedly lied on visa applications by saying they were traveling to the U.S. for vacations or visits with friends when they actually planned on being in the country for meetings with American officials and advisers, according to the prosecution.

The effort was part of what American officials describe as a broader, longstanding Russian government objective to sway public opinion in foreign countries, sow mistrust in Western institutions and prevent Ukraine from strengthening economic and political ties with U.S. and European allies.

All three men named are based in Russia and are not in custody, authorities said. No defense lawyers were listed in court records.

This particular foreign influence campaign allegedly took place between 2012 and 2017, but was not disclosed by the Justice Department until this week with the unsealing of an indictment in federal court in Manhattan, as it cracks down on Russian government abuses and corruption amid Moscow’s ongoing war against Ukraine.

The legislator, Aleksandr Babakov, 59, is identified in the indictment as a high-ranking Russian government official from the same political party as Russian President Vladimir Putin. Currently, Babakov is deputy chairman of the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian legislature. Two of his staff members — Aleksandr Nikolayevich Vorobev, 52, and Mikhail Alekseyevich Plisyuk, 58 — were also charged.

The three are accused of conspiring to have a U.S. citizen act as a foreign agent for Russia and Russian officials without notifying the U.S. Justice Department; with conspiring to violate and evade U.S. sanctions; and with visa fraud conspiracy.

“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 U.S. and elsewhere in the West,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a statement.

U.S. prosecutors in recent weeks seized a yacht in Spain owned by an oligarch with close ties to Putin, charged another Kremlin-linked oligarch with sanctions violations and, now, exposed an alleged effort to sway public opinion in the U.S. through propaganda.

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, the department also launched a task force to enforce sanctions violations and export restrictions imposed on Russian figures.

The indictment unsealed Thursday depicts a secretive and persistent effort to reach inside the power chambers of Washington. The defendants are accused of contacting members of Congress between 2012 and 2017 to seek meetings, and offered at least one free travel to a conference in the Black Sea city of Yalta that they and their associates had been working to organize and promote.

The U.S. congressman, who is not identified by name in the indictment, declined the offer, prosecutors said.

The conference was intended to benefit Sergey Aksyonov, the Kremlin-appointed head of Crimea who had been sanctioned by the U.S. government for his policies threatening Ukraine’s sovereignty.

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Tucker reported from Washington.

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