Traditionally, conflicts between nations begin with a declaration of war. Friday’s indictment accusing 13 Russians and three Russian entities of interfering in the 2016 presidential election amounted to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s first official shot at Moscow. It remains to be seen whether he can pull the rest of America’s government—including the White House—along for the ride, but the prosecutor is fighting the battle on his own ground, treating the Kremlin more like a criminal conspiracy than as a rival state.
This is obviously a major development in what has, until now, largely been a probe focused on bumbling Americans. It's also a move Moscow will struggle to respond to in the weeks ahead.
The Russians are accused of conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and six counts of “aggravated identity theft” as part of what Mueller's indictment claims was a knowing campaign of “information warfare” waged from as early as 2014 intended to “sow discord in the US political system.” Of course, even if the Kremlin were willing to play ball—and there is no reason to think it will be—the Russian constitution precludes extraditing its own nationals; none of these people are in any imminent danger of a perp walk. Meanwhile, the alleged paymaster of the whole operation, close Putin confidant Evgeny Prigozhin, is already on a sanctions list because of his alleged support for Russian aggression in Ukraine. (If that wasn’t enough, he is also one of the owners of Evro-Polis, a company reportedly backing the Russian mercenaries killed by US forces in Syria earlier this month.)
The big picture painted by the indictment is essentially confirmation of what had been widely known or assumed: that a “troll factory” called the Internet Research Agency had been operating in St Petersburg since at least 2013, that since 2014 it had been busy trying to stir up division in the United States, and that it operated largely through fake identities.
But the real importance of the indictment is two-fold. First, it strongly reminds everyone that the point of the Mueller investigation is not to see whether the Russians are aggressively meddling in other countries’ politics—spoiler alert: of course they are. Instead, it’s to uncover whether actual crimes were committed along the way. On that point, it’s now clear Mueller thinks they were.
Secondly, the indictment suggests that even if, as some claim, Mueller is “after” Trump—whether for obstruction of justice or some other crime—he may try to get to him through Putin. In other words, this is an investigation into Russian meddling, wherever it leads. After all, the Russians were allegedly promiscuous in their support, backing everyone from Bernie Sanders to the NRA when they thought it might help open divisions and stoke up conflicts.
So how is this playing in Russia? Prigozhin, for his part, shrugged off the charges, saying that the Americans were “impressionable people, they see what they want to see… if they want to see the devil, let them.” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also dismissed the whole thing, saying that “until we see the facts, everything else is just blather.” (Of course, if Moscow wanted to see the facts, it might actually welcome a real trial for the accused.) The official government newspaper Rossiiskaya gazeta ran a single, three-paragraph news item under the headline “Trump believes the Mueller investigation proves no ‘collusion with the Russian Federation.’”
But much of the Russian media is paying more attention to the case than you might expect. Even if they wisely lead with the Kremlin’s or Prigozhin’s denials, outlets from the business paper Kommersant to the sensationalist Moskovskii komsomolets are running lengthy accounts of the indictment, with names, numbers and accusations.
For Moscow, this is a difficult issue to handle, behind the ritual nod-and-wink denials.
There remains a certain bravado, an inverse pride in their trolls and other spooks, on part of Russia’s political elite. Indeed, you could argue that the more Mueller and others talk up Russian capabilities and the impact of their meddling on the world's most powerful democracy, the stronger the Kremlin looks. To be blunt, if you have already made the decision to be—and be seen as—a global meddler and bully, then you might as well be considered good at it.
I have called this “dark power,” the way some countries can try and get what they want precisely by being regarded as dangerous and unpredictable. In the long run, this is corrosive, leaving a country out in the cold as another pariah. But for now, Putin appears content with it.
At the same time, though, it looks as if Russia's bill for years of these so-called “active measures” (covert political operations) may be coming due. It is not just, or perhaps even not mainly, about trolls. There is considerable skepticism and debate about how much effect they really had on the 2016 election. But the point is that they appear to be just one part of a multi-vector “political war” being waged, one that also involves untraceable “black account” money, hacking, espionage and intimidation.
The more this becomes visible and proven, the more that the United States—and its allies—will not only be able to resist, but become likely to respond, whether with new sanctions or more. For years, Moscow has relied on the difficulty in proving what has widely been assumed about its shadow operations. But bit by bit, by picking at smaller, specific cases that could, in due course, show the full picture, Mueller is bringing Moscow's meddling into greater focus.
In other words, this is like an anti-mafia RICO case, where one predicate offense can bring down a whole gang. Except in this case, it’s applied to a country.
And if and when Mueller does go all the way, things could get ugly for Russia. Moscow has strikingly little faith in Donald Trump: My own conversations with Russian officials and think-tankers suggest they regard it as inevitable that the Mueller investigation, even if not explicitly meant for this purpose, will in due course lead to a tougher US line against Moscow. Despite Trump’s perverse—even to Russian ears—praise for Putin, there is a pervasive sense that he is both not in control of the American system and also interested only in himself. In short, Russians suspect that if the price of Trump’s survival is to throw Russia under the bus, he will do exactly that. The closer Mueller’s team get to him and the truth of what happened in 2016, the greater the risk of new, strong US measures against the Kremlin.
Already, the Russians have seen themselves locked into sanctions regimes likely to stay in place for years. The US has also supplied military aid to the Ukrainians facing off against Moscow's forces and proxies in the Donbas, and NATO is arguably at its greatest level of readiness since the end of the Cold War. Moscow also had to shrug off the deaths of an still-unknown number of Russian mercenaries in Syria in a US counterstrike on February 7.
The fact is that the Kremlin’s shadow war works when it stays in the shadows. Mueller is bringing it out into the light as he builds an open criminal case. That will, the Russians have to fear, only increase the pressure for yet more action.
It might be because Congress, over the White House’s objections, seeks to punish Moscow—that’s already happened with the sanctions bill Trump had no choice but to sign last year. Or it may be that Trump, desperate to prove he is no Kremlin stooge, leads the charge. Either way, for Moscow, Mueller’s indictment is a worrying sign of troubles to come.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Professor Mark Galeotti is a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague and author of the forthcoming book
The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia.
Follow him on Twitter.