On July 29, 2022, the United States Department of Justice unsealed an indictment charging Russian national Alexander Viktorovich Ionov with acting as an unregistered foreign agent on behalf of Russia, and conspiring to have “U.S. Citizens act as illegal agents of the Russian government” between December 2014 and March 2022. While the maximum penalty for this crime is five years of imprisonment, the implications of this conspiracy are significant, as the indictment alleges that Ionov was in contact with, and working on behalf of, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) members during this period. Ionov, and his various affiliated organizations, have since been sanctioned by the United States for his activity.
This week’s Overwatch investigates the conspiring activities of Ionov and U.S. Political Groups 1, 2, and 3, as listed in the unsealed indictment. Subsequent actions by the United States government, along with context clues within the indictment, allow analysts to identify the groups conspiring as agents of the Russian government, as well as understand their structure, content, and strategy of Russian influence operations in the United States.
Alexander Ionov and the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia
Alexander Ionov’s website describes him as the President of the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia (ADR) since 2011. The ADR is described as “a socio-political movement that advocates ensuring the full sovereignty of the states of the world and, above all, the sovereignty of Russia itself as an independent player in the political, economic and cultural arena of the world.” Additionally, according to his website, Ionov is involved in several other businesses and groups, including being a member of the Presidium of All-Union Organization “Officers of Russia,” a Member of the Coordinating Council of the Anti-Maidan Movement, and Vice President of the International Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, among others. Interestingly, the “Anti-Maidan Movement” is an anti-Ukrainian, pro-Russian Republic group that was started in response to Ukrainian action against separatists and Russian activity in the east of the country, which culminated in the ongoing war today.
Ionov’s activity has not been contained to separatist and left-leaning movements as the indictment would seem to convey; his interest also breached into traditionally right-leaning, non-governmental organizations (NGOs). For example, in 2018, Ionov and the ADR started a fund for Russian agent Maria Butina, who had been charged with acting as an unregistered agent for the Russian government. Butina had used the NRA (National Rifle Association) to establish back channels to American political figures and power brokers. This action denotes a broader coalition between unregistered foreign agents working on behalf of Russia, not defined by ideology but by a shared goal of Russian influence.
For this brief, analysts focused on activities associated with the ADR. The group’s website shows “honorary members,” such as the Dictator of Syria, Bashar Hafez Al-Assad, and the President of Iran from 2005-2013, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Further review of the site indicates little activity since 2015, but that is not a reflection of the organization’s activities or the activities of Ionov.
Ionov and the ADR hosted conferences called: the Dialogue of Nations – the right to self-determination and constructing a multipolar world in 2015, 2016, and 2020. In 2015 and 2016, the conferences were in-person events held in Russia, while the 2020 event was virtual due to COVID. Conference participants ranged from Texas Separatists, Puerto Rican Separatists, Eastern Ukrainian Separatists, and Northern Irish political groups looking to break away from the United Kingdom and rejoin Ireland. A post from Alexander Ionov’s Facebook page includes a list of 19 speakers for the 2020 conference. Among the participants are U.S. Political Group 1, 2, and 3 leaders.
During the first conference in 2015, the Department of Justice (DOJ) indictment alleges that Ionov paid for and first established, contact with the Uhuru Movement. Ionov likely established his connection to the Yes, California movement at one of these annual events.
Since the indictment and raid on the Uhuru, recent posts by Ionov have focused on combatting statements made in the indictment and defending the Uhuru Movement. Examples of these posts can be seen below, attempting to spin the arrests as an unjust targeting of African Americans by the FBI.
Having gained some understanding of how Ionov first established contact with the unnamed groups in question, Overwatch analysts found it pertinent to explore these groups’ backgrounds in further detail and survey their digital content.
U.S. Political Group 1 is described in the indictment as a group out of St. Petersburg, Florida. The indictment alleges that Ionov helped the group facilitate a trip to Russia in 2015, exercise direction and control over senior members for seven years, fund protests, and most shockingly, fund and help supervise 2017 and 2019 local elections in which the group ran candidates.
The group has since been identified as the Uhuru movement, an African Internationalist Movement founded in 1972 and tied to the African People’s Socialist Party (APSP), headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri and St. Petersburg, Florida. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) subsequently raided this group, and key leaders were arrested the same day the indictment was released.
The Uhuru movement is an international organization and a branch of the African People’s Socialist Party, led by chairman Omali Yeshitela, also known as Joe Waller. The organization’s website lists the movement’s goal as “…uniting African people as one people for liberation, social justice, self-reliance, and economic development.” Even though the organization has been around since the 1970s, a review of the group’s digital content shows that it only began publishing and pushing content overtly friendly to Russian interests starting in 2015, when the now chairman Omar Yeshitela went to the first Dialogue of Nations conference hosted by Ionov.
Early posts between 2015 and 2018 on Yeshitela’s personal Facebook page and his organization’s Twitter and Facebook accounts feature content that juxtaposes the lack of police brutality against Africans in Russia compared to the U.S., features multiple pictures with Ionov, and posts declaring solidarity with the ADR.
More recent content, specifically since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, has overwhelmingly defended Russian action. These posts criticized North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), painted Russian aggression as a defensive war, and played into the narrative that Ukrainian fighters are U.S.–backed Nazis targeting Africans and Russians. Outside of Facebook, many of these narratives have been pushed during livestreams published on the Group’s YouTube channel, The Burning Spear TV. Ionov has made multiple appearances on the channel, including an interview with Ionov on March 13, 2022.
This content has even been shared to other non-related groups, such as the Dr. M.L.K. March For Racial Equality, Economic Justice, and Peace Facebook group, most likely to spread Russian-backed narratives to a broader Africa-American audience.
Since the indictment and arrest, the Uhuru Movement has posted multiple times on social media, demanding the FBI back off their organization. A press conference after the arrests featured the organization’s spokesperson reaffirming the group’s support of Russia but refused to comment on whether they received illegal funds from Ionov.
U.S. Political Group 2 is described as an Atlanta-based political group for whom Ionov allegedly sent money to protest Meta/Facebook for their restrictions on Russian posters. They were identified as the Black Hammer Movement, a cult-like offshoot of the Uhuru Movement.
Black Hammer was started by the Uhuru’s former Secretary General Gazi Kodzo. Before his time at Uhuru, analysts identified that Kodzo went by the alias Smiletone, posting blogs and photos about his life and various parties in Atlanta and Los Angeles. Kodzo’s first overtly political post discovered by analysts was in 2012 and focused on the perceived disparity between the money given to Israel and the lack of money given to African Americans by the U.S. government. Between 2014 and 2015, Kodzo moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, and became involved in the Uhuru movement. During his time with Uhuru, Kodzo was active in the St. Petersburg area, protesting at council meetings, organizing marches supporting Black Lives Matter, and posting videos protesting police brutality. Kodzo’s affiliation with the group officially ended in 2018, and according to videos posted by Kodzo, he separated due to corruption and misuse of funds within the Uhuru Movement.
After leaving Uhuru, Kodzo started the Black Hammer organization in Atlanta, and the group devolved into a cult-like organization, with Kodzo as its leader. The group went on to run digital campaigns against police brutality and injustices faced by African Americans to bolster their brand and drive fundraising and recruitment. Many of these campaigns were meant to manufacture controversy through hashtags such as #2BFrank, belittling the tragedy of the Holocaust. Additionally, the group attempted to start a breakaway city in Colorado called Hammer City, only to reveal that the group was squatting on the land after failing to purchase the property officially.
In addition to these campaigns, Black Hammer also made several posts supporting Russia and Russian action in Ukraine. In a video titled “Happy Victory Day to Russia!” posted to Commander Gazi’s YouTube Channel on May 9, 2022, viewers can see members of Black Hammer waving a Russian flag in front of the CNN building in Atlanta, Georgia. A second video was posted to the channel on May 22, 2022, featuring Black Hammer members protesting in front of the Meta building in California, waving a Russian flag again. On Facebook, Kodzo made a post in April claiming Vladimir Putin had shouted out the group after they formed a “Z” in support of the Russian military and their action in Ukraine. This story was picked up by Russian State media, suggesting some level of coordination.
Four months later, Kodzo and another member of Black Hammer were arrested on July 21, 2022, for charges not associated with the Ionov indictment. Since the arrest and the indictment of Ionov, Black Hammer social media has continued to consistently post statements by Kodzo from jail and posts supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Finally, U.S. Political Group 3 is described as a California-based group whose goal is the secession of California from the United States. This group is easily identified as the Yes, California Movement. The indictment alleges that Ionov helped fund a February 2018 protest by the group in Sacramento, California.
Yes, California is an organization started around 2015 by right-wing activist turned California Secessionist, Louis J. Marinelli. Marinelli first appeared on the political scene in 2015 when he ran for California State Assembly on a platform of California Independence for the United States. Before that, Marinelli had lived and studied in Russia since 2006, moving back sometime in the early 2010s. Marinelli has since moved back to Russia, though he remains active in the Yes, California organization acting as their “ambassador” and representative in the country.
The movement and Marinelli have been featured in news stories posted to Russia Today, a Russian State-controlled new organization funded by the Russian government. Stories featuring the group, often in conjunction with Texas Separatist groups, started as early as 2016 and seemed to have continued up to about 2018. This, along with Marinelli’s Russian background, his and the group’s participation in Ionov’s conferences, and the opening of a “California Embassy” in Russia, would be enough to begin posing questions about Russia’s interest and influence when it comes to the organization. Still, reviewing the content paints an even stronger association between the group and Russian interests.
The group’s content regarding Russia displays a pattern of support for Russian action against Ukraine and general participation in Russian-backed events. In 2020, for example, the group tweeted that it would be attending the Dialogue of People’s conference, noting that the Donetsk People’s Republic was organizing it. Around the same time, the group’s Facebook page supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea, pointing out U.S. hypocrisy after it seized California and other territories during the Mexican-American War.
Yes, California’s support of Russian objectives did not limit itself to support only Russian action in Crimea. In 2021 the group tweeted that Martinelli was attending a conference led by the Union of Yemeni Citizens in Moscow, as well as a tweet and video criticizing Western Sanctions against Russia.
Overwatch analysts could not locate further tweets on Yes, California associated with Russia or Russian narratives, and analysts could not locate any statement following the indictment.
As a result of the investigation outlined above, Overwatch assesses Russian information operations in the United States span across group type, goal, political affiliation, age, and structure. Russian influence seems to withstand internal group fracture, with group offshoots continuing their relationship with Russian agents. Further, we assess that Russian influence operations will continue targeting existing fracture points in U.S. society. Whether those fractures are economic, social, or political does not matter as they all contribute to the overall goal of instability and, as a byproduct, paralysis when countering foreign adversaries.
Additionally, while national election interference often makes headlines, interference in smaller local elections rarely seems to be a concern when talking about potential interference. However, within these smaller ecosystems, information operations can be most effective in terms of results and swinging local elections. This is because an information operation contained in a niche group or locale can go mainstream somewhat organically, adding a level of subterfuge that would not otherwise be present in a more extensive information operation.
Finally, we assess that because of this indictment and potential arrests made in the wake of it; we will likely see Russian information operations become more covert in nature, eschewing high-profile influencers like Ionov for more covert means of contact with a targeted group.