Los Angeles Times

Russian oligarch admits to U.S. election meddling

‘Putin’s chef ’ says he has interfered and will continue to do so.

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The Kremlin-connected entreprene­ur Yevgeny Prigozhin admitted Monday that he had interfered in U.S. elections and would continue to do so — confirming for the first time the accusation­s he has rejected for years.

“Gentlemen, we have interfered, are interferin­g and will interfere. Carefully, precisely, surgically and in our own way, as we know how to do,” Prigozhin boasted in remarks posted on social media.

It was the second major admission in recent months by the 61-year-old businessma­n, who has ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The statement, from the press service of his catering company that earned him the nickname “Putin’s chef,” came on the eve of the U.S. midterm elections.

Prigozhin has previously sought to keep his activities under the radar and now appears to be interested in gaining political clout — although his goal was not immediatel­y clear.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday that Prigozhin’s comments “do not tell us anything new or surprising.”

“It’s well-known and welldocume­nted in the public domain that entities associated with Yevgeny Prigozhin have sought to influence elections around the world, including the United States. The U.S. has worked to expose and counter Russia’s malign influence efforts as we discover them,” she said, noting that Prigozhin has been sanctioned by the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union.

“Part of Russia’s efforts includes promoting narratives aimed at underminin­g democracy and sowing division and discord. It’s not surprising that Russia would be highlighti­ng their attempted efforts and fabricatin­g a story about their successes on the eve of an election,” she added.

In September, Prigozhin publicly stated that he was behind the mercenary force the Wagner Group — a connection he had previously denied — and talked openly about its involvemen­t in Russia’s war in Ukraine. The military contractor also has sent its forces to Syria and sub-Saharan Africa.

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

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

The Justice Department in 2020 moved to dismiss charges against two of the indicted firms, Prigozhinc­ontrolled Concord Management and Consulting LLC and Concord Catering, saying they had concluded that a trial against a corporate defendant with no presence in the U.S. and no prospect of meaningful punishment if convicted would probably 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 U.S. elections, including on Prigozhin and the Internet Research Agency, the troll farm in St. Petersburg that his companies were accused of funding. Prigozhin also has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for election interferen­ce.

Until now, Prigozhin had denied Russian involvemen­t in election interferen­ce.

Russian media, prisoners rights groups and relatives of prisoners this year reported an extensive effort by Wagner — and sometimes Prigozhin personally — to recruit convicts to fight in Ukraine. Prigozhin hasn’t directly confirmed this but said in a statement that “either [the Wagner private military company] and convicts or your children” will be fighting on the front lines.

Last week, Wagner opened a business center in St. Petersburg that Prigozhin has described as a platform for “increasing the defense capabiliti­es” of Russia. On Sunday, he announced through Concord the creation of training centers for militias in two Russian regions that 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.

The onetime owner of a hot-dog stand, Prigozhin opened a swanky restaurant in St. Petersburg that drew interest from Putin.

During his first term in office, Putin took thenFrench President Jacques Chirac to dine at one of 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,” Prigozhin recalled in an interview published in 2011.

His businesses expanded significan­tly.

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

When fighting broke out in 2014 in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatist­s and Kyiv’s forces, Prigozhin said through his spokespeop­le that 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.

 ?? Sergei Ilnitsky Pool Photo ?? YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN has previously said he’s behind the mercenary force the Wagner Group.
Sergei Ilnitsky Pool Photo YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN has previously said he’s behind the mercenary force the Wagner Group.

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