As Russia expands its list of so-called “foreign agent” media outlets, slapping them with a label that hobbles their work, the journalists who staff them are doing what journalists anywhere do best -- investigating why their organizations were targeted and by whom.
There’s one name that occurs with growing frequency: Aleksandr Ionov.
Russia’s "foreign agent" dragnet has widened significantly in recent years, with almost all major independent media outlets in Russia being hit with the label that was first legalized in 2012.
Since then, it’s expanded to include not just media outlets, but some of Russia’s most prominent nongovernmental organizations, civil society groups, election monitors, rights activists, and individuals.
There are now dozens of entries on the Justice Ministry’s official ledgers.
This week’s additions include the news site Mediazona, and OVD-Info, a nonprofit that monitors police arrests nationwide.
Meduza, an independent news site based in Latvia, was hit with the designation in April.
Meduza said the label frightened off many of its advertisers, whose revenues the site relies on, and it was forced to launch a major crowdfunding campaign.
Meduza’s lawyers, meanwhile, found that court documents listed Ionov as the initiator of the complaint that led to the organization’s troubles.
“One of our reports offended Ionov so deeply that he decided to write a complaint about Meduza to Russia’s censorship agency, Roskomnadzor,” the outlet reported.
Who Is Ionov?
The founder of an obscure Moscow-based think tank called the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia, Ionov has long been seen as a freelance pro-Kremlin activist helping advance a government-backed war of attrition against perceived enemies.
He’s hardly a stranger to the spotlight.
In March 2019, The Atlantic magazine described Ionov’s group as an NGO “partly funded, but not directly controlled, by the Kremlin,” and noted that Ionov had been trying to promote fringe separatist movements in the United States since well before 2016.
In 2015, the organization hosted a conference in Moscow called “Dialogue of Nations” which brought together separatist groups from the United States, Europe, and Ukraine. News reports said the conference was funded by the National Charity Fund, a charity started in the late 1990s that gets money from major state-owned and public companies and oligarchs.
Ionov also raised around $30,000 in legal funds for Maria Butina, the Russian gun-rights activist who made inroads with American conservative politicians before she was convicted in 2018 for acting as an unregistered foreign agent. She returned to Russia after her release in October 2019, and recently was elected to the State Duma.
A letter from Putin thanking Ionov for his “work to strengthen friendship between peoples” hangs on the wall inside the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia's offices in Moscow, Vice reported.
Ionov, whose social-media feed is full of posts accusing Russian journalists, without clear evidence, of accepting Western grants for opaque political projects, said that he has no “personal hostility” toward journalists.
“I respect all journalists and I have no personal hostility” toward them, he told RFE/RL in a Facebook message.
“The journalists whom I and my colleagues…have focused on have received targeted grant funding from abroad. This is the money of taxpayers in the United States and Britain, as well as other EU countries,” he said.
Asked if he coordinates his efforts with the Kremlin, he responded: “I think the Kremlin has better things to do than coordinate any lists…with me."
Foreign Agents, Undesirable Organizations
Meduza subsequently reported that Ionov was behind a complaint that led the first “undesirable” designation of a university in Russia: Bard College, a liberal arts school in upstate New York with deep ties to a prominent St. Petersburg university.
The “undesirable” legal designation, established under a separate law parallel to the “foreign agent” law, is a similarly punitive label that almost always results in the closure of designated organizations.
Bard ultimately was outlawed by Russian prosecutors, who labeled it a “national security threat” and placed anyone affiliated with its partner institution in St Petersburg in legal jeopardy too.
In August, iStories, an investigative news outlet that had dug into high-level corruption in Russia, was designated a “foreign agent.” Meduza reported that Ionov was behind that as well.
But as the dragnet widens further, Ionov’s public statements suggest the trend is set to continue.
On September 29, state-owned channel RT reported that Ionov was appealing to prosecutors to declare prominent journalist Yelizaveta Osetinskaya, founder of business-focused news outlet The Bell, a “foreign agent.”
He had earlier called for the outlet itself to receive the same label.
“Osetinskaya’s company essentially received money from American tax-payers,” Ionov told the outlet in an interview, without giving details.
Osetinskaya did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
That same day on his Facebook page, where he regularly publishes what he says is his proof of Russian journalists’ nefarious intentions, Ionov posted an image of himself sitting before a desk at a laptop, a large tobacco pipe in his mouth.
“The investigation continues,” he wrote.