U.S. intelligence, law enforcement and security agencies are warning that Russia is persistently targeting the country’s upcoming midterm elections. They laid out the latest evidence in new charges against a Russian national connected to the oligarch known as “Putin’s cook.”
The U.S. on Friday unsealed the criminal complaint against Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, 44, of St. Petersburg, making her the first Russian charged in connection with interference in the 2018 election.
According to the criminal complaint, Khusyaynova was the chief accountant for a Russian effort dubbed “Project Lakhta,” a self-described “information warfare” operation run by the Internet Research Agency — the same social media troll farm indicted earlier this year by U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller as part of his Russia investigation.
Charging documents say Khusyaynova oversaw spending for social media advertisements and promotions and proxy servers as she helped to create thousands of social media accounts on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, some of which generated tens of thousands of followers.
The criminal complaint says Khusyanova was working with a multimillion-dollar budget — money, according to U.S. officials, that came from Russian businessman Yevgeniy Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s cook” because of his catering company’s work for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin is thought to have extensive ties to Russia’s political and military establishments.
Involved in 2018 elections
But unlike previous criminal complaints, U.S. officials said Khusyaynova’s activity extended well beyond the 2016 U.S. presidential election, as she funded efforts to create new social media accounts targeting both issues and candidates, Republican and Democratic, involved the 2018 election, now just a little more than two weeks away.
Like with previous efforts under “Project Lakhta,” all of the accounts were designed to make it appear as though they belonged to actual American political activists, using virtual private networks (VPNs) and other methods to hide their origin.
U.S. officials also said those running them were told to intensify divisions and distrust between members of all political parties “through supporting radical groups” and to “aggravate the conflict between minorities and the rest of the population.”
Messaging focused on a variety of topics, including immigration, gun control, the Confederate flag and the debate over American football players kneeling for the U.S. national anthem.
Officials said specific incidents, including mass shootings, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., and decisions coming from the Trump White House were also used as fodder.
“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,” U.S. Attorney Zachary Terwilliger said in a statement.
Asked about the new charges during a visit to Arizona, President Donald Trump called them irrelevant to his efforts.
“It had nothing to do with my campaign,” he told reporters. “If they are hackers, a lot of them probably like [2016 Democratic presidential nominee] Hillary Clinton better than me.”
Warning and reassurance
Friday’s indictment came as U.S. intelligence and security officials sought to both warn and reassure U.S. voters about the upcoming midterm elections.
“We’re not seeing anything anywhere remotely close to ’16,” Chris Krebs, undersecretary for the Department of Homeland Security’s National Protection and Programs Directorate, told reporters Friday following a tabletop election security exercise.
“2016 had a long lead-up of spear-phishing campaigns, compromise of networks,” he said. “We’re not seeing them right now.”
Krebs and other officials have also said there had been no increase in attempts to infiltrate U.S. voting systems, and that no system involved in tallying votes had been compromised.
Many of those systems have been upgraded or hardened, U.S. officials said, noting that more than 90 percent of the country’s election infrastructure was now being monitored by sensors that can detect malicious activity.
But at the same time, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence warned Friday of persistent efforts by U.S. adversaries to sway voters.
“We are concerned about ongoing campaigns by Russia, China and other foreign actors, including Iran, to undermine confidence in democratic institutions and influence public sentiment,” ODNI said in a joint statement with the Justice Department, the FBI and DHS.
“These activities also may seek to influence voter perceptions and decision-making in the 2018 and 2020 U.S. elections,” the statement said.
U.S. officials say both China and Iran have been increasingly active in their efforts to use influence operations, with current and former officials describing Beijing’s efforts as more sophisticated and more intent on generating a favorable view of China over the long term.
But neither yet compares in scope to the Russian efforts, just some of which were unveiled in the criminal complaint.
Financial documents obtained as part of the investigation indicate that as of January 2016, Khusyaynova and “Project Lakhta” were working with a budget of $35 million, spending about $10 million in the first half of 2018 alone.
Khusyaynova’s 2018 expenditures included $60,000 for Facebook advertisements, another $6,000 for ads on Instagram, and $18,000 for “bloggers” and for developing accounts on Twitter.
Russian businessman Prigozhin was the source of the money, according to U.S. officials.
Prigozhin controls Concord Management and Consulting LLC, one of three entities under indictment as part of the Mueller investigation.
A Washington-based lawyer representing Concord did not respond to a request for comment.
Masood Farivar contributed to this report