Russian Legislator and Two Staff Members Charged with Conspiring to Have U.S. Citizen Act as an Illegal Agent of the Russian Government in the United States

Russian Legislator Aleksandr Mikhaylovich Babakov and Staff Members Aleksandr Nikolayevich Vorobev and Mikhail Alekseyevich Plisyuk, Allegedly Conspired to Violate U.S. Sanctions, Have a U.S. Citizen Act as an Unregistered Agent of Russia, and Fraudulently Obtain Visas to Enter the U.S. in Furtherance of a Global Foreign Influence Scheme for the Russian Government

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Three citizens of the Russian Federation (Russia) are charged in an indictment, which was unsealed today, with conspiring to use an agent of Russia in the United States without prior notice to the Attorney General, conspiring to violate U.S. sanctions and conspiring to commit visa fraud.

According to court documents, beginning in or around January 2012 through at least June 2017, Aleksandr Mikhaylovich Babakov, 59; Aleksandr Nikolayevich Vorobev, 52; and Mikhail Alekseyevich Plisyuk, 58, operated an international foreign influence and disinformation network to advance the interests of Russia.

“The indictment alleges that a high-ranking Putin-aligned legislator and his closest staffers, all three of whom are sanctioned, engaged in a global campaign to influence and gain access to U.S. elected officials,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division. “The Department will not hesitate to prosecute those who seek to covertly influence the American political process and evade U.S. sanctions.”

“Russian legislator Aleksandr Babakov and two of his staffers allegedly orchestrated a covert Russian propaganda campaign in the United States in order to advance Russia’s malevolent political designs against Ukraine and other countries, including the United States.,” said U.S. Attorney Damian Williams for the Southern District of New York. “Today’s indictment demonstrates that Russia’s illegitimate actions against Ukraine extend beyond the battlefield, as political influencers under Russia’s control allegedly plotted to steer geopolitical change in Russia’s favor through surreptitious and illegal means in the United States and elsewhere in the West. Such malign foreign interference will be exposed, and we will pursue justice against its perpetrators.”

“This FBI investigation highlights the lengths the Russian government will go to undermine our rule of law,” said Assistant Director Alan E. Kohler Jr. of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division. “The FBI is committed to protecting the United States from foreign malign influence and upholding the sanctions in place to keep our democracy safe.”

As alleged in the indictment, Babakov, a member of the Russian legislature, Vorobev, his Chief of Staff, and Plisyuk, another member of Babakov’s staff, used a nonprofit organization based in Russia, the Institute for International Integration Studies, as a front for this global foreign influence campaign to advance Russia’s foreign policy objectives. Through these operations aimed at influencing the course of international affairs, the defendants worked to weaken U.S. partnerships with European allies, undermine Western sanctions and promote Russia’s illicit actions designed to destroy the sovereignty of Ukraine. The defendants schemed to affect U.S. policy towards Russia through staged events, paid propaganda and the recruitment of at least one American citizen (CC-1) to do their bidding in an unofficial capacity and without notice to the Attorney General, as required by law. In pursuit of these goals, the defendants sought to co-opt U.S. and European politicians and to influence public opinion in their favor, using American and European citizens as their proxies to validate them, bring them access to power, evade sanctions and obscure their true objective to advance Russia’s foreign policy.

Among other things, the defendants contacted members of the U.S. Congress from 2012 into 2017 to seek meetings and to offer free travel to at least one Congressmember on behalf of Babakov, as well as other foreign officials aligned and associated with Babakov. For example, in 2012, at the direction of the defendants, CC-1 sought to secure a meeting for Babakov with multiple members of Congress, including by offering an “all expenses paid” trip to a particular Congressmember to meet with European politicians and receive “an award.” Congressmembers rebuffed these efforts.

In March 2017, the defendants sought to arrange a meeting for Babakov with a member of the U.S. Congress in pursuit of the objective of “strengthen[ing] the ties of cooperation between” Russia and the United States. To secure that meeting, the defendants, through CC-1, transmitted a letter drafted by CC-1 and signed by Babakov to a particular Congressmember.

Also in March 2017, the defendants contacted at least one member of the U.S. Congress to offer free travel to a Babakov-affiliated conference in Yalta, part of Russia-controlled Crimea, as a service to benefit the purported “Prime Minister of Crimea,” Sergey Aksyonov. Aksyonov was organizing and attending the conference, and had been sanctioned by the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) as a Specially Designated National (SDN) since 2014 based on his role in actions and policies threatening the sovereignty of Ukraine. The defendants worked together and with their associates to organize, facilitate and promote the Yalta conference, including by soliciting Americans to attend and present at the conference and receive funding from Aksyonov’s organizing committee, for the benefit of Akysonov and his Russia-backed purported government of Crimea. The Congressmember did not accept the offer.

In connection with these foreign influence activities, the defendants also submitted fraudulent visa applications in February 2017 seeking to travel to the United States under the false pretense of each traveling alone for a “vacation,” when in fact they planned to conduct unofficial meetings with U.S. politicians and advisors to further their influence objectives. In June 2017, OFAC sanctioned the three defendants as SDNs. The defendants’ visa applications were ultimately denied in January 2018, disrupting the defendants’ planned meetings in the United States.

Babakov currently serves as the Deputy Chairman of the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian legislature. From approximately September 2014 to October 2021, Babakov served as a member of the Russian Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian legislature, and therefore had the title of Senator. From approximately 2003 to 2014, Babakov served as a member of the State Duma, where he held prominent roles such as Chair of the State Duma Commission on Legislative Provisions for Development of the Military-Industrial Complex of the Russian Federation. In or around 2011, Babakov joined the United Russia party, which is the political party of Russian President Vladimir Putin. On or around June 17, 2012, Putin appointed Babakov to be the Russian Federation’s Special Representative for Cooperation with Organizations Representing Russians Living Abroad. Babakov has become a leader in the “For Truth” party formed in or about 2021, which supports Putin. At all times relevant to the indictment, Vorobev has held the position of Chief of Staff for Babakov, and Plisyuk has served on Babakov’s staff.

Babakov, Vorobev and Plisyuk are charged with one count of conspiring to have a U.S. citizen act as a Russian agent in the United States without notifying the Attorney General, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison; one count of conspiring to violate and evade U.S. sanctions, in violation of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison; and one count of conspiring to commit visa fraud, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

The case is being investigated by the FBI’s New York Field Office with valuable assistance provided by the National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Kimberly J. Ravener and Kyle A. Wirshba for the Southern District of New York are prosecuting the case, with assistance from Trial Attorney Scott Claffee of the National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section.

On March 2, the Attorney General announced the launch of Task Force KleptoCapture, an interagency law enforcement task force dedicated to enforcing the sweeping sanctions, export restrictions and economic countermeasures that the United States has imposed, along with allies and partners, in response to Russia’s unprovoked military invasion of Ukraine. The task force will leverage all the Department’s tools and authorities against efforts to evade or undermine the economic actions taken by the U.S. government in response to Russian military aggression.

An indictment is merely an allegation, and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.