WASHINGTON• • The US Justice Department has charged 13 Russians and three companies in an indictment that unveiled a sophisticated network designed to subvert the 2016 election and to support the campaign of Mr Donald Trump.
The operation stretched from an office in St Petersburg, Russia, into the social feeds of Americans and ultimately reached the streets of election battleground states. The Russians stole the identities of American citizens, posed as political activists and used the flash points of immigration, religion and race to manipulate the campaign.
The office of US Special Counsel Robert Mueller filed the charges, and the official who oversees Mr Mueller's work said the investigation was not finished.
The 37-page document describes a sophisticated and well-funded multi-year operation, dubbed "Project Lakhta" by Russian entities, to influence the election, beginning as early as May 2014. The operation employed hundreds of people, from creators of fictitious identities to technical experts, and by September 2016 its monthly budget exceeded US$1.2 million (S$1.6 million), the court document said.
It said those accused "had a strategic goal to sow discord in the US political system, including the 2016 US presidential election".
The indictment said Russians travelled to the United States to collect intelligence, visiting 10 states, and staged political rallies while posing as Americans.
In one case, it said, the Russians paid an unidentified person to build a cage aboard a flatbed truck and another to wear a costume "portraying Clinton in a prison uniform".
The surprise indictment could alter the divisive US domestic debate over Russia's meddling, undercutting some Republicans who, along with Mr Trump, have attacked Mr Mueller's investigation.
The indictment is silent on the question of whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Kremlin, which Mr Mueller is probing.
The indictment says some of those charged, posing as Americans, "communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign".
In a tweet, Mr Trump gave his most direct acknowledgement that Russia had meddled in the election, which he has frequently disputed.
"Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong - no collusion!" he wrote.
Mr Trump had insisted for more than a year that Russians did not try to get him elected. The indictments mean that he can no longer credibly cast doubt on alleged Russian election meddling.
And if he was still harbouring dreams of firing Mr Mueller or Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein, something many Republicans have already warned against, such a move may be politically impossible now.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova denounced the allegations as "absurd" and ridiculed the notion that so few Russian nationals could undermine US democracy.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declined to comment yesterday on the US indictments, telling a security conference in Munich that US Vice-President Mike Pence and others had raised questions about the investigation.
"You may publish anything you want to. So until we see the facts, everything else is just blather," Mr Lavrov said.
The accused Russians are unlikely to be arrested or appear in a US court on the charges, which include conspiracy to defraud the US, wire fraud, bank fraud and identity theft, as there is no extradition treaty between the US and Russia.
REUTERS, NYTIMES, BLOOMBERG
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