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What to know about possible Russian ties to St. Petersburg’s Uhurus

FBI agents searched the socialist’s group’s headquarters after a Russian was charged with interfering in local elections.
The FBI investigates the Uhuru House at 1245 18th Ave S. in St. Petersburg on Friday, July 29, 2022.
The FBI investigates the Uhuru House at 1245 18th Ave S. in St. Petersburg on Friday, July 29, 2022. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published Jul. 30|Updated Jul. 30

Federal agents executed a search warrant Friday at the St. Petersburg headquarters of the Uhuru Movement, a 50-year-old African socialist organization, as part of an investigation into Russian interference in local U.S. elections.

Here’s what to know.

What is the FBI investigating?

According to police and federal agents, Russian national Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov is charged with spreading misinformation and discord to disrupt local elections, targeting the Uhurus for potential political cooperation.

Federal agents executed search warrants Friday morning at multiple locations, including the Uhuru House at 1245 18th Ave. S. The searches appear to be related to an indictment that was unsealed Friday against Ionov.

Related: Who are the Uhurus, the St. Petersburg group probed by FBI for Russian ties?

Who was charged?

Ionov, who lives in Moscow, is accused of conspiring and orchestrating on behalf of the Russian government in a yearslong “foreign malign influence campaign against the U.S.,” the Department of Justice said in a news release Friday.

The U.S. Treasury Department also imposed sanctions on Ionov and Russian Natalya Valeryevna Burlinova, founder and president of the Center for Support and Development of Public Initiative Creative Diplomacy, known as “Creative Diplomacy.” It also imposed sanctions on four entities allegedly connected to Russian intelligence service: Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia, Creative Diplomacy, Ionov Transkontinental and Stop-Imperialism Global Information Agency.

According to the Treasury, “The individuals and entities designated played various roles in Russia’s attempts to manipulate and destabilize the United States and its allies and partners, including Ukraine.”

Omali Yeshitela, a longtime leader of the St. Petersburg Uhuru Movement, said he and his wife were handcuffed and taken out of a home in St. Louis by agents.

Related: FBI investigating Russian interference possibly linked to St. Petersburg Uhuru Movement

When did the conspiracy start?

From December 2014 until at least March 2022, according to police and federal agents. Ionov recruited political groups in Florida, Georgia and California to influence local elections in the U.S., sow misinformation and spread Russian propaganda.

How did Ionov operate?

Ionov worked under the supervision of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) with the Russian government’s support, according to the indictment. To interfere in U.S. elections, Ionov provided financial support to local groups intended to further Russian interests. He also covered and paid for travel expenses, including for the leader of the St. Petersburg group to travel to Russia in May 2015 to discuss future cooperation. Four months later, in September 2015, Ionov again paid for the St. Petersburg group’s leader to attend a “Dialogue of Nations” conference in Moscow. The indictment refers to a group in St. Petersburg as “U.S. Political Group 1.”

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Authorities also said Ionov used his control over the St. Petersburg group to monitor and support the political campaigns of two people in 2017 and 2019. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the group hosted Ionov by videoconference to discuss the war.

In California, Ionov exercised direction and control over a local group whose primary goal was to promote California’s secession, according to the indictment. He also organized and sent members of a political group in Atlanta to travel to San Francisco to protest at the headquarters of a social media company that blocked posts supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

What is the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia (AGMR), the group founded by Ionov?

The organization is a socio-political movement whose activities are aimed against certain aspects of the globalization process, according to its website. It supports the full sovereignty of nation-states including Russia as an independent player on the political, economic and cultural world stage.

Ionov utilized his organization to carry out Russia’s influence campaign. The group is headquartered in Moscow and funded by the Russian government.

Ionov is also known for raising around $30,000 in legal funds for Maria Butina, the Russian national who pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as a foreign agent without registering with the U.S. Justice Department, as required by law. Butina was deported in 2019 to her home country.

How many years could Ionov face in prison?

The U.S. Justice Department charged Ionov with conspiring to have U.S. citizens act as illegal agents of the Russian government. If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of five years in jail, according to a department statement.

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