Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals on Friday connected to Russia’s Internet Research Agency—a Kremlin-backed outfit whose employees posed as Americans and spread disinformation online in an attempt to influence the 2016 election.
The indictment details highly specific allegations—including names, dates, and the text of private messages—that appear to substantiate central elements of the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia made an active, concerted effort to subvert American democracy. That report, released in January 2017, concluded that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election,” which included “third-party intermediaries and paid social media users or ‘trolls.’” President Trump has repeatedly dismissed claims of Russian meddling as “fake news” or a “hoax.”
“Claims of a ‘hoax’ in tatters,” John Brennan, the former CIA director, said in a tweet. “My take: Implausible that Russian actions did not influence the views and votes of at least some Americans.”
The indictment alleges that, beginning in 2014, the defendants “knowingly and intentionally conspired with each other … to defraud the United States” by influencing U.S. political processes in an operation they dubbed “Project Lakhta.” Two of the defendants, Aleksandra Krylova and Anna Bogacheva, actually traveled to the United States in the summer of 2014 to “gather intelligence” for the project, according to the indictment.
The defendants’ operations in 2016, the indictment alleges, included “supporting” Trump’s candidacy and “disparaging Hillary Clinton,” Trump’s Democratic opponent. They also bolstered Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders and sought “to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio,” according to the court filing.
The defendants allegedly purchased space on computer servers in the United States to make it look like the social-media campaign was based out of the United States. Some suspects communicated with “unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities,” the indictment claims.
“This indictment serves as a reminder that people are not always who they seem on the internet,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in a press conference on Friday. He added that the Russians “want to promote discord and undermine public confidence. We must not allow them to succeed.”
Trump said in a tweet hours after the indictment was released that “Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong - no collusion!”
The indictment did not make a judgment as to whether the results of the election were impacted, or whether collusion occurred between the Trump campaign and Russia in any other instances.
John Sipher, a former chief of station for the CIA who served for 28 years in Russia, Europe, and Asia, said that “charging Russian intelligence operatives in the U.S. is basically meaningless in a practical sense.”
“They are engaged in an act of war against us,” Sipher said. “They hardly care that what they doing is considered illegal here. What I did there was against the law too.”
But Steve Hall, a retired CIA chief of Russian operations, told me that the indictment wasn’t entirely without consequences for those it named. Its most “realistic impact,” he said, since there is no extradition treaty between Russia and the U.S., is that “these guys will have to be careful when they travel.” Hall noted that there is “certainly precedent inside the government for going after Russians that have broken U.S. law.”
Still, the indictment reinforced an Intelligence Community Assessment released in January 2017 that said the Russians interfered to hurt Clinton’s candidacy. It was released days after the country’s top intelligence officials warned during a congressional hearing that the Russians plan to target the 2018 midterm elections. The fact that the indictment names specific individuals connected to the wide-ranging conspiracy, Sipher suggested, could mean the FBI knows more about all of the players involved in the operation than has been publicly disclosed.
Russia’s use of paid “trolls” to spread disinformation on social media in the run-up to the 2016 election was heavily scrutinized following Facebook’s disclosure in September that it had shut down 470 pages linked to the Internet Research Agency—pages that shared divisive content and promoted it using targeted political ads.
Facebook estimated at the time that approximately 10 million people saw the ads, which targeted users in Michigan and Wisconsin—two states Trump won by approximately 10,000 votes and 22,000 votes, respectively. Twitter told Congress in November that Russia-linked accounts “generated approximately 1.4 million automated, election-related tweets, which collectively received approximately 288 million impressions” last year from September 1 to November 15.
To pay for ads on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms, the defendants and their co-conspirators “established various Russian bank accounts and credit cards, often registered in the names of fictitious U.S. persons created and used by” the Internet Research Agency on social media, according to the indictment.
Mueller’s team issued a separate indictment on Friday against Richard Pinedo, a California man who operated an online service called “Auction Essistance” and purchased bank-account numbers that were created “using stolen identities of U.S. persons,” according to the court filing.
The Russians also used PayPal accounts and utilized a complex network of shell companies to finance the operation, Rosenstein said Friday. The Internet Research Agency received its funding from Yevgeniy Prigozhin and companies he controlled, according to the indictment. The budget for the project exceeded 73 million Russian rubles—or roughly $1.2 million—per month.
Prigozhin acquired the nickname “Putin’s chef” due to a friendship with the Russian president that dates back to 2001, when he first served Putin at a restaurant he’d opened that year.
“The first significant state contracts began flowing in after Mr. Prigozhin founded Concord Catering,” The New York Times wrote in a profile of Prigozhin published Friday. “Starting with the St. Petersburg schools, he moved on to feeding the far more numerous Moscow schools and, finally, most of the Russian military. His trademark became lavish state banquets, including inauguration feasts for both recent presidents, Dmitri A. Medvedev, and Mr. Putin.”
Prigozhin told Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency on Friday that he is “completely not bothered” by the indictment. “The Americans are really impressionable people, they see what they want to see” he said. “I greatly respect them. If they want to see the devil—let them see him.”
The indictment also alleges that the defendants organized political rallies across the country and contacted U.S. political activists for advice on which states to target. They then began focusing their efforts on “purple states,” those that are fairly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.
Rosenstein emphasized that “there is no allegation in this indictment that any American was a knowing participant” in the Russians’ scheme, or that the conduct “altered the outcome of the 2016 election.” But the defendants did make efforts to contact Trump campaign officials and alert them to rallies being planned across Florida in August 2016.
One email sent by a “false US persona” using the address “email@example.com” to a Trump campaign official on August 18, 2016, identified “thirteen confirmed locations” in Florida for pro-Trump rallies. The Russian asked for the campaign’s assistance and wired money to various grassroots organizations “to pay for materials” needed for the rallies, the indictment claims.
The ultimate goal of the operation, according to the special counsel, was “to sow discord in the U.S. political system.”