On Friday, the Department of Justice charged a 44-year-old woman from St. Petersburg, Russia, named Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova with conspiracy to defraud the United States for her alleged role in an “information warfare” campaign called “Project Lakhta” in the run-up to the 2018 midterms. These charges come from the Justice Department’s national security division, not special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 president campaign.
According to the DOJ’s criminal complaint, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch with close ties to Vladmir Putin whom the U.S. previously charged with interfering in the 2016 election, put millions of dollars into Project Lakhta. Khusyaynova served as chief accountant for the project, managing how funds were spent on buying ads on social media platforms, financing the promotion of news posts, and paying activists with the intent to sow distrust of the American political system.
Prosecutors say that Project Lakhta was a sophisticated foreign influence campaign that had no particular ideological bent; it appears that the goal was simply to stir up conflict in online political debates by putting forth extreme arguments and inflammatory misinformation to incense both liberals and conservatives. However, there does not seem to be an explicit pro-Trump tilt to the propaganda, as was the case during the 2016 election. The debates that the conspirators chose to meddle in were largely similar to what we’ve seen in previous influence campaigns: gun rights, the Confederate flag, LGBTQ issues, the NFL national anthem debate.
The complaint states that Khusyaynova has been working for entities and companies associated with Project Lakhta since 2014. These include the notorious Internet Research Agency, the troll farm that spread misinformation on Facebook and Twitter during the 2016 election, and the Federal News Agency, a pro-Kremlin website. Khusyaynova allegedly devised the budgets and payments for the project’s social media operations, salaries, office rent, travel, infrastructure, and other expenses. She further sought to obscure the source of the funds by funneling them through 14 different bank accounts.
The charges reveal that U.S. investigators not only have a detailed understanding of how Russian social media propaganda was funded and organized during the 2016 campaign, but also in the midterms. Khusyaynova is not in U.S. custody, though she could face a five-year prison term if authorities ever apprehend her. That’s unlikely, however, since federal officials typically do not expect that those involved in Russian disinformation campaigns to appear in a U.S. courtroom.