US charges Russian oligarch, dismantles cybercrime operation

The Biden administration has charged a Russian oligarch with violating U.S. government sanctions and has disrupted a cybercrime operation launched by a Russian military intelligence agency, officials said Wednesday.

The action came as the Justice Department said it was accelerating efforts to track down illicit Russian assets and as U.S. prosecutors helped European counterparts gather evidence on potential war crimes committed by Russia during its war on Ukraine. FBI and Justice Department officials announced the moves as the U.S. separately revealed sanctions against the two adult daughters of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“We have our eyes on every dollar and jet. We have our eyes on every piece of art and real estate, purchased with dirty money and on every bitcoin wallet filled with proceeds of theft, and other crimes,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said. “Together with our partners around the world, our goal is to ensure that sanctioned Russian oligarchs and cyber criminals will not find safe haven.”

The indictment against Konstantin Malofeyev, a Russian media baron and founder of Russian Orthodox news channel, Tsargrad TV, is the first of an oligarch since the Russian invasion in February. The case accuses him of evading Treasury Department sanctions resulting from his financing of Russians promoting separatism in Crimea.

Though sanctions bar U.S. citizens from working for or doing business with him, Malofeyev hired an American television producer to work for him in networks in Russia and Greece and tried to buy a television network in Bulgaria, prosecutors said. Jack Hanick, a former CNBC and Fox News employee, was arrested last month for his work as a television producer for Malofeyev.

The Justice Department also announced that it had taken down a botnet — a network of hijacked computers typically used for malicious activity — that was controlled by the Russian military intelligence agency known as the GRU. The botnet was dismantled before it could cause any damage, said FBI Director Christopher Wray.

Wednesday’s announcements came two days after U.S. officials seized a huge yacht in Spain belonging to a Russian oligarch, Viktor Vekselberg, with close ties to Russian President Putin.

The Justice Department in the past year has taken aim against Russia-based cybercrime, recovering in June most of a multimillion-dollar ransom that Colonial Pipeline paid to hackers after a ransomware attack that halted operations. And the department announced charges last fall against two suspected ransomware operators.

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