‘Putin’s chef’ admits interfering in US elections

Video also has emerged recently of a man resembling Yevgeny Prigozhin visiting Russian penal colonies to recruit prisoners to fight in Ukraine.

Yevgeny Prigozhin
Yevgeny Prigozhin

Kremlin-connected entrepreneur Yevgeny Prigozhin has admitted interfering in US elections and said he will continue to do so — confirming for the first time accusations he has rejected for years.

“We have interfered, are interfering and will continue to interfere. Carefully, precisely, surgically and in our own way,” Mr Prigozhin said in remarks posted on social media.

The statement, from the press service of his catering company that earned him the nickname “Putin’s chef”, came on the eve of US midterm elections in response to a request for comment.

It was the second major admission in recent months by the 61-year-old businessman with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr Prigozhin previously sought to keep his activities under the radar but now appears increasingly interested in gaining political clout.

A senior US administration official, who was not authorised to discuss Mr Prigozhin’s remarks publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity said: “While we would not speculate to his specific motivations, we know Russia’s efforts includes promoting narratives aimed at undermining democracy and sowing division and discord. It is not surprising that Russia would be highlighting their attempted efforts and fabricating a story about their successes on the eve of election day.”

Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin is shown prior to a meeting of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Kremlin in 2017
Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin is shown prior to a meeting of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Kremlin in 2017 (Sergei Ilnitsky/AP)

In September, he also publicly said he was behind the Wagner Group mercenary force — something he had also previously denied — and talked openly about its involvement in Russia’s eight-month-old war in Ukraine. The military contractor has also sent its forces to places like Syria and sub-Saharan Africa.

Video also has emerged recently of a man resembling Mr Prigozhin visiting Russian penal colonies to recruit prisoners to fight in Ukraine.

In 2018, Mr Prigozhin and a dozen other Russian nationals and three Russian companies were charged in the US with operating a covert social media campaign aimed at stirring up discord and dividing American public opinion ahead of the 2016 presidential election won by Republican Donald Trump. They were indicted as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference.

The Justice Department in 2020 moved to dismiss charges against two of the indicted firms, Concord Management and Consulting and Concord Catering, saying they had concluded a trial against a corporate defendant with no presence in the US and no prospect of meaningful 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 US dollars (£8.72 million) for information about Russian interference in US elections, including on Mr Prigozhin and the Internet Research Agency, the troll farm in St Petersburg his companies were accused of funding.

Mr Prigozhin denied involvement in election interference until now.

Russian media, prisoner’s rights groups and relatives of prisoners this year reported an extensive effort by Wagner and sometimes Mr Prigozhin personally to recruit convicts to fight in Ukraine. Mr Prigozhin has not directly confirmed it but said in one statement “either (the Wagner private military company) and convicts or your children” will be fighting on the front lines.

Last week, Wagner opened a business centre in St Petersburg, which Mr Prigozhin has described as a platform for “increasing the defence capabilities” of Russia.

On Sunday, he also announced through the Concord press service the creation of training centres for militias in Russia’s Belgorod and Kursk regions, which border Ukraine.

“A local resident, like no one else, knows his territories, is able to fight against sabotage and reconnaissance groups and take the first blow if necessary,” he said.

A one-time hot dog stand owner, Mr Prigozhin opened a swanky restaurant in St Petersburg that drew interest from Mr Putin. During his first term in office, Mr Putin took then-French president Jacques Chirac to dine at one of Mr Prigozhin’s restaurants.

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

His businesses expanded significantly. In 2010, Mr Putin attended the opening of Mr Prigozhin’s factory making school lunches that was built on generous loans by a state bank. In Moscow alone, his company Concord won millions of dollars in contacts to provide meals at public schools. Mr Prigozhin has also organised catering for Kremlin events for several years and has provided catering and utility services to the Russian military.

When fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatists and Kyiv’s forces in 2014, Mr Prigozhin said though his spokesmen he was seeking to “put together a group (of fighters) that would go (there) and defend the Russians”.

Russian laws prohibit the operation of private military contractors but state media in recent months have openly reported on Wagner’s involvement in Ukraine.

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