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Russian Trolls Were Sloppy, but Indictment Still ‘Points at the Kremlin’

The United States indictment is among the clearest documents yet in stating outright that Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a businessman grown fabulously wealthy off government contracts, controls the agency despite denials from him and the Kremlin. He has long been linked to President Vladimir V. Putin, not least through his nickname, “Putin’s cook,” inspired by his catering company, which mushroomed from hosting state banquets to feeding much of the military.

“Because it targets someone pretty close to the Kremlin, it really points at the Kremlin,” said Konstantin von Eggert, a veteran journalist and political analyst, referring to the indictment. “Such things are very tightly controlled in Russia. You cannot launch your own private war against the United States.”

Others noted, however, that degrees of control vary. There is a saying in Russian that the Kremlin has many towers, meaning that various bureaucratic cabals and government agencies hold differing and sometimes competing interests.

The Kremlin; the F.S.B., the main security service; and the S.V.R., or the foreign intelligence service, all have interests overseas, which complicates singling out the troll farm’s ultimate godfather.

Also, this kind of operation is designed for deniability, with the overall mandate endorsed by the government but probably not the day-to-day operations.

“People do not go ask permission from Putin: ‘Vladimir Vladimirovich, can we go hack the servers of the Democratic Party?’ It’s not like that,” said Anton Merkurov, an internet analyst. “Putin never really uses the internet, so he doesn’t understand how it works.”

Those named in the indictment have proved difficult for reporters to reach, with their cellphones often shut off and no response to messages left for them on social media.

The overall aim of the Russian government — be it through trolling, hacking or disinformation — was to spread confusion and unease about government institutions in the West and to shore up popular support at home. The actual techniques were unlikely to be laid out in a paper trail, Mr. Merkurov noted.

The fact that the efforts of the troll farm described in the indictment — the fake campaign protests in Florida or New York; the myriad accounts mimicking Americans set up on Twitter and Facebook; the trips to the United States to organize it all — were so easy to trace back to the Internet Research Agency that it probably underscores that the intelligence services were not involved in running the organization.

The government and its proxies had been using bots and trolls for so long against its internal critics that it probably did not consider that shifting the operations overseas demanded a significantly different approach, said Vladimir Frolov, a foreign affairs analyst.

“It was very ad hoc, very amateurish,” he said. “They did not consider this to be a sensitive operation. They used easily traceable methods.”

A lot of the information in the 37-page indictment had appeared previously in Russia, especially in a nearly 5,000-word article in RBC magazine last November. Quoting unidentified current and former employees, the article’s details ranged from the names of key employees, to their tasks, to their working methods.

Analysts noted that the relatively easily tracked efforts by the Internet Research Agency are very different from, for example, the American investigation into what could be a strategically more threatening case: whether Kaspersky Labs gave a back door entry to Russian intelligence services into United States government computers running its software. Kaspersky Labs strenuously denies any such collusion.

On Thursday the White House also blamed Russia for the calamitous ‘NotPetya’ cyber attack last year, echoing the British government in condemning Moscow for unleashing a virus that shuttered some of Ukraine’s infrastructure and damaged computers globally. Russia denied any link.

Those operations involved highly sophisticated penetration of cybernetworks, the analysts noted, whereas the troll farm work is akin to graffiti — writing nasty messages on Twitter and Facebook.

If there was any substantial Russian influence in the election, it was far more likely from the information hacked from the Democratic Party headquarters that was leaked to the press, Mr. Frolov said.

In Russia, all kinds of dirt about opposition figures turns up online, or even on state television channels, ranging from documentaries that set out to prove these politicians are fifth columnists on the payroll of the State Department to videos from hidden hotel room cameras that show them engaging in extramarital sex.

So for many Russians, the main surprise after the United States indicted the most notorious troll farm was that the work might be considered criminal.

Lyudmila Savchuk, an internet activist who went undercover as an employee at the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, said that there should be thousands of names in the indictment, not just 13 top managers.

“We are in a situation now where these people are not even criticized by society, much less punished legally,” Ms. Savchuk said in a telephone interview. No troll or propagandist ever bears any responsibility for what they write in Russia, she said.

The Internet Research Agency was initially formed in 2013 to attack members of the political opposition, like Aleksei A. Navalny, Mr. Putin’s most outspoken critic. The basic task of the trolls was to flood social media with articles and comments that painted Russia under Mr. Putin as a stable, comfortable country in contrast to the chaos and moral corruption of the West, according to two former trolls who worked there. From domestic matters it moved on to attacking Ukraine and eventually the West.

In Russia, one discussion about the ramifications of the indictment was the extent to which it might actually help the Kremlin. The charges laid out in the indictment roughly correspond with Mr. Putin’s position that perhaps rogue patriots are responsible not only for the trolling, but also for the email hacking and other cyberattacks connected to the U.S. election.

The fact that there were no senior government officials named probably helps Russia, said Mr. Frolov, because that echoed statements from Mr. Putin last summer that any election meddling was the work of eager Russian civilians rather than government agents.

“The first impulse is to dismiss it as inconsequential, something that makes clear that there is no evidence of Russian state involvement in what Mueller describes as an interference operation,” Mr. Frolov said, referring to Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel who brought the indictment. “Assuming it ends up only with those pranksters, that gives Moscow room to maneuver, the ability to distance themselves from this.”

On Saturday, Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, dismissed the indictment as “just blabber.”

“I have no response. We see these statements and indictments multiplying,” Mr. Lavrov said at an international security conference in Munich, Germany.

The official reaction basically mocked the idea that 13 people could somehow muster a negative impact on American democracy. “Mueller’s list: Russian superagents are capable of anything” read one sarcastic headline on a television website.

Source: NYT > World

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