Russian woman charged with interfering in midterm elections

The Department of Justice (DOJ) on Friday charged a Russian woman with participating in a conspiracy to influence next month's midterm elections, underlying the degree to which Moscow is seeking to interfere in the United States.

The timing of the complaint, which was unsealed as U.S. intelligence officials issued a warning on foreign influence campaigns, sends a dire message to voters on the scope of the efforts to sway U.S. opinion, even as no evidence points to interference with U.S. election infrastructure.

"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 and government policies," the joint statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Justice Department, FBI and Department of Homeland Security said. "These activities also may seek to influence voter perceptions and decision making in the 2018 and 2020 U.S. elections."

Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova of St. Petersburg allegedly conspired with other actors as part of an influence campaign "to interfere with U.S. democracy,” Assistant Attorney General John Demers said in a statement.

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She is alleged to have overseen financing for “Project Lakhta,” an umbrella Russian effort engaged in political interference operations which included the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin troll farm.

Khusyaynova, 44, is the first individual to be charged in relation to the midterm elections, which are now less than weeks away. The races serve as a critical test for U.S. officials after Russia was found to have interfered in the 2016 elections. 

In February, special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE, who is investigating Moscow’s 2016 meddling, unveiled fraud and conspiracy charges against 13 Russians and three Russian organizations linked to the Internet Research Agency, accusing them of undertaking an elaborate plot to use social media to interfere in the last presidential election.

According to Friday’s criminal complaint, Project Lakhta is funded by Concord Management and Consulting and Concord Catering. Both entities are said to be controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman nicknamed “Putin’s chef” because of his close ties to the Russian president, and were charged in Mueller’s case.

The complaint was unsealed as intelligence officials issued a warning of ongoing efforts to influence U.S. elections, including from nations such as China and Iran in addition to Russia.

DHS’s top cyber official Christopher Krebs also told reporters earlier Friday that “you could start building a case” that China’s own efforts to influence U.S. opinion are amounting to election interference.

Khusyaynova and the other members of Project Lakhta are accused of trying to “defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Election Commission in administering federal requirements for disclosure of foreign involvement in certain domestic activities."

The conspirators are alleged to have created thousands of social media and email accounts to target Americans and addressing topics like immigration, NFL players’ national anthem protests, the Second Amendment and the Women’s March. 

“The Conspiracy has a strategic goal, which continues to this day, to sow division and discord in the U.S. political system, including by creating social and political polarization, undermining faith in democratic institutions, and influencing U.S. elections, including the upcoming 2018 midterm election,” the unsealed complaint states.

Authorities allege that the proposed operating budget for Project Lakhta totaled more than $35 million between January 2016 and June 2018.

“This case serves as a stark reminder to all Americans: Our foreign adversaries continue their efforts to interfere in our democracy by creating social and political division, spreading distrust in our political system, and advocating for the support or defeat of particular political candidates,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement. 

“We take all threats to our democracy very seriously, and we’re committed to working with our partners to identify and stop these unlawful influence operations. Together, we must remain diligent and determined to protect our democratic institutions and maintain trust in our electoral process.”

According to Friday’s criminal complaint, Project Lakhta is funded by Concord Management and Consulting and Concord Catering. Both entities are said to be controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman nicknamed “Putin’s chef” because of his close ties to the Russian president.

The complaint was unsealed as intelligence officials have warned of ongoing efforts to influence U.S. elections, including from nations such as Russia and Iran.

In addition to the Russians charged with launching the social media influence campaigns, Mueller charged 12 Russian military officers earlier this year with the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in the lead-up to the presidential election.

U.S. authorities also arrested Russian national Maria Butina earlier this year, charging her “with conspiracy to act as an agent of the Russian Federation within the United States without prior notification to the Attorney General.”

– Morgan Chalfant contributed reporting.

—Updated at 3:20 p.m.