U.S. charges top Russian lawmaker, two staffers over alleged influence scheme

The defendants include Aleksandr Babakov, 59, the deputy chairman of the state Duma, the lower house of Russia’s legislature, who is an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Also charged was Babakov’s chief of staff Aleksandr Vorobev, 52, and staff member Mikhail Plisyuk, 58.

Prosecutors in Manhattan accused the defendants of having as early as 2012 operated an “international foreign influence and disinformation network” to advance Russia’s interests.

The indictment said the campaign was designed to weaken U.S. partnerships with European allies, undermine Western sanctions, and promote Russian actions “designed to destroy” Ukraine’s sovereignty.

Prosecutors quoted from a Dec. 2016 email from Vorobev promoting the influence campaign, where he allegedly said “purely legal work in hostile regimes is not enough.”

Vorobev identified “the West” as the place to pursue a campaign regarding “problematic frontiers for the movement,” which he identified as the Baltic States, Poland, Moldova and Ukraine, prosecutors said.

“Russia’s illegitimate actions against Ukraine extend beyond the battlefield,” U.S. Attorney Damian Williams in Manhattan said in a statement.

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

The defendants were each charged with three conspiracy counts: acting as foreign agents without formally notifying the U.S. Department of Justice, violating U.S. sanctions, and lying in a fraudulent effort to obtain U.S. visas.

None could immediately be reached for comment. Prosecutors said the defendants are based in Russia and at large. They could each face up to 30 years in prison if convicted.

The charges are the latest in a series of U.S. enforcement actions targeting Russian individuals and interests since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, which Russia calls a “special military operation.”

According to the indictment, the defendants paid two Europe-based consultants to conduct outreach to members of Congress.

They also allegedly recruited a New York City-based media professional to lobby Congressional lawmakers for a purported campaign to advance human rights issues and the interests of Cuba.

Prosecutors said the recruited American in April 2012 offered one Congressional member a free trip to meet European politicians and receive an award, and left “100,000,000 voicemails” for the lawmaker, only to be rebuffed.

The defendants were also accused of directing a “Russian propaganda campaign” after Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

Prosecutors said one congressional member was offered free travel to a conference in Yalta, on behalf of Sergey Aksyonov, a Russian-appointed leader in Crimea under U.S. sanctions.

The indictment also said the defendants paid people to be sham election observers to falsely validate the results of a referendum staged to make Crimea an official part of Russia.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; and Sarah N. Lynch, Arshad Mohammed and Jan Wolfe in Washington; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

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