The US government on Friday charged a Russian woman with being part of a Kremlin-backed plot to interfere with next month’s midterm elections.
Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, 44, became the first foreigner to be charged in connection with the upcoming elections, rather than the 2016 presidential race.
She was accused of having being, since 2014, the chief accountant for "Project Lakhta", a $35 million operation linked to the St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, which led Russian social media disruption in 2016. She is accused of conducting "information warfare" against the United States.
Khusyaynova continued to file detailed multi-million dollar budgets through 2017, and into 2018, including expenses for placing disruptive adverts on Facebook, promoting social media posts, registering domain names, and paying activists.
The operation was said to have been funded by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin, who is a friend of Vladimir Putin, and two companies he controls.
The case was made public shortly after US intelligence agencies, in a rare public statement, warned of concerns about "ongoing campaigns" by Russia, China and Iran, to interfere with the November 6 midterms, and the next presidential election in 2020.
Project Lakhta spread misinformation about US political issues including immigration, gun control, the Confederate flag, and protests by NFL players. It also used events including the Las Vegas mass shooting, and the far Right rally in Charlottesville, to spread discord, the US Justice Department said.
Using thousands of social media accounts and email addresses and posing as Americans, operatives took different positions on the same issue, in order to inflame tensions.
The 38-page US Justice Department complaint included images from Facebook said to have been posted by the Russians, many of them favourable to Mr Trump.
One praised the president for "wiping away $22 billion in regulations in his first five months".
Inside Russia's 'troll factory': The agency accused of interfering in the US election
Another suggested that "every household of illegal immigrants deported saves taxpayers $700,000". Among politicians attacked were Barack Obama and John McCain.
Prigozhin and his two companies, Concord Management and Concord Catering, were previously charged in February by Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating whether Mr Trump’s presidential campaign colluded with Russia.
The latest charge, against Khusyaynova, was not brought by Mr Muller as he is only looking into the 2016 campaign, not 2018.
Prigozhin, who has been sanctioned by the US government, has been nicknamed "Putin’s chef" because he has organised banquets for the Russian president.
The revelations came as John Bolton, Mr Trump’s national security adviser, prepared to make a trip to Moscow next week, during which he is expected to meet Mr Putin.
Meanwhile, Paul Manafort, Mr Trump’s former campaign chairman, appeared in court in a wheelchair on Friday to learn the date of his sentencing.
Manafort, 69, who was convicted of tax and bank fraud charges in the summer, had his right foot bandaged and elevated.
Kevin Downing, his lawyer, said there were “significant issues with Mr Manafort’s health right now".
Manafort was told he will be sentenced on Feb 8 and legal experts suggested he could face at least 10 years in prison.
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