Five takeaways from the indictment

Special Counsel Robert Mueller's indictment found a sophisticated, well-funded operation by Russian entities to tilt the 2016 US presidential vote.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller's indictment found a sophisticated, well-funded operation by Russian entities to tilt the 2016 US presidential vote.PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON • New details have emerged about Moscow's purported effort to interfere in the 2016 United States presidential election, following Special Counsel Robert Mueller's indictment of Russian nationals and companies allegedly behind a secret campaign to tilt the vote. Here are five things we learnt from the indictment.

1. IT BEGAN AS FAR BACK AS 2014

The sophisticated, multi-year and well-funded operation by Russian entities to influence the election began as early as May 2014, well before President Donald Trump entered the race.

Dubbed "Project Lakhta", the campaign had a goal to "spread distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general". By mid-2016, it became focused on boosting Mr Trump and demeaning his rivals, including Democrat Hillary Clinton. The group used a cluster of companies linked to one called the Internet Research Agency, operating out of St Petersburg, and called its campaign "information warfare".

The effort allegedly involved "hundreds" of computer specialists, working in shifts and with a budget of millions of dollars.

They unlawfully used stolen social security numbers and birth dates of Americans to open accounts on the PayPal digital payment platform and to post on social media using those fake identities, the indictment said.

Members of the group went on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram to post content that tapped the flash points of immigration, religion and race that reached "significant numbers" of Americans.

The effort was allegedly overseen by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It states that Prigozhin frequently met in 2015 and 2016 with Mikhail Bystrov, the top official in the Internet Research Agency.

In addition to Mrs Clinton, the group's work also focused on producing material damaging to Mr Trump's Republican rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. The group is also said to have supported the Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein and Mrs Clinton's Democratic rival Bernie Sanders.

2. IT WAS NOT JUST A VIRTUAL OPERATION

Individuals involved in the conspiracy travelled to and around the US, visiting nine states for political intelligence gathering, according to the court documents.

An unnamed Texas-based American political operative is said to have instructed them to focus on states that regularly swing between Republican and Democratic control.

Two of the women involved in the field research bought cameras, SIM cards and disposable cellphones for the trip and devised "evacuation scenarios" in case their real purpose was detected.

3. IT DOESN'T SAY THE TRUMP CAMPAIGN COLLUDED WITH RUSSIA, BUT DOESN'T RULE IT OUT EITHER

Anybody looking for clues about Mr Mueller's investigation into the Trump campaign will not find much. If anything, the indictments may hearten Mr Trump's allies in that they do not draw a line to the campaign - which suggests there was a large-scale effort independent of any possible collusion.

Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein even specified that Americans who were contacted by the Russian nationals "did not know they were communicating with Russians".

But that is about as much insight as can be drawn.

Nothing is known about what else could be coming down the pike, and any ties to Trump campaign officials may have been withheldto avoid disclosing details of an ongoing investigation.

4. IT WILL BE HARDER FOR TRUMP TO DISMISS MUELLER'S PROBE AS A 'WITCH-HUNT'

Mr Trump has often sought to downplay the idea that Russia interfered in the 2016 election - even suggesting he believed Mr Putin's assurances that it did not happen. This document, however, lays it out in extensive detail.

The argument that the Mueller probe is a "witch-hunt", one which Mr Trump has previously used and more than eight in 10 Republicans believe, now becomes much more difficult to make.

5. THE INDICTMENT DOES NOT SAY RUSSIA CHANGED THE ELECTION OUTCOME

In his remarks to reporters, Mr Rosenstein also specified that the indictment does not determine whether Russia's interference changed the results of the 2016 election.

He said there was "no allegation in the indictment of any effect on the outcome of the election".

US intelligence officials have also previously said they have no way of calculating the effect of the Russian influence on the election.

WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NYTIMES, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 18, 2018, with the headline 'Five takeaways from the indictment'. Print Edition | Subscribe