The man who allegedly ran Russia’s disinformation campaign against the 2016 U.S. election was in close contact with Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Kremlin before his Russian mercenaries attacked U.S. forces earlier this month, according to a Washington Post report out Friday.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the oligarch known as “Putin’s cook”, who has been accused of conducting covert military operations in Syria and Ukraine, sent an email to a Syrian government official saying he had “secured permission” from an unnamed Russian minister to conduct the “fast and strong” raid.
Prigozhin “almost certainly” controls Russian mercenaries in Syria who are fighting on behalf of Assad, according to U.S. intelligence reports.
A White House official told the Post the incident was “worrisome” while a Russian military official quoted in the Kommersant newspaper described the attack as “dangerous amateurism.”
While the Kremlin has denied any connection to the attack, Prigozhin’s involvement suggests that Putin was fully aware of what was happening.
“If Prigozhin is doing it, that means Putin supports it,” said John Sipher, an ex-CIA officer who served in Moscow before rising to become deputy chief of the CIA’s Russia Group, the clandestine services’ global Russia program, told VICE News earlier this week.
Prigozhin was indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller earlier this week for orchestrating and bankrolling a long-running Russian scheme to conduct “information warfare” during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.
“Surveillance and Research”
The incident took place on Feb. 7 when between 300 and 500 pro-regime forces crossed the Euphrates river and attacked the headquarters base of U.S. troops and their Syrian allies located near a strategic oil and gas field.
The U.S. mounted a ferocious counterattack using AC-130 gunships, jet warplanes, and Apache attack helicopters, and within three hours had repelled the attackers. The U.S. side suffered no casualties, but the Pentagon said there were around 100 dead attackers.
The Kremlin initially denied all knowledge of the attack, saying it involved a “pro-government militia unit” who were conducting “surveillance and research” in the area. It accused the U.S. of mounting an unprovoked attack.
But, as reports emerged in international media, the Russian Foreign Ministry admitted last week that five Russian citizens might have been killed. On Tuesday it updated that statement to say “several dozen” Russians were killed or wounded in the attack.
Cover image: Yevgeny Prigozhin, an entrepreneur from St. Petersburg who’s been dubbed "Putin's chef" by Russian media, is shown in this Aug. 2016 file photo. He's among those indicted in the Russia probe. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, file)