The Zelig of Russian covert action
WASHINGTON -- Every good spy story needs a shadowy operative who does the dirty work for the boss, and thanks to the indictment issued Friday by special counsel Robert Mueller, we now have a nominee for that role in the Russia investigation. He's a billionaire oligarch named Yevgeniy Prigozhin, and based on Russian and other accounts, he sounds like a real-life version of a James Bond villain.
Prigozhin's fingerprints appear to be on three of the most sensitive operations launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin: meddling in the 2016 U.S. election; supporting separatist fighters in Eastern Ukraine; and providing military muscle for the Syrian regime. Russia's hidden combatants are often described as "Little Green Men," and Prigozhin may be the Jolly Green Giant who helps this machine function.
Prigozhin has been painted in press accounts as "Putin's chef," because he got his start as the future president's favorite restaurateur in Russia's wild frontier capitalism of the 1990s. He started with food stalls in his native St. Petersburg and eventually built an elegant floating restaurant there where Putin hosted foreign leaders. Billion-dollar contracts to cater for the Russian military followed. But he started as a tough guy: Back in 1981, prior to gaining Putin's favor, Prigozhin was reportedly jailed for nine years for robbery, fraud and child prostitution, according to the Russian news website Meduza.
Mueller's indictment of 13 Russians alleged that Prigozhin was a key funder of the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg "troll farm" that sought to plant pro-Kremlin information on social media. The indictment charged that, through several subsidiaries branded as "Concord," Prigozhin "spent significant funds" to support the organization's "information warfare" against the U.S.
Prigozhin has denied involvement in the troll factory. His defiant reaction to being named in Friday's indictment: "I am not at all disappointed that I appear in this list. If they want to see the devil -- let them." Prigozhin has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury since 2016 because of his activities in Ukraine.
Mueller's indictment describes a complex effort to manipulate American public opinion through fake accounts, false fronts and stolen identities. The troll factory's election bias was evident in the ads it purchased, including: "Hillary is a Satan, and her crimes and lies had proved just how evil she is," and "Among all the candidates Donald Trump is the one and only who can defend the police from terrorists."
The cheeky Russian operatives even arranged to photograph an American in front of the White House several days before Prigozhin's 2016 birthday, holding a sign that said: "Happy 55th Birthday Dear Boss," according to the indictment.
Meddling in American politics was a brazen act, but it was an elaboration of tactics that the Internet Research Agency allegedly embraced in 2014 in Ukraine after mass protests toppled Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian president. The Wall Street Journal recently spoke with a Russian journalist who had worked for the agency. The Journal characterized his job there as "rewriting news from the point of view of pro-Russian separatists." Last year, Mueller indicted Trump's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, for concealing a scheme to lobby for Yanukovych.
Prigozhin is also allegedly connected to a group of mercenaries, known as the Wagner Group, that aided Ukrainian separatists. The Moscow Times reported last November that he invested in Wagner, and that its leader, a former Russian military officer named Dmitry Utkin, was general director of one of Prigozhin's Concord companies.
Prigozhin, the Zelig of Russian covert action, also appears to have had a special role in the Wagner Group's mercenary operations in Syria. The Associated Press reported in December that he was an investor in Evro Polis, which has a contract to help liberate Syrian oil and gas fields and, in return, receive 25 percent of the production revenues. "The link between Evro Polis and Prigozhin is significant and is not in doubt," according to Denis Korotkov, a reporter for the Russian website Fontanka, quoted by the AP. No public response from Prigozhin could be found.
The Syria mercenary operation took a disastrous turn two weeks ago, when commandos tried to seize oil and gas fields east of Deir al-Zour and were demolished by U.S. and Syrian Kurdish forces holding that terrain. According to Fontanka, about 3,000 Wagner mercenaries have worked in Syria since Russia intervened in 2015.
President Trump, in his torrent of combative Twitter messages following Friday's indictment, said that Putin and his operatives must be "laughing their asses off" because their divisive efforts have worked so well. Maybe so, but given the exposure of covert action in Ukraine, Syria and America, the Russians may not have the last laugh.
David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter: @IgnatiusPost.
(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group