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Russian lawmaker, staffers accused of running ‘foreign influence and disinformation network’

Russian lawmaker Aleksandr Mikhaylovich Babakov and his staffers allegedly used a Russian-based nonprofit as a front for their political disinformation scheme.

NEW YORK (CN) — The Justice Department on Thursday unsealed conspiracy charges against a high-ranking Russian lawmaker and two of his staffers for allegedly running a global foreign influence scheme and disinformation network.

Kremlin ally Aleksandr Mikhaylovich Babakov, 59, and his chief of staff Aleksandr Nikolayevich Vorobev, 52, and another staff member, Mikhail Alekseyevich Plisyuk, 58, are accused of using a Russian-based nonprofit, the Institute for International Integration Studies, as a front for their yearslong scheme.

Beginning around January 2012 through at least June 2017, the three men — who are all under U.S. sanctions — allegedly hosted staged events, pushed Russian propaganda and recruited an American citizen to do their bidding in the U.S. without official approval.

“Through these operations aimed at influencing the course of international affairs, the defendants worked to weaken U.S. partnerships with European allies, undermine Western sanctions and promote Russia’s illicit actions designed to destroy the sovereignty of Ukraine,” the Justice Department said in a press release.

They used American and European citizens as proxies to gain access to government officials, evade sanctions and to hide the scheme, according to the indictment unsealed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

In one instance in 2012, they allegedly asked the American citizen they hired to set up a meeting between Babakov and multiple members of Congress. In doing so, the American reportedly offered one of the U.S. lawmakers an all expenses paid trip to meet up with European politicians and receive an “award.” 

And in 2017, the trio is said to have submitted visa applications to travel to the U.S. for vacation, when in reality they were planning to hold unofficial meetings with politicians.

Damian Williams, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in the press release that the covert Russian propaganda campaign was created to advance Russia’s “malevolent political designs.”

“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 United States and elsewhere in the West,” Williams said.

He continued, “Such malign foreign interference will be exposed, and we will pursue justice against its perpetrators.”

The three men are each charged with conspiring to have a U.S. citizen act as a Russian agent in the United States without notifying the attorney general, conspiring to violate and evade U.S. sanctions and conspiring to commit visa fraud. They each face maximum sentences of up to five years in prison for the Russian agent conspiracy charge, up to 20 years for the sanctions charge and up to five years for visa fraud.

Babakov currently serves as the Deputy Chairman of the State of Duma, which is the lower house within Russia’s legislature. The Justice Department did not provide details on the mens’ whereabouts.

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