SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Part of a recently unsealed grand jury indictment in Florida revealed that a Russian agitprop puppeteer allegedly funded a CalExit protest held at the state Capitol in 2018 “for the stated purpose of sowing trouble in the United States”.
The protest, only mentioned in the indictment as “a protest on behalf of US Political Group 3”, was revealed to be a 2018 event organized by the Yes California PAC – a group that advocates for California to stand up. separated from the rest of the United States, according to records released by the California Highway Patrol.
The group, which originally had a few hundred volunteers, gained popularity after Donald Trump was elected in 2016. If the group were successful, 38 states and Congress would have to agree to amend the US Constitution and allow California to secede – a situation that analysts have called impossible.
The protest, held on the north side of the capital with a start time around 10:00 a.m. on February 14, 2018, was described by co-founder Marcus Evans as a signature-collecting event announcing the relaunch of the CalExit campaign.
“We will be collecting signatures for California’s declaration of independence from the United States,” Evans wrote when applying for the permit. It was later endorsed by CHP officer Debora Zaragoza.
On the other hand, the indictment of Russian national Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov – accused of working with the FSB to orchestrate a campaign of foreign influence to sow discord and interfere in the US elections – claims that the demonstration was the one of the many orchestrated by Ionov with the aim of harming the United States.
“Ionov allegedly orchestrated a brazen influence campaign, turning American political groups and American citizens into instruments of the Russian government,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen of the DOJ’s National Security Division said in a statement. “The Department of Justice will not allow Russia to illegally sow division and spread disinformation inside the United States.”
The indictment says Ionov contacted PAC founder Louis J. Marinelli, urging him to physically enter the governor’s office because the event was still in the planning stages. Ionov allegedly wired $500 to Marinelli to pay for the posters, later reporting to an FSB officer.
“On or about February 8, 2018, Defendant IONOV sent e-mail messages to FSB Agent 1, containing photographs that UIC-6 had sent to Defendant IONOV and informing FSB Agent 1 in Russian that the “posters” had been paid for, part of the indictment reads.
A day after the protest, which was completely peaceful, with no reported arrests or storming of the governor’s office, the FSB officer asked Ionov for photos of the event and complained that the rally was not not “a historic gathering in the parliament building”. He later urged Marinelli to get more photos and sent CalExit news articles to the FSB officer, recalling that the official had “asked for trouble” and replied with “there you go.”
Ionov also allegedly sent articles he wrote, filled with Russian propaganda, to Marinelli and others for publication in American media. Ionov allegedly recruited him to travel to pro-separatist conferences in Moscow funded by the Russian Federation and the Russian Anti-Globalization Movement. Other locations impacted by the sprawling influence campaign include Atlanta, Georgia, and St. Petersburg, Florida.
Ionov is currently facing one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of five years in federal prison.