The Justice Department on Friday charged a Russian woman with conspiracy for allegedly attempting to meddle in the U.S. political system and influence the 2018 midterm elections.
Prosecutors claim that 44-year-old Elena Khusyaynova managed the funds for "Project Lakhta," whose aim was to "sow discord in the U.S. political system" by spreading misinformation online about contentious political issues like immigration, gun control and the national anthem during sporting events. Officials and experts have been warning for months that foreign nations would attempt to interfere in the 2018 elections and that too little was being done to prevent election meddling. But Friday's charges were the first brought against a foreigner for attempting to interfere in the November elections.
"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," said FBI Director Christopher Wray in a statement Friday.
The criminal complaint, unsealed on Friday, details an information warfare operation that ran through the U.S., the European Union and Ukraine from 2014 until the present.
Project Lakhta was allegedly financed by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch who has been nicknamed Putin's chef because he runs a catering company and is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He had also previously managed a hot dog stand in the Russian city St. Petersburg.
Prigozhin, who also runs the Russian troll factory known as the Internet Research Agency, was indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in February for attempting to interfere in the 2016 midterm elections.
Far from a shoestring budget, Project Lakhta had an operating budget of more than $10 million.
"The financial documents [Khusyaynova] controlled include detailed expenses for activities in the United States, such as expenditures for activists, advertisements on social media platforms, registration of domain names, the purchase of proxy servers, and promoting news postings on social networks," according the to the Justice Department.
Officials have also been warning of election interference by countries like China and Iran, but so far no evidence has emerged of overt efforts like the ones carried out by Russia. Also on Friday, the Director of National Intelligence, Department of Justice, FBI and Department of Homeland Security issued a joint statement warning 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."
Some experts, however, have cast doubt on the Trump administration's allegations that China is attempting to influence elections.
"In the Cold War, we actively interfered in the politics of other countries, and they did in ours. But that's fallen out of favor. I think something special happened in the 2016 election, and that Russia was part of it. What has China done in the midterm that it hasn't done previously?" Graham Allison, a political scientist at the Harvard Kennedy School, said to Newsweek.