Last month, a federal grand jury in the Middle District of Florida returned a superseding indictment charging three Russian nationals and four U.S. citizens with a conspiracy to conduct a malign influence campaign in the United States. The activities described in the indictment are significant in a number of respects. In particular, they represent a blending of old and new tactics in Russia’s active measures campaign in the United States. On the one hand, Russia’s targets here harken back to the tried-and-true active measures playbook of the KGB; at the same time, the focus on local election interference as a means to lay the groundwork for interference on a larger scale demonstrates that Russia is learning how to exploit new American political vulnerabilities.
The indictment alleges that the U.S. citizens, who were affiliated with three U.S. political groups – the African People’s Socialist Party and the Uhuru Movement (the APSP) located in Florida, the Black Hammer Organization in Georgia, and an unnamed political organization in California – engaged in a conspiracy to act as unregistered foreign agents of a Kremlin-funded group called the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia (AGMR). The goals of the conspiracy, which spanned from 2014 to 2022, were to sow discord in the United States and further Russia’s narratives concerning the war in Ukraine. AGMR was run by a Moscow resident charged in the indictment, who was directed and supervised by two Moscow-based intelligence officers also named in the indictment. The indictment alleges that these three Russian nationals also funded and directed the political campaign of an unnamed candidate in a local election in St. Petersburg, Florida in 2019, as a precursor to broader election interference in 2020.
The Kremlin’s Strategy 1: Exploiting far left and far right fringes
The first feature of the indictment which stands out relative to recent activities involving Russia is Moscow’s coordination with purportedly left-leaning political organizations in the United States. The African People’s Socialist Party and Black Hammer (as well as the African People’s Solidarity Committee, self described as “an organization of white people under the leadership of the African People’s Socialist Party” of which one of the defendants, Penny Joanne Hess, is the chair), claim to be African liberation groups opposed to American imperialism. (Note: In a post from July 2022, the Anti-Defamation League specifically lists the Black Hammer Organization as a group espousing far-right and antisemitic views, noting that its ideology has changed over time and that it more recently maintains partnerships with groups like the Proud Boys.)
While the American public tends to associate Russian involvement with the American political right, much of the activity described in the indictment is consistent with the historical alliances of the KGB which, due to greater ideological alignment with the far left, made greater inroads with Communist, anti-colonial, and revolutionary groups. Although in recent years we have come to see greater convergence between Russian interests and the far right and MAGA ideologies, the indictment is a good reminder that Russia does not have partisan preferences when it comes to sowing discord in the United States, and in fact achieves this goal more easily when it is able to exploit “both sides” of the American political spectrum. The fact that these groups were ready and willing to work at Russia’s direction and control is evidence of “the horseshoe theory” in effect.
The Kremlin’s Strategy 2: Exploiting the racial divide
The second notable feature of the activities exposed in the indictment is the extent to which Russia continues to exploit issues involving race – but at the same time depends on masking its activities behind real or fake Black organizations and individuals to give its operations more credibility. We saw, for example, Russia’s use of “digital blackface” in the lead up to the 2016 election – fake Russian accounts posing as Black Americans or organizations on Facebook and other social media. Indeed, the Senate Intelligence Committee found that Black Americans were the largest demographic group targeted by Russia in its 2016 election efforts, a tactic that continued into the 2020 election.
We see this simultaneous exploitation and dependence at play in the indictment, with the Russian head of AGMR, Aleksandr Victorovich Ionov, tasking defendant Hess with drafting a petition on “Genocide of African people in the U.S.” to submit to the United Nations. Ionov also directed Hess to post the petition on the White House website, so that AGMR could use its “influential information resources” to amplify the petition worldwide. Importantly, Ionov recognized that Hess’s group, which is a “white ally” adjunct to the APSP, “can only position [itself] as co-writers/supporters – after all, we’re not exactly Black to demand it for ourselves.” This telling statement highlights how valuable front groups that appear to represent Black interests are for laundering and legitimizing Russia’s efforts both in the United States and on the world stage.
The Kremlin’s Strategy 3: Going local
Finally, the indictment portends an alarming development: Russian influence in local elections. According to the complaint, Ionov, acting under the supervision of FSB officers Aleksey Borisovich Sukhodolov and Yegor Sergeyevich Popov, provided funding and direction to a U.S. person running for office in St. Petersburg, Florida, who is unnamed but is referenced as an unindicted co-conspirator (“UIC-4”). Among other things, UIC-4 – whom the Russian defendants claimed to “supervise” – made public statements and videos in support of APSP against U.S. support for Ukraine. In writing a report about the efforts, Popov asks Ionov, “Our election campaign is kind of unique. Are we the first in history?” Indeed, this type of electoral interference appears to be a new strategy, as Ionov writes to Popov in another report, “Going forward, it will allow [sic] to carry out more effective campaigns during municipal elections, and [UIC-4’s] and Jaycee’s [referring to defendant Jesse Nevel] experience in the latest election campaign in Florida will lay the groundwork for a new electoral base.”
To be sure, the 2020 presidential election was still the “main topic of the year,” according to reports between the Russians involved in the local campaigns (and the 2022 midterms were another main target according to the U.S. Intelligence Community’s Annual Threat Assessment). UIC-4’s campaign was also occurring in 2019. However, there is no doubt that the events of January 6th, and in particular the fake elector scheme which was part of the broader plot, underscored the extent to which corruption and coopting of local and state officials can have an outsized impact at the national level. The protests at school board meetings and against local election officials since January 6th have illustrated the potential to create chaos at the local-yet-nationwide level. And antidemocratic efforts in state legislatures – including the recent expulsion of Democratic lawmakers in Tennessee and Montana – has also likely generated ideas for Russia on how it can sow chaos and delegitimize the democratic process by influencing individuals who win state elections. Russia’s cognizance – that promoting disruptive candidates at municipal and state levels can further its own goals – stands to further accelerate democratic erosion.
* * *
There is more in the indictment which I have not covered here, including Russian defendants funding a demonstration in support of the secession of California from the United States, organizing a protest against a(n unnamed) media company which had restricted posts supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and directing Black Hammer to hold a rally in front of an Atlanta-based media company in honor of Russian Victory Day in 2022. The Russian defendants also enlisted APSP’s assistance and cover in protesting Russia’s partial ban from the 2016 Olympic games in Rio. In fact, the sheer breadth of activities undertaken by the relatively few defendants in this one complaint and in this one setting suggests that this is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of Russia’s ongoing operations in the United States.
The charges also highlight the tradeoffs incurred by the Justice Department in exposing Russia’s activities and holding accountable those in the United States who aid and abet the Kremlin: After initially charging Ionov in July 2022, the U.S government captured a communication between him and the FSB in which he tells his handler to “trash the phones.” That this was also the end of the conspiracy alleged in the complaint suggests that bringing these activities to light – thereby neutralizing them – also ended the Intelligence community’s ability to collect further information.