‘Putin leader’ admits interference in US elections

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Kremlin-linked entrepreneur Yevgeny Prigozhin admitted Monday that he has interfered in the US election and will continue to do so, confirming for the first time charges he has denied in years.

“We have interfered, are interfering and will continue to interfere. Carefully, precisely, surgically and in our own way,” Prigozhin said in remarks posted on social media.

The statement, from the press office of his catering company which earned him the nickname “Putin’s chef”, came on the eve of the US midterm elections in response to a request for comment.

This is the second major admission in recent months by the 61-year-old businessman linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin has previously sought to keep his activities under the radar and now seems increasingly interested in gaining political clout.

In September, he also publicly stated that he was behind the Wagner Group’s mercenary force – which he had also previously denied – and spoke openly about his involvement in Russia’s 8-month war in Ukraine. The military contractor has also sent its forces to places like Syria and sub-Saharan Africa.

A video also 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 accused in the United States of carrying out a secret social media campaign aimed at fomenting discord and dividing American public opinion before the 2016 presidential election won by Republican Donald Trump. They were charged as part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference.

The Department of Justice in 2020 decided to dismiss charges against two of the accused companies, Concord Management and Consulting LLC and Concord Catering, saying they had concluded that a lawsuit against a defendant company with no presence in the United States and without the prospect of meaningful punishment even if convicted would likely 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 the US election, including Prigozhin and the Internet Research Agency, the St. Petersburg that his companies were accused of financing.

Prigozhin had denied any involvement in election interference so far.

Russian media, prisoners’ rights groups and prisoners’ relatives have reported this year on a massive effort by Wagner and sometimes Prigozhin personally to recruit convicts to fight in Ukraine. Prigozhin did not directly confirm this, but said in a statement that “either (the Wagner Private Military Company) and the convicts or your children” will be fighting on the front line.

Last week, Wagner opened a business center in St. Petersburg, which Prigozhin described as a platform to “increase Russia’s defense capabilities”.

On Sunday, he also announced through Concord’s press service the creation of training centers for militias in the Russian regions of Belgorod and Kursk, bordering Ukraine.

“A neighborhood resident, like no one else, knows his territories, is able to fight against sabotage and reconnaissance groups and strike the first blow if necessary,” he said.

A former hot dog stand owner, Prigozhin opened a fancy restaurant in St. Petersburg that caught Putin’s interest. During his first term, Putin took French President Jacques Chirac to dinner at one of Prigozhin’s restaurants.

“Vladimir Putin saw how I built a business from a kiosk, he saw that I didn’t mind serving esteemed guests because they were my guests,” Prigozhin recalled in an interview published in 2011.

His businesses have grown considerably. In 2010, Putin witnessed the opening of the Prigozhin School Meal Factory, built with generous loans from a state bank. In Moscow alone, his company Concord has earned millions of dollars in contacts to provide meals in public schools. Prigozhin also organized catering for Kremlin events for several years and provided catering and utility services to the Russian military.

When fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatists and Kyiv forces in 2014, Prigozhin told his spokesman he was looking to “build a group (of fighters) that would go (there) and defend the Russians”.

Russian laws prohibit the activity of private military contractors, but state media in recent months have openly reported on Wagner’s involvement in Ukraine.

-The Associated Press

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