A Russian who tried to lure Scottish nationalists to Moscow has been formally linked to Vladimir Putin’s secret police.

Seven years ago Aleksandr Ionov told this newspaper that he was in talks to bring Yessers to an all-expenses-paid “summit of separatists”.

Now, in the most compelling evidence yet of direct Kremlin attempts to meddle in Scottish politics, Ionov has been accused by American prosecutors of working for the successor agency of the KGB.

The Russian’s efforts to get members of the SNP and other pro-independence groups to Moscow ended in complete failure. His summit was shunned by Scottish nationalists, who saw the Putin regime as politically toxic.

However, Ionov did succeed in attracting interest from the less significant separatists of California and Texas. And this put him firmly on the radar of the US authorities.

Late last month he was formally charged with illegally interfering in American politics.

“Ionov allegedly orchestrated a brazen influence campaign, turning U.S. political groups and U.S. citizens into instruments of the Russian government,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen, announcing the prosecution.

Crucially, the indictment details Ionov’s direct links to the Federal Security Service of FSB, successor agency of the KGB. The Russian, the Americans said, was answerable to at least three FSB officials.

Ionov last week denied the charges at a press conference in Moscow where local media described him as a “human rights defender”. He said the American charges were a witch-hunt against US figures who have pro-Russian or “balanced” positions. American separatist parties - which tend to be politically inconsequential - also deny Russian links.

Formally, Ionov leads a non-governmental organisation called the Anti-Globalisation Movement of Russia or AGMR.

This body back in 2015 - around a year after Putin first launched his war on Ukraine - announced a congress of international separatist groups, some serious, many less so.

Un-named Scottish nationalists were initially billed as attending, alongside representatives of Kremlin proxy republics in de-facto occupied eastern Ukraine, or “New Russia” as this area was sometimes then called by pro-Putin figures, This looked like an attempt to legitimise the unrecognised statelets of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas.

A headline in Pravda back in 2015 set out the stall for the event.

"Texas, New Russia, Catalonia and Scotland will fight for their independence from Moscow," it said.

This newspaper asked Ionov to give details of Scottish attendees. "We are conducting negotiations with our Scottish partners from three organisations. I can say that the party [SNP] is one of them,” he said.

"The Anti-Globalisation Movement has been working with colleagues from Scotland for some years.”

The Herald has been unable to find any mainstream Scottish nationalist who had contact with Ionov or the AGMR. Back in 2015 very senior SNP sources made it clear to this paper that they would have nothing to do with the group or the Putin regime.

An official party spokesman said: "We've had no contact on this and wouldn't have any interest if we had.”

Ionov, ultimately, was unable to parade any Scots at his event. Scottish references were removed from the congress's publicity.

Back in 2015, there was no public suggestion that Ionov or AGMR had direct links to Putin’s security services. Indeed, speaking to The Herald, Ionov stressed that his organisation was non-governmental but confirmed that it "co-operated closely with the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples' Republics”.

The AGMR did managed to woo Catalan independence supporters, thought not from any of the major parties. One of its meetings was attended by somebody claiming to represent a group called Solidaritat Catalana per la Independència. Spanish newspapers have latched on to the US prosecution as evidence for Russian interference in Catalonia. Russian media reports have also linked Sinn Fein to the AGMR.

The formal indictment from the US Department of Justice spells out what it sees as Ionov’s criminal activity.

“From as early as October of 2013, Ionov worked with officers of the FSB…to use members of political groups as foreign agents of Russia,” it says.

“Working under FSB supervision and with FSB support, Ionov recruited members of various political groups within the US and other countries, including Ukraine, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Ireland, to attend conferences in Russia. At these conferences Ionov entered in to partnerships with some of the US separatist groups, including groups from Florida and California. Thereafter Ionov exercised direction or control over these groups on behalf of the FSB. Ionov also monitored and regularly reported on their activities to the FSB.”

The DoJ indictment goes on to accuse Ionov of providing financial support to groups and telling them to publish pro-Russian propaganda. He also, prosecutors claim, co-ordinated coverage of the groups in Russian media.

Ionov’s failed efforts to sign Scottish nationalists up to his events were followed a year later by the opening of a hub by Sputnik, a news outlet at the heart of the Kremlin’s propaganda efforts. Later another Russian state mouthpiece, RT, decided to broadcast a chat show hosted by former First Minister Alex Salmond, now leader of the pro-independence but anti-SNP Alba party. The same station already platformed former socialist firebrand George Galloway, who went on to lead a short-lived and fervently pro-UK political party, All4Unity.

Both Alba and its anti-independence counterpart flopped at the 2021 Holyrood elections.

Sputnik pulled out of Scotland last year citing a “hostile” environment. RT was taken off air after Putin’s escalated his invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.

Scots - outside very online fringes on both sides of the independence debate - appear to have proved unreceptive to Kremlin influence operations. Russia watchers believe Ionov’s attempts to lure nationalists to Moscow suggest a failure of intelligence.

“It is very possible that the Russians underestimated the competence and political sophistication of the SNP, which had been in power in Scotland for eight years by 2015,” said Peter Jackson, professor of Global Security at the University of Glasgow and executive director of the Scottish Council on Global Affairs. “But I don’t think Scotland was necessarily a priority for this campaign, which seems to have adopted rather a scattershot approach to supporting and invigorating irredentist movements within Russia’s rivals.”

For Jackson, Brexit helped achieve a Putin objective, weakening the UK. Scottish independence would potentially do the same. “So I would expect the Russians to try to interfere in the event of another independence referendum,” he said.

The expert was not surprised the SNP rebuffed Ionov. Russia was very much a pariah by this time and facing international sanctions over its initiatives in Crimea and the Donbas. “It would have been remarkably stupid and politically very damaging for the SNP to have participated in an event organised by Russia and including the breakaway Donbas republics,” he said. “The SNP aims to have an independent Scotland accepted as a legitimate state by the international community. Involving themselves with an illegal separatist movement sponsored by Russia, and which uses violence, would make this aim impossible.”

Stephen Gethins echoed this view. The professor of practice in international relations at St Andrews University is a former NGO worker has hands-on experience dealing with the Russian military in unrecognised statelets inside Georgia. Back in 2015 he was a newly elected SNP MP.

“The true nature of Putin’s administration has been clear for some time," he said. “It is therefore not a surprise that the door in Scotland was closed to Putin’s agents.”