Moscow pushed back hard this week against any notion that the indictment of 13 Russians proved the Kremlin was involved in a conspiracy to influence the 2016 U.S. election. But it’s hard to find a private Russian citizen who looks more deeply involved in the Kremlin’s clandestine foreign operations than Yevgeny Prigozhin, the oligarch known as “Putin’s cook,” who allegedly starred in the caper.
This longtime restaurateur has emerged at the center of Russia’s most controversial and risky foreign policy initiatives, including allegedly meddling in the U.S. election and reportedly running covert military operations in Syria and Ukraine. He’s even linked to the deadly firefight between Russian mercenaries and American forces on Feb. 7 that reportedly resulted in some 300 Russian casualties.
The notion that an oligarch with a catering empire could be running clandestine international networks of mercenaries and internet trolls may sound absurd, but it largely fits the leadership style of Russian President Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB lieutenant colonel who treats many national priorities as if they were intelligence missions, Russia watchers and former intelligence professionals told VICE News.
Prigozhin’s unlikely rise underscores how far the Kremlin has gone in outsourcing dangerous and ultra-sensitive foreign adventures, in an attempt to create deniability and lower the potential costs at home, they said.
“You’re looking at a guy who started out selling sausages and is now running private contractors and doing private intelligence,” said Malcolm Nance, a career Naval counterterrorism intelligence operative. “It looks like Prigozhin is acting as Putin’s bagman for activities he wanted to be officially unofficial.”
Read: Everything we know about the Russian operatives accused of meddling in the U.S. election
While the inner workings of the Kremlin remain a black box, some close Russia-watchers say Putin must have, at the very least, approved the operations.
“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. “You don’t run foreign policy on your own out of Russia. Putin absolutely, 100 percent, knew about all this stuff.”
Putin’s favorite tools
The use of shady operations and unofficial actors like Prigozhin reveals Putin’s far-reaching ambition to revive the global prominence of the Soviet Union despite the weak hand he’s holding against the West, analysts said. Facing economic sanctions, a sluggish economy, and overwhelming American military might, Putin often turns to the tool he knows best: spycraft.
Of course, it’s hard to be sure how much Putin himself can personally follow up on while running a country that's 11 time zones wide, with borders on both North Korea and Norway. Kremlinologists debate whether Putin is down in the weeds with mission details or maybe issuing general orders open to interpretation by his underlings.
Prigozhin came up in Putin’s native St. Petersburg, and famously entertained the newly-elected president at a lavish dinner in 2001. That he is now holding the threads of some of the Kremlin's most important operations illustrates the important role of smoke and mirrors in the Kremlin and the tight-knit nature of Putin’s real inner circle, analysts said.
“What it means is that Putin trusts Prigozhin, more than others,” Sipher said.
In both Ukraine and Syria, Russia has turned to mercenaries to project power abroad while minimizing its own role in the fighting. In both cases, Putin’s cook has turned out to be strikingly useful — helping build a military base on Ukraine’s border, and running an operation to secure Syrian oil infrastructure, according to details laid out in U.S. sanctions.
“Civilians are going to talk”
Yet relying on non-state actors brings its own operational risks, intel experts said.
“The chink in this armor is that they’re civilians, and civilians are going to talk,” said Nance.
On multiple fronts, that downside has recently been on full display, as former Troll Factory employees give media interviews and private mercenaries post on social media about their fallen comrades, putting the Kremlin in a sticky situation.
In Syria, a mysterious private military firm called PMC Wagner has been tied to Prigozhin. The firm is sometimes described as the Russian Blackwater in reference to the U.S. private military contractor founded by Erik Prince, a likeness Prigozhin appears to be emulating, according to Nance.
“He’s Putin’s Erik Prince, but without the professionalism,” Nance said.
Wagner has come under intense scrutiny after widespread reports that roughly 100 of its mercenaries were killed in a clash with U.S. forces.
Russian media have linked Prigozhin to Wagner, which the U.S. Treasury Department describes as “a private military company that has recruited and sent soldiers to fight alongside separatists in eastern Ukraine.” Wagner’s operations remain shrouded in secrecy, and Prigozhin himself denies being involved. But Treasury says “Prigozhin has extensive business dealings” with the Russian Ministry of Defense.
This week, after strenuous denials, Russia’s foreign ministry finally admitted that “several dozen” Russian citizens were killed, but it insisted none were Russian soldiers.
“There are Russian citizens in Syria, who went there by their own free will for a variety of purposes,” the ministry said in a statement.
In eastern Ukraine, attempts to deny Russia’s involvement have at times bordered on the absurd. In one notable case, a pro-Russian separatist leader told Russian state television that Russian soldiers were pitching in to help his cause while simply on “vacation.”
“The Kremlin had to come up with explanations about what these guys were doing there, and most of the time it was pure bullshit,” said Kirill Mikhailov, an activist at the Moscow-based Conflict Intelligence Team, which collects open-source intel on Russia’s covert military activities. “Like, this soldier just went on vacation, and he took his tank with him.”
Read: Putin is trying to downplay the deaths of Russian mercenaries in Syria
Mikhailov and his team have tracked the lives of individual separatist fighters from renegade provinces of eastern Ukraine all the way to the battlefields of Syria — where, according to U.S. sanctions, Prigozhin controls a private security force contracted by the Syrian government to “protect Syrian oil fields in exchange for a 25 percent share in oil and gas production from the fields.”
The company is called Evro Polis, and according to Russia’s fontanka.ru news outlet, it’s also linked to Wagner.
Now, the dogged investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russia’s role in the 2016 is turning up details about Russia’s cloak-and-dagger operations abroad that may well make for uncomfortable reading in the Kremlin.
“We already had the black and white sketch” of some of Russia’s secret operations, said Ben Nimmo, information defense fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, who tracks Russian propaganda efforts online. “What the indictment did was fill in the color.”
Cover image: Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, right, smiles as he shows Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, around his factory, which produces school meals, outside St. Petersburg, Russia. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File) Photo taken Monday, Sept. 20, 2010.