Thirteen Russians have been criminally charged for interfering in the 2016 U.S. election to help Donald Trump, the office of Robert Mueller, the special counsel, announced on Friday.
Mueller's office said 13 Russians and three Russian entities, including the notorious state-backed "troll farm" the Internet Research Agency, had been indicted by a federal grand jury in Washington DC, according to The Guardian.
A 37-page indictment alleged that the Russians' operations "included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J Trump ... and disparaging Hillary Clinton," his Democratic opponent.
Mueller alleged that Russian operatives "communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign", but the indictment did not address the question of whether anyone else in Trump's team had knowingly colluded.
Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, said at a press conference in Washington: "There is no allegation in this indictment that any American had any knowledge." Rosenstein added that the charges did not mean the Russian activity had an effect on the outcome of the election.
The Russians allegedly posed as Americans to operate bogus social media accounts, buy advertisements and stage political rallies. They stole the identities of real people in the U.S. to post online and built computer systems in the U.S. to hide the Russian origin of their activity, according prosecutors.
"This indictment serves as a reminder that people are not always who they appear to be on the internet," said Rosenstein. He alleged that the Russians had "worked to promote discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy," adding: "We must not allow them to succeed."
The charges state that from as far back as 2014, the defendants conspired together to defraud the U.S. by "impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of government" through interference with the American political and electoral processes.
One defendant, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, is accused of using companies he controlled – including Concord Management and Consulting, and Concord Catering – to finance the operations against the U.S. The operation at one stage had a monthly budget of $1.25m, according to Mueller, which paid for operatives' salaries and bonuses.
Read alsoPOLITICO: Manafort trial likely to start in September at the earliestEvents were organized by Russians posing as Trump supporters and as groups opposed to Trump such as Black Lives Matter, according to prosecutors. One advertisement shortly before the election promoted the Green party candidate Jill Stein, who is blamed by some Clinton backers for splitting the anti-Trump vote.
One defendant, Irina Kaverzina, is accused of admitting her involvement in the operation and a subsequent coverup in an email to a relative in September last year, after Mueller's inquiry had begun. "We had a slight crisis here at work: the FBI busted our activity," Kaverzina allegedly wrote, "so I got preoccupied with covering tracks together with the colleagues."
The Russians are also accused of working to suppress turnout among ethnic minority voters. They allegedly created an Instagram account posing as "Woke Blacks" and railed against the notion that African Americans should choose Clinton as "the lesser of two devils" against Trump.
In early November 2016, according to the indictment, the Russian operatives used bogus "United Muslims of America" social media accounts to claim that "American Muslims [are] boycotting elections today."
Following Trump's victory, the Russian operation promoted allegations of voter fraud by the Democratic party, according to Mueller's team. Around that time, Trump repeatedly claimed without evidence that he would have won the popular vote if not for large-scale voter fraud.
The individuals charged are Mikhail Ivanovich Bystrov, Mikhail Leonidovich Burchik, Aleksandra Yuryevna Krylova, Anna Vladislavovna Bogacheva, Sergey Pavlovich Polozov, Maria Anatolyevna Bovda, Robert Sergeyevich Bovda, Dzheykhun Nasimi Ogly, Vadim Vladimirovich Podkopaev, Gleb Igorevitch Vasilchenko, Irina Viktorovna Kaverzina, Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin and Vladimir Venkov.
All were charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States. Three defendants were charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and five defendants were charged with aggravated identity theft.
Mueller is conducting a criminal inquiry into interference by Russians and possible collusion by Trump's campaign. Two Trump campaign advisers have pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Two others have been charged with federal crimes.
U.S. investigators have long signaled their belief that Prigozhin, a 56-year-old billionaire businessman, is behind Russia's internet troll factories.
Nicknamed the "Kremlin's chef," Prigozhin once ran Putin's favorite restaurant in St Petersburg, after which he was awarded multi-billion pound state catering contracts.
He provided catering for Dmitry Medvedev's presidential inauguration in 2008, and also has lucrative contracts to feed Russia's army and Moscow's schoolchildren.
Prigozhin, who has also been linked to the Wagner Group, a shadowy Kremlin-linked private military contractor believed to be operating in Syria, was included on a U.S. sanctions list in July.
Speaking to the RIA Novosti state news agency on Friday, Prigozhin said: "The Americans are really impressionable people, they see what they want to see. I have great respect for them. If they want to see the devil – let them see him."
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called the allegations "absurd".
"13 people carried out interference in the U.S. elections? 13 people against special services with a budget of billions?" she wrote in a Facebook post.
Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian media he had not yet had a chance to study the indictments.