A federal grand jury in Tampa, Florida, recently returned a superseding indictment charging four US citizens and three Russian nationals with working on behalf of the Russian government, and in conjunction with the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), to conduct a multi-year foreign malign influence campaign in the United States. The Russian defendants are accused of recruiting, funding, and directing US political groups to act as unregistered illegal agents of the Russian government, sow discord, and spread pro-Russian propaganda. Indicted intelligence officers are also alleged to have covertly funded and directed candidates for local office in the US.
Authorities assert that these actions aimed to divide Americans and interfere in elections in the US. The Department of Justice has stated it will not hesitate to expose and prosecute those who sow discord and corrupt US elections in service of hostile foreign interests, regardless of whether they are US citizens or foreign individuals abroad.
The indictment alleges that the defendants conspired to directly and substantially influence democratic elections in the US by clandestinely funding and directing the political campaign of a particular candidate for local office in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 2019. Ionov and Popov are alleged to have planned to extend their election interference plot beyond the 2019 local election cycle in St. Petersburg, and subsequently discussed that the “USA Presidential election” was the FSB’s “main topic of the year.”
Ionov is alleged to have engaged in a years-long foreign malign influence campaign targeting the United States, recruiting members of political groups within the country to participate in the influence campaign and act as agents of Russia in the US. These groups include the African People’s Socialist Party and the Uhuru Movement (APSP) in Florida, Black Hammer in Georgia, and a political group in California.
Journalist Glenn Greenwald commented on the case, expressing concerns about implications of the indictment on freedom of speech and a potential effect on political activism. He alleged that American black leftist groups and activists were being charged with felonies in the cases, for posting memes and other political content against the war in Ukraine, allegedly on behalf of Russia.
Greenwald showcased a video of a Ukraine peace rally, featuring Omali Yeshitela, a leader of one of the groups.
Across the aisle, a recent conviction of a Donald Trump supporter for tweets made during the 2016 election, along with the current indictments on the left, suggest sanctions for certain political speech and expression, such as memes and tweets, may become more common.