Russia "exercised direction or control" over the California secession movement, a federal indictment says.
A Russian national with ties to the FSB is accused of providing funds and advice to the group.
The group's founder has not been charged with a crime and denies wrongdoing.
At a 2018 rally in Sacramento, hundreds of Californians called for a national divorce, citing "irreparable and irreconcilable differences."
"Ultimately, the best people to govern California are us Californians," Louis Marinelli, the founder of the secessionist group Yes California, told the newspaper The Script.
Marinelli, a right-wing activist who previously campaigned against LGBTQ rights, framed California nationhood in terms of competing values — and, at the time, said he'd had a change of heart on issues such as gay rights (his Twitter timeline, today, has reverted to largely conservative causes). In a country led by President Donald Trump, this liberal bastion, he said, should not have to answer to reactionaries in Washington, DC.
It was a cause he cared so much about that he left his home in Yekaterinburg, some 1,000 miles outside Moscow, to fight for it.
"I enjoyed my life in Russia," Marinelli told The Sacramento Bee, "but something I care deeply about is California independence."
According to a federal indictment unveiled Friday, Russian intelligence officers also cared deeply about West Coast secession — as part of an effort to destabilize the United States.
The indictment focuses on Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov, a resident of Moscow and head of the "Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia," Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen said in a statement. Prosecutors alleged he worked with at least three Russian officials on a "brazen influence campaign, turning US political groups and US citizens into instruments of the Russian government," Olsen wrote.
That effort involved hosting government-funded conferences in Russia, inviting secessionists from around the globe, as well as providing "financial support, consulting, instruction and promotion in Russia media outlets" to separatist movements in the US.
The indictment does not identify who in particular took part in this influence campaign. It states that at least one US citizen was aware that Ionov's group was tied to the Russian government. No American has been charged with a crime related to the case.
But the indictment did provide strong clues. It identified the leader of the secession movement as "UIC-6" — meaning an unindicted coconspirator — "who resided in Russia and California," and described the organization they founded as "US Political Group 3," which was focused on California secession, according to the indictment.
This person, it stated, was in contact with Ionov regarding a 2018 rally "at the California Capitol building in Sacramento, California," and in their correspondence mentioned "the possibility of providing funding for the event."
According to prosecutors, Ionov reviewed designs for posters and encouraged the group's leader to embrace protest tactics that could lead to violence.
In an email, sent in Russian, Ionov urged the leader of the group "to physically enter the governor's office," which in 2018 was occupied by the Democrat Jerry Brown.
He then wired the person $500 to pay for the posters, as he later confided in an FSB officer, per the indictment.
The group did not end up storming the governor's office, as Ionov later lamented. In a message to its leader, the Russian national complained that the event had not amounted to a "historic" rally "IN THE PARLIAMENT BUILDING." But he did request photos of the event that he passed on to an FSB officer, writing that the latter had requested "turmoil" and "there you go."
Marinelli, who now resides in Arkansas, has denied any wrongdoing and said he is no longer associated with the California secessionist movement.
Speaking to Insider, he noted that his name does not appear in the indictment.
"However, sure, if it's me they are referring to, then I would first point out that their own press release states at the bottom that these are all unproven allegations," Marinelli said. He denied that Ionov "exercised direction and control" over Yes California, asserting also that the group "didn't benefit from any tangible support."
"I also object to the allegation that Ionov provided funds for the event," he said, declining to address the specific charge that posters for the event were paid for by the Russian national. He went on to say he did not try to enter the governor's office, per Ionov's suggestion — rather, he just had his picture taken with the bear statue that was outside it.
"I went into the Capitol and posed there just like all other visitors to the Capitol do," he said. "All Californians know the governor's actual office is guarded by the state police and no one would try to 'physically enter' without permission."
But while Marinelli denies receiving any funds for his actions in the US, he has indeed accepted support from Ionov before — at least when he was still abroad. The New York Times reported in 2017 that a Russian group known as the Anti-Globalization Movement "offered him office space in Moscow to open an 'embassy' of California in Russia, and Mr. Marinelli accepted."
According to the indictment, the identity of "UIC-6" is known to a federal grand jury. But Marinelli said he had not yet been contacted by law enforcement.
"I would be happy to provide some additional context to and information regarding the affairs of Alexander Ionov and will be willing to do so if I am contacted by the federal government," he said. "As of this moment, however, I have not been contacted."
Ionov, meanwhile — the only person charged with a crime — faces up to five years in prison, the US Department of Justice said, on suspicion of conspiring to have US citizens "act as illegal agents of the Russian government."
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