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Russian officials charged with US disinformation scheme

The Russian flag flies at the embassy's compound in Washington, D.C., on April 15, 2021.(Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

Three Russian government officials were charged with conspiring to affect U.S. policy toward Russia with staged events and propaganda — including efforts to influence members of Congress.

An indictment against Aleksandr Babakov, deputy chairman of the state duma, Russia’s lower legislative body, and two members of his staff was unsealed Thursday in Manhattan federal court. Babakov, Aleksandr Vorobev and Mikhail Plisyuk were accused of trying to influence members of Congress and others to advance Russia’s interests, with one unidentified lawmaker being offered a free trip to Crimea in 2017.

U.S. prosecutors have stepped up efforts against Russian targets after the invasion of Ukraine, and the Justice Department last month launched a task force targeting wealth hidden oversees by oligarchs and others close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Today’s indictment demonstrates that Russia’s illegitimate actions against Ukraine extend beyond the battlefield,” said Manhattan U.S. Attorney Damian Williams, “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.”

The Russian Embassy in Washington didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the charges.

A close ally of Putin, Babakov was appointed a special envoy to Russian overseas organizations in 2012. He has also previously chaired the state duma commission on developing Russia’s military-industrial complex.

He, Vorobev and Plisyuk were all sanctioned by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control in 2017 as individuals whose actions or policies violated Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Babakov was also sanctioned by the European Union in 2014 for voting in favor of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

According to the indictment, the men’s scheme began around January 2012, and they managed to recruit an unidentified U.S. citizen to act on their behalf. “Co-conspirator-1” was described as a “New York City-based individual with experience relating to international relations and media.” Two other co-conspirators were identified as “nationals of a country in Western Europe” who acted as consultants.

Prosecutors said the defendants contacted members of Congress from 2012 to 2017 to seek meetings and offer free travel. In 2012, the U.S. co-conspirator unsuccessfully sought to set up meetings with several lawmakers, offering one an “all expenses paid” trip to Europe to meet with politicians and receive an award.

In March 2017, the defendants sought to have another congressperson meet with Babakov to “strengthen the lies” between Russia and the U.S. They also invited that representative to travel to a conference in Yalta, Crimea.

Neither of the two members of Congress accepted the offered trips, prosecutors said, and the conspiracy’s efforts were broadly unsuccessful, prosecutors said.

Babakov, 59, Vorobev, 52, and Plisyuk, 58, are charged with conspiring to act as an agent of a foreign government without notifying the U.S. attorney general, conspiracy to commit visa fraud and conspiracy to violate U.S. sanctions. They remain at large.

“In pursuit of these goals, the defendants sought to co-opt U.S. and European politicians and to influence public opinion in their favor, using American and European citizens as their proxies in an effort to validate them, bring them access to power, evade sanctions and obscure their true objective to advance Russia’s foreign policy,” prosecutors said in their indictment.

The case is US v Babakov, 22-cr-211, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).


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