What is ‘Head of Putin’ up to with his discussions of US interference?

Yevgeny Prigozhin had many roles: convicted criminal and hot dog seller. Owner of a posh St. Petersburg restaurant and holder of lucrative government catering contracts. Founder of a mercenary military force involved in the various Russian conflicts.

Prigozhin has kept a low profile over the years. But in recent months, the 61-year-old entrepreneur linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin has become increasingly public with his activities, particularly regarding Moscow’s 8-month war in Ukraine.

This week, he attracted new attention by admitting his – previously denied – involvement in the events that caught the attention of US officials: interference in the US election.

‘PUTIN’S CHEF’

Prigozhin and Putin go back a long way, both born in Leningrad, what is now known as St. Petersburg.

During the last years of the Soviet Union, Prigozhin served a prison term – 10 years by his own admission – although he did not say what it was for.

Subsequently, he owned a hot dog stand, then fancy restaurants that piqued Putin’s interest. During his first term, the Russian leader took then French President Jacques Chirac to dinner at one.

“Vladimir Putin saw how I built a business from a kiosk, he saw that I didn’t mind serving esteemed guests because they were my guests,” Prigozhin recalled in an interview published in 2011.

His businesses have expanded significantly into catering and the provision of school meals. In 2010 Putin helped open the Prigozhin plant which was built with generous loans from a state bank. In Moscow alone, his company Concord has won multi-million dollar contracts to supply meals to public schools. He also organized catering for Kremlin events for several years – earning him the nickname “Putin’s chef” – and provided catering and utility services to the Russian military.

In 2017, opposition figure and corruption fighter Alexei Navalny accused Prigozhin’s firms of violating antitrust laws by bidding for some $387 million in Defense Ministry contracts.

MILITARY CONNECTION

For years, Western media and officials have linked Prigozhin to a Russian private military contractor called the Wagner Group, a mercenary force allegedly involved in conflicts in Libya and Syria, as well as under-the-radar military operations in through at least half a dozen African countries. The group also played a leading role in the fighting in Ukraine.

Prigozhin had always denied having anything to do with Wagner. But in September, he acknowledged being the founder of Wagner in a social media statement released by his companies’ press office. He said that when fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatists and Kyiv forces in 2014, he was looking to “build a group (of fighters) who would go (there) and defend the Russians”.

He also admitted that Wagner “defended the Syrian people, other people in Arab countries, underprivileged Africans and Latin Americans”.

A video emerged recently of a man resembling Prigozhin visiting Russian penal colonies to recruit prisoners to fight in Ukraine. Asked about these visits, he did not directly confirm or deny it, contenting himself with saying through his press service that he was incarcerated and that he was therefore in several prisons.

Prigozhin also spoke of the construction of a “Wagner line” – a system of trenches and anti-tank defenses – in Luhansk, one of the four Ukrainian provinces illegally annexed by Moscow in September, and the creation of training centers for defensive militias in Russia. Belgorod and Kursk regions bordering Ukraine

Wagner also opened a business center in St. Petersburg to much fanfare, and Prigozhin boasted that it would become a platform to increase Russia’s “defense capabilities”, promising to expand to d other locations if successful.

ELECTORAL INTERFERENCE

In 2018, Prigozhin and a dozen other Russian nationals and three Russian companies were accused in the United States of carrying out a secret social media campaign aimed at fomenting discord and dividing American public opinion before the 2016 presidential election won by Republican Donald Trump. They were charged as part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference. Prigozhin was subsequently sanctioned by the US Treasury Department.

After the indictment, the RIA Novosti news agency quoted him as saying, in a clearly sarcastic remark: “Americans are very impressionable people; they see what they want to see. I treat them with great respect. I’m not at all upset to be on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them see him.

In 2020, the Department of Justice decided to dismiss charges against two of the companies, Concord Management and Consulting LLC and Concord Catering, saying they had concluded a lawsuit against a defendant company with no presence in the United States and no prospect. of significant punishment even if convicted would likely expose sensitive law enforcement tools and techniques.

In July, the State Department offered a reward of up to $10 million for information about Russian interference in the US election, including Prigozhin and the Internet Research Agency, the St. Petersburg that his companies were accused of financing.

Prigozhin had denied any involvement in any of this – until Monday, the day before the US midterm elections. The press service of one of his companies posted on social media its response to a question from a Russian media outlet about allegations of such interference.

“Gentlemen, we have interfered, are interfering and will interfere. Carefully, precisely, surgically and in our own way, as we know how to do,” the response read. “During our one-time operations, we will remove both the kidneys and the liver.”

Some state-funded Russian media called his remarks ironic.

In response, the White House called him a “known bad actor who has been sanctioned by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union,” and State Department spokesman Ned Price said Prigozhin’s “bold confessions, if any, appear to be just a manifestation of the impunity enjoyed by crooks and cronies under President Putin and the Kremlin.

Prigozhin reacted to Price’s remarks in English, saying, among other things, that the United States has “grossly interfered” in elections around the world for decades.

SARCASM OR BOOST YOUR PROFILE?

Whether sarcastic or not, the remark attracted wide attention in the West. It also fueled long-running speculation that he was seeking a bigger role in Russian politics.

Prigozhin said through his press service that he does not plan to “formalise his political status in any way. … And if I am offered this, I think I will refuse.

He joined the strongman of the Russian republic of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, in publicly criticizing the top brass in Moscow for their conduct of the war.

Some media have suggested that Prigozhin’s influence over Putin is growing and that he is seeking a high political post. But analysts have warned against overestimating its political importance.

“He is not one of Putin’s relatives or a confidant,” said Mark Galeotti of University College London, who specializes in Russian security affairs, speaking on his “In Moscow’s Shadows” podcast.

“Prigozhin does what the Kremlin wants and does very well. But that’s the problem – he’s part of the staff rather than the family,” Galeotti said.

Analysts say Prigozhin’s influence has grown but remains rather limited.

Tatyana Stanovaya, founder of the independent think tank R.Politik, in a recent Telegram article, called Prigozhin “influential in his own way.”

Although Prigozhin denies it, Stanovaya said he meets Putin regularly, especially recently. She added that he had close ties to some security agencies and “with some of his duties he can even claim the role of Putin’s private special duty,” Stanovaya wrote.

She noted, however, that her influence “is indeed greatly exaggerated in the West” and confined to a “narrow and particular” niche.

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