Thirteen Russians were accused of an elaborate plot to disrupt the 2016 US presidential election with a social media campaign intended to support then-businessman Donald Trump and disparaging his rival Hillary Clinton, according to an indictment on Friday.
A US federal grand jury indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities accusing them of charges including conspiracy, wire fraud, bank fraud and aggravated identity theft.
The 37-page indictment filed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller described a conspiracy to disrupt the US election by people who adopted false online identities to push divisive messages, travelled to the United States to collect intelligence, 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 truck and another to wear a costume "portraying Clinton in a prison uniform."
The operation was funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with ties to President Vladimir Putin who has been dubbed “Putin’s chef” by Russian media, according to the document. His restaurants and catering businesses have hosted Mr Putin’s dinners with foreign dignitaries.
"The Americans are very emotional people, they see what they want to see. I have great respect for them. I am not at all upset that I am on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them," Russian news agency RIA quoted Mr Prigozhin as saying.
Mr Trump claimed to have been cleared, noting that the alleged interference began in 2014 which he said was before he announced he would run for president. "The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong — no collusion!" he wrote in a tweet.
Russia's Internet Research Agency "had a strategic goal to sow discord in the US political system, including the 2016 US presidential election," the indictment said. The Internet Research Agency, based in St. Petersburg, Russia, is one of the three companies facing charges.
The response from Russia was swift with foreign ministry spokeswoman labelling the allegations as absurd.
"13 people interfered in the U.S. elections?! 13 against an intelligence services budget of billions? Against intelligence and counterintelligence, against the latest developments and technologies? Absurd? Yes," Maria Zakharova wrote in a post on Facebook.
The indictment broadly echoes the conclusions of a January 2017 US intelligence community assessment, which found that Russia had meddled in the election, and that its goals eventually included aiding Trump, the Republican candidate who went on to win a surprise victory over Democratic Party candidate Clinton in November 2016.
"This indictment serves as a reminder that people are not always who they appear to be on the internet," Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, told reporters.
"The indictment alleges that the Russian conspirators want to promote discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy. We must not allow them to succeed."
He said the new indictment does not allege that Russian meddling altered the outcome of the election.
Mr Trump has never unequivocally accepted the intelligence agencies' report, and has denounced Mr Mueller's probe into whether his campaign colluded with the Kremlin as a "witch hunt."
Facebook and Twitter both declined to comment on the indictment.
"Defendants posted derogatory information about a number of candidates, and by early to mid-2016, Defendants' operations included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump ... and disparaging Hillary Clinton," the court document said.
The indictment appeared likely to provide ammunition to Democrats and others arguing for a continued aggressive probe of the matter.
The 2017 intelligence agency finding has spawned investigations into any ties between Republican Trump's campaign and Moscow. Russia denies interfering in the election. Trump denies any collusion by his campaign.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday that he had already seen evidence Russia was targeting US elections in November, when Republican control of the House of Representatives and Senate are at stake, plus a host of positions in state governments.
"Frankly, the United States is under attack," Coats said at an annual hearing on worldwide threats.
Russia would try to interfere in the 2018 US midterm elections by using social media to spread propaganda and misleading reports, much as it did in the 2016 campaign, intelligence chiefs said at the hearing.
Before Friday, four people, including Mr Trump's former national security adviser and former campaign chairman, had been charged in Mr Mueller's investigation.