'Information warfare:' Feds charge Russian woman with interference in US political system, midterm elections

  • A Russian woman has been charged with trying to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections, authorities said.
  • Elena Khusyaynova of St. Petersburg, Russia, is accused of using using social media platforms to create thousands of social media and e-mail accounts that purported to be from Americans, to "amplify divisive social media and political content."
  • Prosecutors claim Khusyaynova is the chief accountant for a Russian entity dubbed Project Lakhta.
A Russian waves a Facebook flag in Red Square, Moscow.
Sasha Mordovets | Getty Images
A Russian waves a Facebook flag in Red Square, Moscow.

A Russian woman has been charged with trying to interfere and "sow discord" in the American political system, including in the 2018 midterm elections as part of a conspiracy that exploited thousands of social media accounts and emails that claimed to be owned by U.S. residents, authorities said.

Elena Khusyaynova of St. Petersburg, Russia, is accused of participating in a conspiracy engaged in "information warfare against the United States" that aimed "create and amplify divisive social media and political content."

The case against the 44-year-old Khusyaynova, which does not allege involvement by any Americans, is the first to involve alleged interference in next month's Congressional elections.

But the Justice Department said, "The criminal complaint does not include any allegation that Khusyaynova or the broader conspiracy had any effect on the outcome of an election." The department said it received "exceptional cooperation" in its probe from Facebook, Twitter and other "private sector companies."

Prosecutors claim Khusyaynova, who is not in custody, is the chief accountant for a Russian entity dubbed Project Lakhta, and managed the group's financing.

That group is backed by a Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin, and two companies that he controls, Concord Management and Consulting LLC, and Concord Catering, according to prosecutors. The Concord firms were named in a criminal indictment brought by special counsel Robert Mueller that alleged attempted interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Prigozhin has been called "Putin's chef," a reference to Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

The case against Khusyaynova is not being brought by Mueller. Instead, she is being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia.

The conspiracy tried to "inflame passions on a variety of topics," including "immigration, gun control and the Second Amendment, the Confederate flag, race relations, LGBT issues, the Women's March, and the NFL national anthem debate," according to a complaint against her. That complaint included images of various images, or "memes," the conspiracy used as part of that effort.

Perosecutors noted that the conspirators' activities "did not exclusively adopt one ideological view; they wrote on topics from varied and sometimes opposing perspectives."

"Members of the conspiracy were directed, among other things, to create 'political intensity through supporting radical groups" and to 'aggravate the conflict between minorities and the rest of the population,' " the Justice Department said.

The effort targeted both Democrats and Republicans. And after Mueller indicted a number of Russians last February for intefering in the 2016 presidential election, it praised the special counsel and attacked President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly called Mueller's probe a witch hunt.

"Still think this Russia thing is a hoax and a witch hunt?" said one social media post cited in the complaint. "Because a lot of witches just got indicted."

One directive issued to members of the conspiracy targeted the late Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, citing an online news article about McCain believing that Trump's idea for a border wall with Mexico was "crazy," according to the complaint.

The directive detailed how members should, in their social media platforms, "Brand McCain as an old geezer who has lost it and who long ago belonged in a home for the elderly," the directive said.

Antother directive talked about how write about House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc.

"Brand Paul Ryan a complete and absolute nobody incapable of any decisiveness," the directive said. "Emphasize that while serving as Speaker, this two-faced loudmouth has not accomplished anything good for American or for American citizens."

U.S. Attorney G. Zachary Terwilliger said, "The strategic goal of this alleged conspiracy, which continues to this day, is to sow discord in the U.S. political system and to undermine faith in our democratic institutions.

Terwilliger's office said that Khusyaynova controlled financial documents that related to expenses for activities in the United States, "such as expenditures for activists, advertisements on social media platforms, registration of domain names, the purchase of proxy servers, and 'promoting news postings on social networks.' "

"Between January 2016 and June 2018, Project Lakhta's proposed operating budget totaled more than $35 million, although only a portion of these funds were directed at the United States. Between January and June 2018 alone, Project Lakhta's proposed operating budget totaled more than $10 million," the prosecutor's office said.

Asked about the complaint, Trump told reporters it has "nothing to do with my campaign."

"They probably like [former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton] better than me," Trump said.

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, a member of the Armed Service Committee, said, "America needs to see what Putin is doing."

"Election after election, Putin and his cronies are working to undermine our public trust. This [complaint] shows that he won't stop working to divide Americans — we have to keep exposing his effort for what it is: political warfare. It's good to see [the Justice Department] push back on Putin's shadow war by publicly indicting his shadow warriors and bring his war to light."

Download the complaint here.

Read the complaint against Elena Khusyaynova here.