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Meet the shady Putin crony funding Russia’s troll farm and mercenary army

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the man known as “Putin’s chef,” was recently indicted by Mueller.

russia, mueller indictments, 2016 elections, putin Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the man widely referred to as “Putin’s chef,” doesn’t actually prepare food. Instead, he cooks up international plots — like Russia’s campaign to use social media to undermine Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and promote Donald Trump’s.

Prigozhin was among the 13 Russian nationals indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller in February and is by far the most well-known. His ties to Putin go back to at least 2001: He’s worked on everything from election interference to setting up pro-Putin newspapers to sending Russian mercenaries to Syria to fight on behalf of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

A recent Washington Post report says that he personally approved a Russian mercenary attack on US forces stationed in eastern Syria in early February; US intelligence, per the Post, intercepted a conversation where he promoted the idea.

“Putin’s chef” would be better described as Putin’s fixer: someone who does the Russian leader’s dirty work, while giving Putin plausible deniability if things go wrong.

“Prigozhin has managed to make himself useful on both the [covert and military] sides of Putin’s efforts to reassert Russia on the international stage,” Hannah Thoburn, an expert on Russia at the Hudson Institute, tells me. “[That’s] no small accomplishment for a guy who spent nine years in a Soviet prison and began his business career in restaurants.”

And Prigozhin’s rise, while deeply strange in its details, isn’t just a one-off. It speaks to a fundamental truth about the way the Putin regime operates — not just as a traditional government, but also as a kind of criminal cartel in cahoots with its wealthiest private citizens.

Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin?

If you’re being generous, you could cast Yevgeny Prigozhin as a character in a Russian Horatio Alger novel: a boy with humble roots who rose up to become one of the richest men in Russia. But the reality is just a little more sordid.

Born in 1961 in St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad), the young Prigozhin quickly fell in with a bad crowd. In 1981, the Russian publication Meduza reports, he pleaded guilty to “committing robbery as part of an organized criminal group, fraud, and involving minors in prostitution.”

When he was released in 1990, the Soviet Union was in the process of collapsing, and Russia’s new private sector was beginning to take shape. Prigozhin went into food services — setting up a hot dog stand, managing a grocery chain, launching a catering business, and founding two high-end restaurants.

It was at one of his fancy joints, a converted commercial boat called New Island, where the first known meeting between Prigozhin and fellow St. Petersburg native Vladimir Putin took place.

In 2001, newly elected President Putin decided to bring French President Jacques Chirac to New Island to sample its French and Russian menu. Prigozhin didn’t actually cook the food himself, per the New York Times, but he did serve the meal personally and lingered ostentatiously near the two leaders — the origin of the “Putin’s chef” nickname.

Prigozhin managed to parlay this first meeting into a deeper relationship with Putin and his staff, which is perhaps the smartest thing he could have done for his finances. In the Russian system, connections to the government mean everything. At various different points, Prigozhin’s catering businesses served the St. Petersburg school system, the Moscow school system, and 90 percent of the entire Russian military. He received roughly a billion dollars from these contracts alone.

Russia’s 2011 legislative elections, widely seen as undemocratic and uncompetitive, sparked major anti-Putin demonstrations in Moscow. A Putin deputy, Vyacheslav Volodin, came up with the idea of countering these protests with a campaign of internet disinformation. He set up an organization called the Internet Research Agency to try to troll the protests into the ground, doing things like posting comments on social media accusing opposition leader Alexei Navalny of being a foreign agent.

The Kremlin didn’t want to be openly associated with this propaganda effort. So it turned to at least one loyal outside funder — Prigozhin — to fund the agency’s work. He would pay for the staff and the facilities while quietly taking direction from the Kremlin.

The Internet Research Agency was at the heart of special counsel Mueller’s mid-February indictments. They were the group that, since 2014, had been planning a campaign of interference in the US election.

The organization eventually focused its efforts on tearing down the Clinton campaign and more generally spreading chaos in the US electoral system. Agency trolls once organized an anti-Islam rally and a counter-rally on the same day to foster conflict; they also created an Instagram account called “Woke Blacks” that slammed the Democratic nominee as “Killary.”

The Russian trolls were quite brazen about praising Prigozhin for his support. On May 29, just two days before Prigozhin’s 55th birthday, several agency employees posed for a photo in front of the White House. They were holding a banner that said “Happy 55th Birthday Dear Boss.”

Prigozhin’s deadly work — and how Vladimir Putin’s Russia really operates

russia, mueller indictments, 2016 elections, putin Mikhail Metzel/TASS/Getty Images

The Internet Research Agency shows why Prigozhin is useful to the Kremlin. He’s a willing source of outside funding, allowing them to try some risky things — like interfering with an American election — without having to put Putin’s fingerprint on it.

This is Prigozhin’s relationship with a mercenary organization named, innocuously enough, the Wagner Group.

“Private military companies are technically illegal in Russia, but this one seems to exist and work as a kind of cutout of the Kremlin,” Thoburn says of Wagner. “Using Wagner in delicate or dangerous matters allows the Russian government to remove some of the risk that large numbers of official Russian soldiers will be killed.”

Much like in the case of the Internet Research Agency, Prigozhin — who has no military or hacking experience to speak of — doesn’t necessarily direct day-to-day operations. Per the BBC, his key role is as moneyman, the Daddy Warbucks of Russian military adventurism. Think of him as a kind of money launderer: The Russian government gives him millions via government contracts, and then he spends a fraction of that money on unofficial Russian black ops.

Wagner has also reportedly played a major part in Russia’s invasion of Crimea and low-level war in Eastern Ukraine, recruiting gunmen to fight on Russia’s behalf without appearing in its uniform. Last summer, the US Treasury officially sanctioned Wagner and its director, Dmitry Utkin, for threatening “the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

Wagner fighters have also shown up in Syria, where they’ve been fighting on behalf of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. On February 7, they attacked a US base at an oil refinery near the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor along with other pro-Assad forces.

The Americans were working with local fighters housed there, and Prigozhin — in consultation with the Syrian government and possibly Kremlin higher-ups, according to the Post — decided he’d be willing to risk an assault.

The attack was a fiasco. US warplanes hammered the Wagner mercenaries, forcing them to withdraw without doing substantial damage to the American positions. One Wagner employee, in a taped phone call obtained by Polygraph, estimated that at least 210 fighters were killed by the Americans.

“We got our fucking asses beat rough,” the Wagner mercenary said. “My men called me, they’re there drinking now … it’s a total fuckup.”

This incident raised the level of tension between Moscow and Washington; on February 23, President Trump condemned Russia’s intervention in Syria (which he had once proposed coordinating with) as a “disgrace.” But so far, Putin has not faced major domestic consequences for the large numbers of Russian dead.

This is precisely why he uses people like Prigozhin to fund these kinds of activities, according to Thoburn.

“When, as happened recently in Syria, there are mass casualties, the Kremlin has some plausible deniability to both its citizens — who are generally thought to be pretty sensitive to the deaths of their sons in foreign wars ... and in the international arena,” she explains.

This model is bigger than Prigozhin. In his 2018 book The New Autocracy, UCLA Russia expert Daniel Treisman sees the use of outsiders like Prigozhin as characteristic of Putin’s current governing strategy.

“Putin recruits freelancers — reportedly referred to inside the Kremlin as curators — to manage particular problem areas,” Treisman writes. “He lets the individuals assemble their own teams and then, in the president’s name, demand assistance and obedience from others.”

The idea behind relying on these people is the plausible deniability, as Thoburn points out, but also speed and efficiency: Working outside the government, unbound by rules, gives people like Prigozhin a certain ability to act on Putin’s rules quickly and efficiently. That’s part of why the Internet Research Agency operated so effectively from the shadows for so long.

But Treisman points out there are also major downsides. These so-called “curators” undermine the actual Russian government and can sometimes cause international incidents — like, say, by attacking a US military position and getting more than 200 people killed. As Treisman writes:

[Putin’s] resorts to manual control and “curators” create confusion, undermine respect for formal procedures, and exacerbate bureaucrats’ reluctance to take on responsibility themselves ... No one quite knows who has the president’s special authorization and for what. The constant sense of urgency and the injection of siloviki [former intelligence agents] into civilian policy lead to a contradictory mix of rash decisions and defensive inactivity.

The use of curators like Prigozhin may seem like another stroke of Putin’s evil genius. But it also shows why a system that relies heavily on officially sanctioned corruption as a way of doing business is far more rickety, inefficient, and error-prone than many outside observers assume.

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