Oligarch tied to Russian troll factory behind US election interference plot earned nickname as 'Putin's cook'

On Feb 16,  Yevgeny Prigozhin was one of 13 Russians indicted by a federal grand jury for interfering in the US election.
On Feb 16, Yevgeny Prigozhin was one of 13 Russians indicted by a federal grand jury for interfering in the US election. PHOTO: REUTERS

ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA (NYTIMES) - Long before he was indicted by the United States for his links to the troll factory that spearheaded Russian efforts to meddle in the 2016 US elections, Yevgeny Prigozhin emerged from prison just as the Soviet Union was collapsing and opened a hot-dog stand.

Soon, he has said, the rubles were piling up faster than his mother could count them in the kitchen of their modest apartment, and he was set on his improbable career. He earned the slightly mocking nickname of "Putin's cook."

Despite his humble, troubled youth, Prigozhin became one of Russia's richest men, joining a charmed circle whose members often share one particular attribute: their proximity to President Vladimir Putin. The small club of loyalists who gain Putin's trust often feast, as Prigozhin has, on enormous state contracts. In return, they are expected to provide other, darker services to the Kremlin as needed.

On Friday, Prigozhin was one of 13 Russians indicted by a federal grand jury for interfering in the US election. According to the indictment, Prigozhin, 56, controlled the entity that financed the troll factory, known as the Internet Research Agency, which waged "information warfare against the United States" by creating fictitious social-media personas, spreading falsehoods and promoting messages supportive of Donald Trump and critical of Hillary Clinton. Prigozhin has denied involvement.

"The Americans are very impressionable people; they see what they want to see," the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti quoted Prigozhin as saying on Friday. "I have a lot of respect for them. I am not upset at all that I ended up on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them see him."

Prigozhin's critics - including opposition politicians, journalists and activists, the US Treasury and now the special counsel, Robert Mueller - say he has emerged as Putin's go-to oligarch for that and a variety of sensitive and often-unsavory missions, like recruiting contract soldiers to fight in Ukraine and Syria.

"He is not afraid of dirty tasks," said Lyubov Sobol of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, an organisation established by the prominent opposition leader Alexei Navalny to investigate abuse of state contracts and other illicit schemes.

"He can fulfill any task for Putin, ranging from fighting the opposition to sending mercenaries to Syria," she said. "He serves certain interests in certain spheres, and Putin trusts him."

The United States imposed sanctions against Prigozhin in December 2016, followed by his two main, publicly acknowledged companies, Concord Management and Consulting, and Concord Catering. In doing so, the Treasury Department said he provided extensive support to senior Russian Federation officials, including constructing a military base near Ukraine that was used to deploy Russian troops.

The most notorious venture linked to Prigozhin, however, is the troll farm that is accused of attacking opposition figures in Russia and seeking to magnify and aggravate social and political divisions in the West.

The indictment on Friday says, among other charges, that Prigozhin frequently met in 2015 and 2016 with Mikhail Bystrov, the top official in the troll factory, which ran a disinformation campaign called Project Lakhta that by September 2016 had a monthly budget of US$1.2 million (S$1.6 million).

Boris Vishnevsky, an opposition member of the city council in St Petersburg, who has called for an official investigation into threats by Prigozhin against journalists, said the Kremlin endorsed projects like the troll farm without directly organising them. "This is done by somebody who receives large-scale government contracts," he said. "The fact that he gets these contracts is a hidden way to pay for his services."

When the troll factory was formed in 2013, its basic task was to flood social media with articles and comments that painted Russia under Putin as stable and comfortable compared with the chaotic, morally corrupt West. The trolls soon branched into overseas operations focused on Russian adversaries like Ukraine and the US.

Facebook, Twitter and Google have all identified the Internet Research Agency as a prime source of provocative posts on divisive US issues, including race, religion, gun laws and gay rights, particularly during the 2016 presidential election. Facebook found, for example, that the agency had posted 80,000 pieces of content that reached more than 126 million Americans.

Last month, Twitter announced it had started e-mailing more than 677,000 people in the US who interacted with accounts from the agency during the election.

Prigozhin said he was too busy to be interviewed for this article; in fact, he has given just two extended interviews in the past decade. He issued a denial of the accusations of meddling in the 2016 election, however, after a recent investigation published by the Russian newsmagazine RBC.

"Neither Concord Company nor other structures owned by the businessman are in any way connected with the activities directed toward meddling in the US election," RBC quoted one of Prigozhin's representatives as saying.

Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, also denied any Kremlin connection to the Internet Research Agency.

Delovoy Peterburg, an independent daily newspaper published in St Petersburg, listed Prigozhin last year as ranking 83rd among the city's 304 ruble billionaires, with 11 billion rubles, or almost US$200 million. The newspaper included only property in the public record, said Irina Pankratova, an investigative reporter. If all property linked to him had been counted, she said, he would rank in the top five.

FROM HOT DOG BUSINESS TO SERVING WORLD LEADERS

Born in 1961 in what was then Leningrad, now St Petersburg, Prigozhin showed adolescent promise as a champion cross-country skier that was cut short in 1981 by a prison sentence for robbery and other crimes, according to an extensive biography compiled by Meduza, an online investigative publication.

When he got out after nine years, he started the hot-dog business, which led to his running a chain of convenience stores and eventually to starting several deluxe if kitschy restaurants in St Petersburg. His patrons "wanted to see something new in their lives and were tired of just eating cutlets with vodka", Prigozhin told a magazine called Elite Society.

An old rust bucket that he and his soon-to-be-jettisoned partners converted to the floating New Island Restaurant became St Petersburg's most fashionable dining spot.

Eventually, Putin himself showed up, towing world leaders. He hosted President Jacques Chirac of France and his wife in 2001 and President George W. Bush in 2002. Putin celebrated his own birthday there in 2003.

During these glittering occasions, Prigozhin made sure to hover nearby, sometimes even clearing empty plates. He was not a chef himself, despite the "Putin's cook" moniker.

Putin apparently admired his style. The president "saw how I built my business starting from a kiosk," Prigozhin told Gorod 812, a St Petersburg magazine. "He saw how I was not above serving a plate."

STATE CONTRACTS

The first significant state contracts began flowing in after Prigozhin founded Concord Catering. Starting with the St Petersburg schools, he moved on to feeding the far more numerous Moscow schools and, finally, most of the Russian military. His trademark became lavish state banquets, including inauguration feasts for both recent presidents, Dmitry Medvedev and Putin.

In just the past five years, Prigozhin has received government contracts worth US$3.1 billion, the Anti-Corruption Foundation reported.

Russian law mandates that any contract go to the lowest bidder, but the winning tenders were only a fraction lower than the rest. Otherwise the bids were virtually identical, the Anti-Monopoly Service said, calling the 2015 bids fixed.

The government announced that it would not press charges. Nobody anticipates Prigozhin appearing in a Russian court any time soon.

"We don't expect him to be punished given that he is among the president's closest friends," said Maksim Reznik, another St Petersburg legislator demanding that he be investigated.