Criminal Justice

A Russian national from St. Petersburg has been charged with overseeing finances of a social media operation to create distrust in the American political system and interfere with U.S. democracy.

Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova was charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States in a criminal complaint unsealed on Friday, according to a press release by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia. The Washington Post, Politico and the New York Times have coverage.

The conspiracy included efforts to influence the 2018 midterm election, according to the press release. The case is the first criminal complaint alleging 2018 election interference by a foreign national, according to the news stories.

Khusyaynova was the chief accountant for an effort called Project Lakhta that was partly financed by a Russian oligarch who is closely identified with Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to an affidavit supporting the criminal complaint. Two companies controlled by the oligarch also contributed money. The oligarch and the companies were indicted in February for alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Project Lakhta created fake social media accounts and email addresses that appeared to be operated by people in the United States. The accounts, which had tens of thousands of followers, opposed and supported political candidates and posted divisive content.

The conspirators advocated differing ideological views, but their intent was to aggravate conflict and sow discord, according to prosecutors. Topics addressed included immigration, gun control, the Confederate flag, race relations, LGBTQ issues, the Women’s March, and respect for the national anthem.

The conspirators also staged and promoted political rallies while posing as U.S. grassroots groups and persons.

The proposed operating budget for Project Lakhta was more than $35 million between January 2016 and June 2018, although only part of the budget was directed at the United States. The European Union and Ukraine were among other countries targeted.

There is no allegation that the conspiracy influenced any election outcome, the press release said.

The affidavit includes advice from conspirators about how to spin news articles. This advice was given about a news article in which Sen. John McCain said last year that it is “crazy” to think a wall will stop immigration. McCain died in August after suffering from a malignant brain tumor.

The advice: “Brand McCain as an old geezer who has lost it and who long ago belonged in a home for the elderly. Emphasize that John McCain’s pathological hatred towards Donald Trump and towards all his initiatives crosses all reasonable borders and limits. State that dishonorable scoundrels, such as McCain, immediately aim to destroy all the conservative voters’ hopes as soon as Trump tries to fulfill his election promises.”