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Russian operative charged in conspiracy to influence mid-term elections, cause social discord

A Russian national was charged by U.S. officials Friday as part of a conspiracy to influence political elections and cause social discord, often through social media. (OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images)

Government officials on Friday charged a Russian national in connection with a Kremlin-backed information warfare attack against the U.S. It's part of an operation that includes attempts to influence the 2018 mid-term elections in November, Reuters news reported.

Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, 44, was charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States. She allegedly served as the chief accountant for Project Lakhta, an operation financed by a Russian oligarch and two companies he controls, a criminal complaint states.

The oligarch, Evgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin, was indicted in February in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s separate investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Prigozhin reportedly has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

How did the operation work?

The operation included the purchase of various social media analytic products and services and social media advertisements. It also involved organizing rallies and counter-protests around socially-divisive issues.

“These personas, groups and pages falsely claimed to be controlled by U.S. activists when in fact they were controlled by members of the conspiracy,” the complaint states. “Over time, these accounts became the conspiracy’s primary means to reach significant numbers of Americans for purposes of interfering with the U.S. political system.”

To carry out the campaign, Khusyaynova allegedly prepared “hundreds of financial vouchers, budgets and payment requests for Project Lakhta entities, often putting all company names on the same paperwork and identifying them as part of Project Lakhta,” the complaint states.

An itemized budget for Project Lakhta totaled about $1 million U.S. dollars for February 2017, according to the complaint. The budget also shows actual expenses for calendar year 2016 which totaled the equivalent of about $12 million U.S. dollars.

Is the timing of this case significant?

Khusyaynova’s case was unsealed at the same time law enforcement and intelligence agencies issued a warning that Russia, China, Iran and other foreign entities are attempting to interfere with Nov. 6 congressional elections, Reuters reported.

According to the complaint, Russians used fake personas on social media to inflame arguments about “race, gun rights, voter fraud and other contentious issues.” Some of the messaging targets the upcoming elections, suggesting the operation that began in 2014 was apparently was not deterred by Mueller’s indictments earlier this year, Reuters reported.

“This one shows that the threat from Russia is not over,” said Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. Attorney in Michigan, told Reuters. “This is a true propaganda war.”

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