What is Putin’s chef cooking up by talking about US intervention?
Yevgeny Prigozhin played many roles: a convicted criminal and a sausage seller. Owner of a fine restaurant in Saint Petersburg and holder of lucrative government catering contracts. The founder of a mercenary military force involved in various conflicts of Russia.
Prigozhin has maintained a low profile over the years. But in recent months, the 61-year-old businessman with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin has become more and more public through his activities, especially regarding Moscow’s eight-month-old war in Ukraine.
This week he gained new attention with his admission – which he has previously denied – his involvement in the events that caught the attention of US officials: interference in US elections..
Prigozhin and Putin go way back in time, having both been born in Leningrad, now known as Saint Petersburg.
During the last years of the Soviet Union, Prigozhin served a time in prison – 10 years by his own admission – although he did not say for what purpose.
After that, he owned a sausage stand and then fine restaurants that attracted Putin’s interest. In his first term, the Russian leader took then-French President Jacques Chirac to dinner at one of them.
Prigozhin recalls in an interview published in 2011: “Vladimir Putin saw how I created a business from a kiosk, and saw that I would not mind serving distinguished guests because they were my guests.”
His business has expanded greatly to include serving and serving school lunches. In 2010, Putin helped open the Prigozhin plant, which was built on generous loans by a state bank. In Moscow alone, his company, Concorde, won contracts worth millions of dollars to provide meals in public schools. He also organized catering for Kremlin events for several years – which earned 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 companies of violating antitrust laws by bidding about $387 million in Defense Department contracts.
For years, media reports and Western officials have linked Prigozhin to a private Russian military contractor called the Wagner GroupA mercenary force said to have been involved in conflicts in Libya and Syria, as well as in military operations under the radar across at least six African countries. The group also played a prominent role in the fighting in Ukraine.
Prigozhin has always denied having anything to do with Wagner. But in September, he admitted to being the founder of Wagner in a social media statement published by his company’s press service. He said that when fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatists and Kyiv’s forces in 2014, he was seeking to “assemble a group (of fighters) that will go (there) and defend the Russians”.
He also admitted that Wagner “defended the Syrian people, the peoples of other Arab countries, disadvantaged Africans, and Latin America.”
A video recently emerged of a man resembling Prigozhin visiting Russia’s penal colonies to recruit prisoners to fight in Ukraine. When asked about these visits, he did not directly confirm or deny them, and only said through his press service that he had previously been detained, and therefore was in a number of prisons.
Prigozhin also spoke about the creation of the “Wagner Line” – a system of trenches and anti-tank defenses – in Luhansk, one of 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 mall in Saint Petersburg with great fanfare, and Prigozhin boasted that it would become a platform to increase Russia’s “defensive capabilities”, promising to expand to other locations if successful.
In 2018, Prigozhin, dozens of other Russian citizens and three Russian companies in the United States were accused of running a secret social media campaign aimed at sowing discord and dividing American public opinion ahead of the 2016 presidential election that Republican Donald Trump won. They were indicted as part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference. Prigozhin was subsequently punished by the US Treasury.
After the indictment, he was quoted by the RIA Novosti news agency as saying, in a clearly sarcastic remark: “Americans are very impressionable people; they are very impressionable people. They see what they want to see. I treat them with great respect. I am not at all upset that I am on this list. If They wanted to see Satan, so let them see him.”
The Department of Justice moved in 2020 to dismiss the charges against two companies, Concord Management and Consulting Ltd. and Concord Catering, saying they were a trial against a defendant company without a presence in the United States and no prospect of a meaningful sentence even if convicted would potentially expose law enforcement tools and techniques. sensitive.
In July, the State Department offered a reward of up to $10 million For information on Russian interference in the US election, including on Prigozhin and the Internet Research Agency, the St. Petersburg trolley farm his companies are accused of financing.
Prigozhin denied involvement in any of this – until Monday, on the eve of the US midterm elections. And the press service of one of his companies published on social media his response to a question from a Russian media outlet about allegations of such interference.
“Gentlemen, we have intervened, they intervene and they will intervene. The response came carefully, meticulously, surgically, and in our own way, as we know how to do it.” “During our delicate operations, we will remove the kidneys and liver at once.”
Some state-funded Russian media called his comments ironic.
In response, the White House called him a “notorious bad actor who has been sanctioned by the US, UK and EU”, and State Department spokesman Ned Price said Prigozhin’s “audacious admission, if any, appears to be just. A manifestation of his impunity.” Crooks and crooks under President Putin and the Kremlin.
Prigozhin responded to Price’s comments in English, saying, among other things, that the United States had been “brazenly interfering” in elections around the world for decades.
SARCASM or enhance his profile?
And whether this remark is ironic or not, it has garnered wide attention in the West. It has also fueled long-standing speculation that he is seeking a greater role in the Russian political landscape.
Prigozhin through his press service said that he does not plan “to formalize his political situation in any way. … And if he offered me this, I think I would refuse.”
He has joined the powerful leader of the Russian republic of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, in his public criticism of Moscow’s military officers for its conduct of the war.
Some media reports indicated that Prigozhin’s influence on Putin was increasing and that he was seeking a prominent political position. But analysts cautioned against overestimating its political significance.
“He is not one of Putin’s personalities or close associates,” said Mark Galeotti of University College London, who specializes in Russian security affairs, speaking in his podcast “In the Shadows of Moscow”.
“Prigozhin does what the Kremlin wants and does very well for himself in the process. But that’s the thing – he is part of the staff, not part of the family,” Galeotti said.
Analysts say Prigogine’s influence has grown, but remains somewhat limited.
Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the independent research center R.Politik, in a recent Telegram post titled Prigozhin “influential in his own way”.
Although Prigozhin denies this, Stanovaya said that he regularly meets with Putin, especially recently. She added that he has close ties to certain security agencies and “with some of his functions, he can even claim the role of Putin’s special service,” Stanovaya wrote.
But she noted that its influence is “greatly exaggerated in the West” and limited to a “narrow and peculiar” niche.
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