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Sanctions' Thirst: US Politicians Call for Response Over Alleged Vote Meddling

© REUTERS / Jonathan DrakeChildren watch their mother vote during the U.S. general election in Greenville, North Carolina, US on November 8, 2016.
Children watch their mother vote during the U.S. general election in Greenville, North Carolina, US on November 8, 2016. - Sputnik International
WASHINGTON (Sputnik) - The US Justice Department filed charges against more than a dozen Russian persons and entities for trying to influence the 2016 US presidential contest which prompted cries for more sanctions on Moscow and demands for better election security.

On Friday, the Justice Department in court documents revealed that the United States indicted 13 Russian nationals and three entities for allegedly trying to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. The 37-page indictment, a product of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, alleged that those accused used fake personas to try to influence the outcome of the elections in President Donald Trump’s favor. The indictment, however, does not appear to make any mention of the Russian government.

The Charges and Charged

The indictment targeted both persons and entities, including a research agency US lawmakers have referred to as a Russian internet "troll farm," albeit no evidence has surfaced tying the agency to the Kremlin. The indictment said the Internet Research Agency, which is based in St. Petersburg, engaged in operations to interfere with the 2016 elections, along with Concord Management Consulting and Concord Catering.

The accused individuals include Yevgeniy Prigozhin, Mikhail Bystrov, Mikhail Burchik (aka Mikhail Abramov), Aleksandra Krylova, Anna Bogacheva, Sergey Polozov, Maria Bovda (aka Maria Belyaeva), Robert Bovda, Dzheykhun Aslanov (aka Jayhoon Aslanov, Jay Aslanov), Vadim Podkopaev, Gleb Vasilchenko, Irina Kaverzina and Vladimir Venkov.

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The defendants intentionally conspired with each other to defraud the United States by undermining the democratic process in the country, the court document added.

The Russian individuals engaged in organizing rallies and paid Americans to participate in political activities and promote campaigns. The defendants communicated with members of Trump's campaign who were unaware of their motives, according to the indictment.

The court document said that the defendants aimed to distort the 2016 election by promoting then-Republican candidate Donald Trump and denigrating his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.

"They engaged in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump," the document said.

The operation had a monthly budget of more than $1.25 million for its influence campaign, such as purchasing political advertisements on social media and sending Russian nationals to the United States to obtain intelligence, according to the court filing.

US Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in a press conference on Friday that the indictments do not include any accusations against Americans.

"The nature of the scheme was the defendants took extraordinary steps to make it appear that they were ordinary American political activities, even so far as to base their activities on a virtual private network here in the United States," Rosenstein said.

The deputy attorney general also said US authorities had "no communications" with Russian counterparts about the indictments.

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"We will follow the ordinary process of seeking cooperation and extradition," Rosenstein added.

Mueller’s office also on Friday posted court documents that indicate Richard Pinedo of California agreed to plead guilty on a charge of identity theft, just hours after posting the indictments that include allegations of using false personas to influence the election.

Court documents revealed that Pinedo operated an online company called "Auction Essistance" and used it to sell bank account numbers over the internet to individuals he knew were outside of the United States. He sold hundreds of bank accounts to individuals who wanted to circumvent security measures used by a company only referred to as "Company 1" in the document.

Pinedo’s lawyer, Jeremy Lessem, later in the day, came out with a statement to make clear that his client did not realize he was helping foreign nationals influence the 2016 election. Lessem said Pinedo has accepted full responsibility for selling bank information that allowed individuals to fraudulently establish accounts with online financial institutions, but that was the extent of his crime.

"To the extent that Mr. Pinedo's actions assisted any individuals, including foreign nationals, from affecting or interfering in the American presidential election… was done completely without his knowledge or understanding," Lessem said on Friday.

Sanctions, Election Secutiry

US Congress recently passed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAASTA), which targets Russia’s defense sector. Several lawmakers, after Mueller’s indictments were announced, began calling on the president to implement these sanctions along with taking steps to ensure Russia is not continuing to interfere in US elections.

US House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement after the decision that the indictments "make absolutely clear" that the Russians perpetrated a strategic effort to influence the 2016 presidential election to support Trump and are continuing to do so in other elections. The top Democrat in the other house of Congress also hit out at Trump.

"Given these indictments, President Trump should implement the sanctions that Congress has passed immediately," US Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement on Friday. "The indictments are also a reminder that Russia will continue to try to interfere in our Democracy."

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US Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan said in a statement that the indictments detail the extent of the scheme and underscore the need to work to protect the integrity of future elections.

The top Democrat on the Senate intelligence panel, Mark Warner, took to Twitter to call for taking more action against Russia.

"Mueller and his team have taken an important step to hold Russia accountable for meddling in the election," Warner said. "As Vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I will continue pressing the nation’s intelligence leaders and the social media companies to be far more aggressive and proactive in responding to this ongoing threat."

Senator Ben Cardin in a press release said that Russia's efforts to undermine the November 8 election were not a "hoax" as Trump called them. The senator urged Trump to utilize all tools to seek justice in order to protect the United States from similar threats in the future.

"America has been left vulnerable to malign Russian efforts because the president [Trump] has put himself above the security of the nation," Cardin said.

Cardin also said US Congress must ensure the independence of the special prosecutor and the Department of Justice in order to conclude this probe with integrity.

House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Adam Schiff said in a press release on Friday that the door was still open related to Trump’s contacts with Moscow.

"The indictment leaves open the vital question of whether Americans, including any associated with the Trump campaign, knowingly played a role in Russia’s active measures campaign," the release said.

Trump, Russia Respond

US President Donald Trump did not see the Mueller indictments as a negative development, but as yet another vindication of the legitimacy of his election, according to a White House statement issued late on Friday.

"President Donald J. Trump has been fully briefed on this matter and is glad to see the Special Counsel’s investigation further indicates—that there was NO COLLUSION between the Trump campaign and Russia and that the outcome of the election was not changed or affected," the release said.

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Trump was quoted in the statement as saying that it was time for Americans to come together and for lawmakers to work together to protect the integrity of US elections.

"We cannot allow those seeking to sow confusion, discord, and rancor to be successful," Trump said on Friday. "It’s time we stop the outlandish partisan attacks, wild and false allegations, and far-fetched theories, which only serve to further the agendas of bad actors, like Russia, and do nothing to protect the principles of our institutions."

The president, characteristically, used Twitter as a tool to underscore his thoughts on what the evidence proved.

"Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President," Trump said. "The results of the election were not impacted."

Russian officials struck back at US lawmakers’ comments about Moscow influencing the presidential vote. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Friday that the accusations of 13 Russian citizens of alleged interference in the US election process are absurd. Leonid Slutsky, the Russian parliament’s foreign affairs committee chair, accused the United States of Russophobia.

"The election meddling charges against 13 Russians are obviously part of a Russophobic campaign and hysteria that runs rampant in the West. They are unfounded, absolutely absurd," Slutsky told reporters.

The Russian lawmaker also wondered how 13 individuals could affect the voting by more than 300 million people in America "with its huge state apparatus and billions of dollars in election spending." Slutsky added that the charges seemed ripped straight from the script of a Hollywood criminal comedy that could be entitled, "Putin's Thirteen."

Russia has repeatedly denied interfering in the 2016 US election. Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said they were completely baseless, while President Vladimir Putin blamed the United States for meddling in other country's political processes.

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