The electoral ambience in the United States of America gets murkier with Friday’s fairly tough announcement by the Trump administration. A Russian national has been charged with a plot to stoke distrust in the US political process. Four years after the Kremlin’s alleged meddling in the presidential polls to thwart the prospects of Hilary Clinton, Artem Mikhaylovich Lifshits, a resident of St. Petersburg, faces sanctions.
The chief surprise must be that it took the US Government four years to respond after the stout denials that were consistently advanced by the White House. The action can be contextualised with Microsoft’s announcement on hacking attempts that target US political campaigns, parties and consultants.
These initiatives underscore the extent to which cyber intrusions and foreign interference defined the contest for the White House in 2016. It is hard not to wonder if there is a dichotomy within the administration.
While Donald Trump has readily binned the charge of Russian meddling, a section of officials have started targeting Moscow’s interference in the US political process. The accused has now been charged with serving as a translation manager in the Russian effort to disrupt the political system in the US and spread distrust about candidates.
Lifshits has been charged with using stolen identities to open fake bank accounts and digital currency exchanges. As it turns out, the revelations have been advanced in the twilight phase of Trump’s presidency. Arguably, an earlier recital would have rocked the White House boat.
The objective of the hackers and the dubious initiative, called Project Lakhta, was to sow discord, incite civil unrest and polarise Americans with social media posts that dwelt on such sensitive issues as gun-rights, immigration, the Confederate flag and race relations. By all accounts, it was a carefully calibrated initiative to interfere in the electoral outcome. Strategies were developed and “guidance” provided to those with conservative and liberal viewpoints as well as particular social groups.
The complaint by the Justice Department does not accuse Liftshits or other Project Lakhta members of promoting a particular presidential candidate in Election 2020. Many of these social media posts were entered early in Trump’s first term, well before Joe Biden had emerged as the presidential nominee of the Democrats. One such post referred to the 2018 Midterms as “motivated”.
It is pretty obvious from the complaint that the influence operations have persisted. It has underlined contentious issues, such as race relations, that have over the past few years ripped America’s social fabric.
The plot thickens with the disclosure that Lifshits was one of four persons mentioned by the Treasury Department regarded by the US government as an active Russian agent for over a decade.