Four years ago, one of the most outlandish aspects of Russia’s interference efforts centered on cultivating and inflaming separatist movements across the U.S., especially in places like Texas and California.
Now, it looks like it’s happening all over again.
Last week, YesCalifornia, the group leading the charge for California secession, announced on Twitter that it would be attending the third “Dialogue of Nations” conference, slated to be held next month. “YesCalifornia has been invited to and has accepted an invitation to attend the third international ‘Dialogue of Nations’ conference on building a multipolar world in which countries such as the Republic of California exist,” the group wrote, adding that the conference “is set to take place in April.”
The previous iterations of the conference, in 2015 and 2016, were hosted by a Kremlin-backed group called the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia, which was itself helmed by a Russian national named Alexander Ionov. Ionov confirmed to The Daily Beast that the California secessionists, pushing what they’ve dubbed “Calexit,” would attend the upcoming conference, scheduled for April 27. Ionov added that Louis Marinelli, the co-founder of YesCalifornia, would be in attendance. However, Ionov declined to say if other Americans—such as the groups from Texas, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii who attended previous conferences in Moscow—would also be joining. He also declined to say if representatives who’d previously joined from other regions, such as Scotland or northern Italy, would attend. “I won’t say,” he told The Daily Beast. “You’ll see after the conference.”
Ionov also said this conference would have a new home. Where the two previous secessionist conferences were held in Moscow, the upcoming shindig would instead be held in the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” a militarized chunk of eastern Ukraine still occupied by Russian-backed forces. (The State Department has specifically said that U.S. citizens should not travel to the occupied region, due to the fact that it is heavily militarized and overseen by brutal Russian proxies.) The region presents one of Russia’s most successful efforts at cultivating secessionist movements, with local militias relying solely on the Kremlin for their continued rule over, and pillage of, the region. YesCalifornia confirmed on Twitter this week that the conference will take place in Donetsk, saying the conference is “being organized by the Donetsk People’s Republic.”
YesCalifornia’s attendance at the upcoming conference is somewhat surprising, considering how much criticism the group received for its previous relations with Ionov and Russia’s broader 2016 interference efforts, which saw American secessionists travel back and forth from Moscow while fake Russian social-media accounts specifically targeted American separatist groups. One of Russia’s most popular fake accounts, the “Heart of Texas” Facebook page, accrued more than a quarter-million followers before it was removed, totaling more followers than the official Texas Democratic and Texas GOP pages combined in 2016—all while aiming squarely at Texas secessionists.
YesCalifornia group kicked off its “Calexit” efforts in earnest in 2016, when Marinelli traveled to Moscow to stump for breaking California off from the U.S., rubbing shoulders with Texas secessionists who’d also received Russian funding to travel to Moscow. By that point, Ionov’s Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia group had already begun receiving Kremlin backing, with Ionov himself having received a personal note of thanks from Russian President Vladimir Putin for “work[ing] to strengthen friendship between peoples[.]”
However, Russian links with the California separatist movement were far broader than just that 2016 conference. A few weeks before the 2016 election, YesCalifornia draped a banner in San Francisco, complete with a winking Putin, claiming that “California and Russia will always be friends!” Following the 2016 vote, KQED reported that Marinelli had worked with Russia’s Internet Research Agency troll factory to “raise awareness” for California secession. (YesCalifornia disputed KQED’s coverage, but the outlet stood by its reporting.) And shortly after Donald Trump’s victory, dozens of bots and sock-puppet accounts just so happened to suddenly begin pushing #Calexit on both Twitter and Medium.
Most notably, in early 2017 Marinelli—who had by then moved to Russia permanently, where he remains—announced the opening of the “Embassy of the Independent Republic of California,” with space provided rent-free by Ionov’s Kremlin-backed group, which he described as a “partner.” The “embassy,” according to Marinelli, came with the explicit aim of “gain[ing] Russian support for California independence.” One photo from the opening of the “embassy” included a volunteer wearing a Barack Obama mask while helping set up.
Following a rush of criticism for their links with Moscow, YesCalifornia’s “embassy” went dormant in late 2017. However, not only did Marinelli continue living in Russia, but, as documents obtained by The Daily Beast show, he continued communicating with California’s state government on official “Embassy of the Independent Republic of California, Moscow” letterhead through at least March 2019. At the time, Sacramento was investigating allegations that YesCalifornia had laundered foreign contributions. (The California state government ultimately cleared it of allegations that it had failed to properly report contributions and expenditures.) Marinelli specifically directed all official correspondence to the “embassy” in Moscow.
As such, it’s unclear if the “embassy” is officially closed, or if YesCalifornia has continued using rent-free space to operate from a Kremlin-backed group. YesCalifornia did not respond to The Daily Beast’s questions. However, YesCalifornia recently announced that it would be filing for a “new independence referendum” in August, so that “it is cleared for circulation on November 4, 2020—the day after [Trump] is reelected president.”
Ionov, meanwhile, has remained busy in his efforts at not only cultivating American secessionists, but has begun joining other prongs of Russia’s interference efforts. Last year, he became the official Russian spokesperson for Maria Butina, the Russian agent convicted for infiltrating the National Rifle Association while working with now-sanctioned Russian official Alexander Torshin. Ionov also helped raise funds on Butina’s behalf, alongside another Russian figure, Alexander Malkevich, who was himself sanctioned by the U.S. for aiding Russia’s online disinformation efforts.
Butina is now back in Russia, where she is helping Russia’s Commission for Human Rights publicize the “difficult situations” of Russian nationals abroad. Ionov—who recently posted video of a flag for the Texas Nationalist Movement, the leading Texas secession group, hanging in his office—said she would not be attending the upcoming conference.