I’ve been trying to track the US government’s efforts to rein in Russia via various kinds of lawfare.
The indictment unsealed yesterday against Aleksandr Babakov is a remarkable example of the form.
To understand why, let me first explain what I imagine the goals of US lawfare in response to the expanded Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Since the Russian invasion, a number of Western countries have been rolling up Russian intelligence networks and expelling people serving under diplomatic cover by declaring them persona non grata under suspicion of spying. Whereas normally spooks would let other spooks carry on their work so they could spook on other spooks, there seems to have been a decision among most US allies to roll up Russia’s networks, perhaps with twin goals of blinding Russia and cleansing their countries of Russia’s formidable influence networks, which persuaded many in Western countries to trade principle for cash.
That is happening at the same time the West has been trying to craft sanctions to target people powerful enough to influence Vladimir Putin’s thinking.
The series of indictments — variably charging influence-peddling crimes (Foreign Agent and/or FARA), violations of sanctions imposed in response to Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, and visa fraud — have exposed past influence peddling and raised the legal costs to Americans to continue to be a party. But the only American charged for providing cover for such operations so far — Jack Hanick — was actually charged in November and arrested before Russia expanded its invasion (though the indictment of Andrey Murviev was tied to already-existing charges against Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman).
So it might seem like these indictments are just speaking vehicles: a way for DOJ to make evidence against Russians public, without any real legal impact. But this Babakov indictment demonstrates that’s not the case. This indictment, and the campaign generally, does the following:
- Continues to flesh out Russia’s efforts to use its diaspora networks to illegally exert political pressure in other countries
- Charges Aleksandr Babakov, making it impossible for him to travel if Russians ever get the opportunity to travel again
- Demonstrates the cultivation of specific members of Congress
- Puts the American involved — identified here as CC-1 — on notice they have to register past lobbying under FARA
One more detail before I explain the indictment. Remember that there are two overlapping foreign influence peddling laws, which are often confused (because both Michael Horowitz and John Durham fucked this up, I picked a fight with Peter Strzok to call attention to the distinction last night, but Brandon Van Grack, under whom these cases were surely developed, agrees with me.). [Update: I should clarify. This indictment is charged as an 18 USC 371 conspiracy to get an American to commit 18 USC 951, not 951 directly.]
There’s 18 USC 951, acting as an unregistered Agent of a foreign country, which is what is charged here. To be charged, it requires the influence peddling to have been done on behalf of a foreign government. It does not require knowledge of the requirement to register with the Attorney General. By contrast, FARA (22 USC 611), does require that the person peddling foreign influence know they need to register. But it can apply more broadly, to include “foreign principals,” like an oligarch who is not a part of a foreign government. Prosecutions under FARA were rare before Robert Mueller discovered that foreigners were asking agents like Mike Flynn and Paul Manafort to lie to their lawyers about whom they were actually working for. But generally, before that, DOJ would just formally alert someone they needed to register, the person would back-date a FARA registration, and they’d carry on with their sleazy influence-peddling.
So (in addition to sanctions violations and visa fraud) this indictment charges Babakov and two staffers with conspiring to recruit an American — CC-1 — to serve as their unregistered proxy for influence-peddling. The reason I call this a matryoshka doll is because this is how the influence-peddling worked.
As the indictment lays out, Babakov has three jobs. The first is to be a member of the Duma — and he was a member of the Duma for the entire period covered by the indictment, which is why DOJ can charge this under 951. The second and third are serving as the head of two cover organizations, the Institute for International Integration Studies and the International Council of Russian Compatriots. The funding for the two European consultants (their nationality is unclear) involved in this scheme — CC-2 and CC-3 — was paid through IIIS. Babakov recruited CC-1, the American whose involvement allows 951 to be charged — through CC-2. And it was through CC-1 that Babakov attempted to forge ties with members of Congress.
The reason this matryoshka structure matters is because it’s possible CC-1 did not know the extent to which he was working on behalf of the Russian government. CC-1 is described as someone who lives in NYC and has experience “relating to international relations and media.” This could well be a journalist and I don’t rule out knowing him personally. A footnote describes that the communications in the indictment are translations, so CC-1 appears to communicate with CC-2 and CC-3 in a non-English language, but it is not necessarily Russian. CC-2 first solicited CC-1’s involvement on a “national campaign” tied to “human rights and the cause of Cuba.” So it was based on that — an interest in helping Cuba, not an interest in helping Russia — that CC-1 first started pitching meetings with one of two targets described as a “then-member of the U.S. House of Representatives.” From there, CC-3 started sucking CC-1 in with free trips to Europe and Russia.
Via that recruitment process, CC-1 came to be introduced to and serve as the instrument for Babakov’s own views — views that are still quite familiar on the horseshoe left, which may well be the politics this person holds.
At around this time, ALEKSANDR MIKHAYLOVICH BABAKOV, the defendant, publicly expressed his support for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “approaches to building the country’s foreign policy priorities, including the prospects for developing relations with the United States,” blaming “instability” of the U.S.-Russia relationship on “well-known stereotypes and phobias, as well as the absence of a solid economic foundation,” and “destructive steps in the field of missile defense, NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] expansion to the East.”
Years later, as they were ratcheting up this effort in 2017, the Russians would use CC-1 as an American cut-out.
[T]he defendants planned to deploy CC-1 to obtain meetings in the United States with individuals perceived to have political influence, and to use CC-1’s status as an American citizen to help them gain access to visas to travel to the United States for these meetings, all in furtherance of the defendants’ foreign influence operations.
In 2017, CC-1 helped draft some letters to a second then-member of Congress in an attempt to set up a meeting with Babakov, including to invite the Congressperson on an all-expenses paid trip to Crimea.
The lines they pushed in 2017 were the same ones we hear from the horseshoe left now: recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and,
elaboration of issues of further reduction of nuclear potentials and confidence-building measures in the military sphere, including with regard to NATO’s policy in Eastern Europe and the problem of building up conventional weapons near Russia’s borders.
Let me be clear: This pitch feels familiar to me because I’ve experienced it first-hand. From 2013 until 2018 — until the time I revealed I had gone to the FBI about someone — I would get such pitches. I’m sure the US government considers Snowden’s Freedom of the Press Foundation to be such a cover organization — indeed, Xeni Jardin quit its board over its ties to Russia — and I received funding from them for several years (though always with the understanding that I was being funded by a specific, named American). And a slew of my friends in the dissident left or civil liberties community would get such pitches, as well, many with travel and some with lucrative business opportunities attached. Some of my former associates who most loudly disputed the Russian attribution of the 2016 operation did so after getting such pitches. This happens all the time. And many of the people to whom it happens are the last people the US government would provide counterintelligence training or warnings to in advance. Many are also the kind of people who would ignore government warnings if they were given any. I probably would have when I was getting such pitches.
To be clear, CC-1 is not free from blame. When the person was pitching meetings with three members of Congress in 2012, he claimed to be the “‘President and CEO’ of a nonprofit organization” inviting the members to Europe. CC-1 remained involved after Russia’s puppet in Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov, was sanctioned in the 2014 Ukraine-related sanctions.
For example, on or about March 18, 2014, the day after Aksyonov’s OFAC designation, CC-1 posted a photo on a social media website of Aksyonov standing alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin, and directed the post to VOROBEV, CC-2, and CC-3. Several weeks later, CC-1 made another post referencing a news article regarding “the new US sanctions on Russia.”
After those sanctions, CC-1 continued to pitch Russia’s line on Ukraine — again, a view that is still familiar among the horseshoe left.
[O]n or about May 1, 2014, CC-1 contacted the head of an American internet publication via email and asserted that he had “access to Crimean officials and other pro-Russian officials in Eastern Ukraine willing to go on the record to denounce US interference in the region and to give specifics about it.” CC-1 cited his ties to “[Country-1] MPs and also members of the Russian Duma,” that is, ALEKSANDR MIKHAYLOVICH BABAKOV, the defendant.
The last overt act CC-1 took, at least as described in the indictment, was on April 10, 2017. And while this indictment was unsealed on April 14, 2022 (and so days beyond a five years statute of limitations) it was filed on April 7, a few days short of it.
So it’s unclear whether the government will use this indictment to force CC-1 to retroactively register his lobbying efforts in 2017 under FARA, or whether there was another indictment filed on April 7 we haven’t seen yet. There’s also no description of CC-1 receiving money or other benefits (such as free travel) after the time when these people started getting sanctioned, so it’s unclear whether CC-1 faces a sanctions violation himself.
DOJ is not revealing what legal impact this indictment will have on CC-1 (or a businessman the effort recruited in 2017, or other American targets alluded to in passing), which may have been done to permit for the possibility of cooperation.
What it will do is force CC-1, whoever he is, to account for the fact that his support for carving up Ukraine was not organic, but instead was part of an extended effort by Russia to turn him into a spokesperson for the Russian state.
Update: The June 2017 sanctions against Babakov and his aides are pretty interesting. He appears, without much explanation, along with Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s front companies.
Today’s action also targets six individuals and entities pursuant to E.O. 13661, which authorizes sanctions on, among others, any individual or entity that is owned or controlled by, or that has provided material or other support to, persons operating in the arms or related materiel sector in the Russian Federation, and officials of the Government of the Russian Federation.
Molot-Oruzhie, OOO manufactures ordnance and accessories and is located in the Russian Federation. In 2016, previously-designated Kalashnikov Concern advised a foreign company to use Molot-Oruzhie, OOO to falsify invoices in order to circumvent U.S. and EU sanctions. Molot-Oruzhie is being designated for operating in the arms or related material sector of the Russian Federation and for acting or purporting to act for on behalf of, directly or indirectly, Kalashnikov Concern.
Limited Liability Company Concord Management and Consulting and Concord Catering are being designated for being owned or controlled by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, who OFAC designated in December 2016.
Alexander Babakov is the Russian Federation’s Special Presidential Representative for Cooperation with Organizations representing Russians Living Abroad. Babakov was sanctioned in 2014 by the EU, which noted that he voted “yes” on a Russian bill for the annexation of Crimea. Alexander Babakov is being designated as an official of the Government of the Russian Federation.
Aleksandr Vorobev is Alexander Babakov’s Chief of Staff. Aleksandr Vorobev is being designated for acting or purporting to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, Alexander Babakov.
Mikhail Plisyuk is a staffer to Alexander Babakov. Mikhail Plisyuk is being designated for acting or purporting to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, Alexander Babakov.
It’s as if the US had already developed a pretty good sense that Babakov was running an information operation. And it makes me wonder if he had a role in 2016.