How the indictment of Alexander Ionov is about more than Russian meddling
The FSB used Ionov's support of fringe secessionist movements to build a narrative for Russia’s domestic television audiences. That narrative helps the Kremlin justify the ongoing war in Ukraine.
The recent DOJ indictment handed down to Russian national Alexander (Sasha) Ionov is an important pushback against Russian efforts to meddle in the U.S. political system, as has been explained twice by John Schindler over at Top Secret Umbra. I won’t repeat the key points John already laid out, but I do think it’s worth covering in a bit more detail the relationship between Ionov and Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Ionov himself is no decision maker or some high-ranking official within the Kremlin’s inner circle. However, based on Ionov’s contacts with—according to the indictment—the unnamed FSB OFFICER 1, FSB OFFICER 2 and a RUSSIAN OFFICIAL, it seems Sasha’s only slightly down the food chain from individuals quite close to Putin. As has been previously reported, Ionov’s patronage has come in the form of funding from a Russian Presidential fund and support from the chief ideologue of the far-right, ultranationalist Rodina Party, Fedor or Fyodor Biryukov.
Looking through Ionov’s past travels and relationships, it’s clear that even though Sasha presented himself as an “anti-imperialist leftist” in the old KGB sense of the term, his benefactors are far-right Orthodox ultranationalists Orthodox ultranationalists who support Putin and want Russia to reclaim its great power status. These hardliners in Russia have long urged Putin to take military action abroad, believing in Russia’s strength and its right to reclaim old imperial (Tsarist) territories—none of which are more important than Ukraine. These individuals haven’t been hiding their ambitions. They’ve been saying all of this for years but only recently has the rest of the world decided to pay attention. Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion proved dismissing these hardliners a serious mistake. Thus, what I see with Sasha Ionov’s indictment is not only an effort by the U.S. government to push back on Russian meddling in the United States political process. It’s also another way in which the United States is hampering the Russian war effort in Ukraine—not on the battlefield but in the information environment. Allow me to explain.
Ionov’s base of support comes from the far-right, ultranationalist Rodina Party in Russia who have long advocated for war in Ukraine
Among his many endeavors, Alexander Ionov is on the board of the Russian Anti-Maidan organization, a group dedicated to preventing a popular uprising or, as they would call it, a “color revolution” in Russia that would threaten Putin’s regime. Russia’s Anti-Maidan was founded by right-wing political and media figures in the country such as Nikolai Starikov and Dmitry Sablin. The website for Ionov’s Anti-Globalization Movement has several mentions of Anti-Maidan activities. The site also has posts detailing Ionov’s activities with the far-right Russian political party Rodina, including interviews with the party’s chief ideologue Fedor Biryukov and a November 2016 conference in Moscow attended by Ionov, Biryukov and the chairman of Rodina, Alexei Zhuravlev.
The recent DOJ indictment of Ionov describes, in great detail, the cooperation and assistance provided by Ionov and the Russian FSB to the secessionist “Yes California” movement led by Louis Marinelli from Moscow. The indictment lays out what we long ago suspected—that a secessionist movement led by a man living in Russia had some assistance from the Russian government and its intelligence services. As such, it’s again predictable that both the California and Texas secessionist movements were promoted at various points by Russian trolls associated with the Internet Research Agency (IRA) owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin. What you may not know, however, is that Prigozhin is himself aligned with the far-right ultranationalist figures, though he seems less willing to flaunt this. In fact, when the Moscow Post reported that Prigozhin had used state funds from the St. Petersburg city budget to finance candidates in the Rodina party, Prigozhin threatened to sue and published articles to this effect on several IRA domains. In September 2020, Meduza also reported that "[p]olitical consultants associated with Evegeny Prigozhin— the catering magnate with alleged ties to mercenaries, troll factories, and Vladimir Putin — are campaigning for the “Rodina” political party’s nominees ahead of regional parliamentary elections in Russia’s Komi Republic." Additionally, the most popular IRA media site (Riafan[.]ru) published an exclusive interview with Ionov in 2019. Finally, Ionov appears to have coordinated some of his “antiglobalist” activities with Alexander Malkevich, another Prigozhin employee under U.S. Treasury sanctions.
The relationship between Rodina figures and other right-wing pro-Putin nationalists and the events that led up to the war in Ukraine is quite a long one. Rodina co-founder Sergey Glazyev was planning to foment unrest in multiple Ukrainian cities and ultimately occupy Ukrainian territory by 2011 at the latest. Glazyev would go on to fund and coordinate Russia’s illegal occupation and annexation of Crimea and Russian military efforts in the Donbass region of Ukraine. NewsFront, a pro-Kremlin media outlet founded by Konstantin Knyrik in Crimea while the Russian invasion was still ongoing, has operated in coordination with Russia's FSB and with the aforementioned Alexander Malkevich to carry out Russian disinformation operations. Knyrik is the chairman of Rodina’s regional committee in Crimea. News Front’s co-founder Mikhail Sinelin is Sergey Glazyev brother-in-law. Glazyev was one of the first to be placed under of U.S. sanctions on Russian nationals who provided material support to the Russian war effort in Ukraine. However, these sanctions lists included a plethora of right-wing figures in Russia, including another Rodina co-founder Dmitry Rogozin, Vladislav Surkov, Konstantin Malofeev, Aleksandr Dugin and others.
The far-right ultranationalists built a narrative to start and justify a war in Ukraine.
In a 2016 conference covered by the Spanish newspaper El Confidencial with the title 'Moscow courts Catalan and Basque independence fighters (among others)', Alexander Ionov is quoted as saying, "The conference also tries to help solve the problems in eastern Ukraine. The Western media portrays the Donetsk National Republic and the Lugansk People's Republic as if they were unique problems, and as if these republics were fighting against the federal government and therefore against democracy. But with this conference we show that they are not unique, that there are a lot of entities and regions that are fighting for their independence." This quote strikes at the core of Ionov’s actions and purpose. Though he has thrown his support behind various secessionist movements—California, Texas, Catalonia, Northern Ireland and so on—these remain fringe movements often with little practical chance of success or even much domestic support. The Kremlin is not delusional enough to believe they’ll succeed, or that one man’s direct involvement with fringe secessionist groups can indeed spur these movements toward a new political reality. Why then do they bother with this at all? Because, as Ionov himself said, he wants to show the world that what Russian state-run media claim is happening in Ukraine—a “Civil War” between ethnic Russians and Ukrainians—isn’t unique at all. It’s happening all over the world, you see, and here’s the proof!
What Ionov is selling here isn’t really secession. It’s a narrative for Russia’s domestic television audiences. It’s stories that reinforce what Russian citizens been told to believe is happening out in the world beyond their borders. If Russia’s actions in Ukraine aren’t unique or even a sign of aggression on the part of Moscow, the narrative of a “special operation” to protect “ethnic Russians” in a “Ukrainian Civil War” isn’t just easier to sell. It’s easier for ordinary Russians to support and rally behind—while simultaneously justifying the Russian death toll, financial hardships and isolation that come with that support.
It’s important to recognize the importance of narrative in Putin’s Russia.
The Russian state’s “managed democracy” as Surkov calls it is a clever euphemism for what is, in reality, stage-managed authoritarianism. Russia isn’t free but at times its people are meant to pretend they are. This is done through narrative. “Opposition figures” appear on the political scene that give the impression they’re against Putin while really directed by Russian intelligence until they lose an election that was already rigged anyway. But there is a taste of freedom there for the people, a way to vent a bit of steam and frustration. It’s all sound and fury, signifying nothing, but if you ask Surkov, I’d imagine he’d say something about at least Russia being honest about their dishonesty, unlike the West.
One narrative that the Kremlin loves to keep coming back to is also the moment when relations between the Bush White House and Putin’s regime began to sour. It has to do with the justification for launching Operation Iraqi Freedom and ousting Saddam Hussein from power. At the time of the invasion, the Russians maintained friendly-enough terms with Saddam and saw no need for his removal. Of course, the American invasion is now almost universally seen as a foreign policy disaster, but for the Kremlin, the invasion was an immediate turning point. Since 2003 and up to today, they have remained obsessed with the “narrative” that allowed the Bush administration to sell the war to the American public. That is, of course, the debunked claim of WMDs in Iraq. They weren’t there. The White House was wrong, but it was too late to do anything about it once everyone knew the truth. We were already in Iraq, and we tried and failed to pick up the pieces of a country which Saddam barely kept together himself.
I mention this because of the irony involved here. The Kremlin knows the Bush administration sold a false narrative to start a war, and they rarely miss an opportunity—either directly or through their media mouthpieces—to remind the world of this. However, the far-right figures in Russia today who surround and support Putin have proven themselves no different. They lied to the world. They lied to their people. They even lied to themselves. They falsely claimed that the Ukrainian government was run by a “Nazi-junta” backed by the CIA. They lied to their people about the “civil war” in Ukraine that is in reality has always been a Kremlin-backed military operation only half-heartedly posing as a “civil war”. Finally, they lied to themselves about how easy it would be to enter Ukraine, oust Zelensky’s democratically elected government and install their own pro-Russian candidates. Putin’s inner circle genuinely expected to be greeted as liberators. They bought into the narrative they were selling to the world so enthusiastically that they actually started to believe their own falsehoods had become reality. They did this through cut-outs like Sasha Ionov. The work he, and others like him, did for the Kremlin was not done expecting for California or Texas secede from the Union. It was done to make it look as if such things were possible. That chaos was everywhere. Instability could grip any part of the world as it had in Ukraine and a “civil war” wasn’t simply a story the Kremlin sold to chip away territory from its neighbors.
Details in Ionov’s indictment related to the Russian war in Ukraine
In the DOJ indictment's section labeled 'Background on Russian Foreign Influence Operations', the indictment notes that Russia's goals include "countering efforts to bring Ukraine and other former Soviet states into European and international institutions". The final section of the indictment focuses on Ionov’s role in rallying the groups he has financially and otherwise materially supported into putting out statements expressing support for Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine earlier this year. The groups mentioned in the indictment did as they were told, as one would expect. These messages of support were received by Russians and the “pro-Russian separatists” in the eastern region of Ukraine where Putin’s “special operation” has grown out of the initial 2014 invasion which was, in reality, support by the Kremlin from the beginning.
Ionov has falsely claimed, according to the indictment, “that anybody who supported Ukraine was also support Nazism and white supremacy.” Myself and many others have written about why this idea is wrong, but even more than wrong, it is the discussion itself, the fact-check motions we go through that are enough for the Kremlin to continue falsely stating what’s obviously false. That his and the groups under his sway sent these messages back to Russia is an important detail. The narrative Ionov was cultivating was not intended for mass consumption in the West. It’s clear now that supporting the Kremlin’s malign activities is a fringe idea that even its most ardent defenders purposely shy away from. Even the Aaron Mates, Glenn Greenwalds and Tucker Carlsons of the world don’t come out and tell their audience yes I’m repeating the Kremlin’s talking points verbatim, so what? They do at times repeat those talking points verbatim, but they shy away from stating this explicitly. In fact, they’ll act offended at the insinuation.
Again according to the indictment against Ionov, “On or about March 13, 2022, defendant IONOV spoke by video, with the assistance of a translator, at a video conference hosted by U.S. Political Group 1 concerning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, falsely stating that Nazis were in power in Ukraine and were killing innocent people, and that Russia had invaded Ukraine only to stop the killing of Russians by the Ukrainian army. IONOV later claims that ‘U.S. Political Group 1’ “had hosted a video conference watched by thousands of people during which participants expressed support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine.” Whether or not this happened sort of misses the point that what the FSB wanted were statements of support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. There was no expectation of swaying hearts and minds in the West. They wanted video evidence of “Western support” for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Why? So they could play and replay those messages on TV for a domestic audience. Russian citizens expect the American government to be against them, but American citizens expressing support for the “special operation” could give them hope, could it not?
Ionov was one man with a modest budget, and yet he gained plenty of headlines along the way.
Ionov did not give the groups mentioned in the DOJ indictment massive sums of money. If you look at the payments he was sending, they were in the hundreds or a few thousand dollars at irregular intervals spread out over several years. But then again, why would he do any more? How, exactly, was Louis Marinelli’s California secessionist movement meant to gain any sort of organic support among California citizens from Marinelli’s home in Moscow? Yet, he did enough to get a verified Twitter account and appear in some Western media articles all the same. That it is to say, he did enough to reinforce a narrative already being sold back home. Appearing to exist is all state-run media in Russia really need. Anything more than that really wasn’t worth paying for.
Surely, the Kremlin would like nothing better than for American infighting to ultimately result in an actual civil war with actual fighting in the streets. However, they must know the odds of this happening, even now, are not particularly high. Yet by promoting movements that encourage California or Texas to secede from the Union, the Kremlin can use those movements as a talking point for their domestic audiences. The ongoing “civil war” in Ukraine thus isn’t unique. It’s simply the climax of independence movements that exist in every country. In the Russian state-run media telling, Ukraine’s “Civil War” didn’t have to lead to Putin’s “special operation,” but it did because of American and NATO meddling. The Kremlin will continue to blame the West for their problems, big and small, but after his indictment, they’ll have to do so without Sasha Ionov’s international conferences. It’s no longer safe for him to export his narrative abroad.
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