A month ago, there were reports in the Russian and American media that the FBI was investigating the activities of the Coordination Council of Organizations of Russian Compatriots in the US, reports that the FBI neither confirmed nor denied but that Moscow insisted were part of a US effort to close down the group.
In fact, the FBI did speak with some members of the group; but it did not move to shut it down. However, it has now come out that the organization, the product of ordinary émigré activities prior to 2014, was purged by Moscow because its then-leaders refused to support Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and became a branch office of the Russian propaganda machine.
Igor Baboshkin, who led the group prior to 2014, tells Radio Liberty’s Vladimir Abarinov what happened, a classic example of Moscow’s heavyhandedness which may have won the Kremlin some short-term support but is costing it any loyalty over the longer term.
Baboshkin beginning in the early 2000s was an activist in the Russian community in Staten Island in New York. He put together a group called the American Brotherhood of Russian Invalids and also the Russian-American Council of Staten Island, one of the five boroughs of the city and one whose population is now just under four percent ethnic Russian.
The groups, as is the case with most émigré operations, drew both support and criticism. But until 2014, they operated largely on their own, working with Moscow to deal with consular issues like passports but not being under anyone’s control. When Dmitry Medvedev was president of Russia, that was fine with Moscow; when Putin returned, things changed, he says.
In 2014, when Putin invaded Ukraine, the Kremlin demanded that the American group sign a letter in support of Russian actions. Baboshkin, then head of it, refused, declaring that the letter was full of falsehoods about the Russian operation in Crimea and the Donbas. Other Russian organizations abroad signed, but not the umbrella one in the US.
Moscow was furious and told Baboshkin that if he didn’t sign, Moscow would ensure that he would no longer be in control of the group. That message was delivered by a Russian diplomat at the Permanent Representation of the Russian Federation to the United Nations as well as both foreign ministry officials in Moscow.
In August 2014, Moscow orchestrated a conference of the umbrella organization and via various electoral shenanigans forced out Baboshkin and the entire leadership that had been in place up until then. The Russian government got what it wanted and four years later at another congress of the group, Moscow tightened its grip.
As a result what had been a genuine émigré organization became something else entirely, a branch office of Moscow’s propaganda machine, Baboshkin says. Thus it is hardly surprising that the American government would be interested in its operations now.