(CNSNews.com) – On the eve of pivotal U.S. midterm elections, a shadowy Russian businessman indicted for interfering in past American elections “admitted” to having done so, and said he would continue in the future, prompting strong reaction from the State Department.
Spokesman Ned Price told reporters that Yevgeny Prigozhin’s “bold confession, if anything, appears to be just a manifestation of the impunity that crooks and cronies enjoy under President Putin and the Kremlin.”
Price said while the U.S. government has no expectation that Putin would act against Prigozhin – who is purportedly a crony of the Russian president – “we’d like to see the Russian Federation act against someone who so openly boasts about interfering in the elections of a sovereign country.”
“Of course, we would expect that of a responsible law enforcement system of a responsible government,” he added. “But of course we know better than to expect that of Russia.”
Prigozhin is accused of funding a St. Petersburg-based “troll farm” called the Internet Research Agency (IRA). He, the IRA, and a dozen other Russian nationals were indicted in 2018 for interfering in the 2016 presidential election, by conducting “information warfare against the United States” with the stated goal of spreading “distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.”
Prigozhin is also notorious for controlling the mercenary outfit known as the Wagner Group, whose personnel have played a prominent, malign role in Ukraine since 2014 and have been linked to abuses in conflict zones, including in Syria, Mali, and Libya.
After years of denials, Prigozhin in an abrupt about-face in September acknowledged that he had founded Wagner Group. In response to that admission, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described Prigozhin as an “entrepreneur” who is “making a great contribution.”
Monday’s comments about election interference were released on social media by the press service of Prigozhin’s company, Concord (also indicted in 2018), in response to questions submitted by a Russian media outlet about claims he was interfering in the 2022 midterms.
It quoted Prigozhin as responding: “I will answer you very subtly, delicately and I apologize, I will allow a certain ambiguity. Gentlemen, we interfered, we interfere, and we will interfere. Carefully, precisely, surgically and in our own way, as we know how. During our pinpoint operations, we will remove both kidneys and the liver at once.”
Concord ended the message by recommending that readers of the post watch a Russian comedy called “16th,” which satirized claims of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. (The film was produced by a company reportedly also owned by Prigozhin, and whose other offerings include propaganda films designed to whitewash Wagner Group operations in Africa.)
Reuters called Prigozhin’s comment “the first such admission from a figure implicated by Washington in efforts to influence American politics.”
But RT, the Kremlin mouthpiece formerly known as Russia Today, claimed that Prigozhin, who “has a history of trolling media inquiries,” was apparently doing so again.
RT said Reuters and other news agencies “seem to have missed a massive clue that Prigozhin was trolling” – the reference to the film “16th.”
Another pro-Kremlin outlet, the daily Vzglyad, said Prigozhin had been commenting “ironically."
‘I wouldn’t consider him one of my friends’
Prigozhin, who has been called “Putin’s chef” because of his catering contracts with the Kremlin, is under U.S., European Union, and British sanctions for election interference and Wagner Group activities.
Last July the State Department’s “Rewards for Justice” program offered up to $10 million for information on the IRA and Prigozhin’s interference in U.S. elections, “with a strategic goal to sow discord.”
Despite widespread claims of links to Putin, the Russian president has over the years batted away questions about his ties to Prigozhin, while also denying that the Russian state is connected to any election interference activities that might be occurring.
In a 2018 interview with an Austrian television network, Putin poked fun at the notion that a caterer could be interfering in other countries’ elections.
“Could it be that the media and political standards in the countries of the consolidated West have been driven down to such a low level that a Russian restaurant keeper can sway voters in a European country or the United States?” Putin asked. “Isn’t it ridiculous?”
In an interview the same year with then-NBC News correspondent Megyn Kelly, Putin rejected her description of Prigozhin as “one of your good friends.”
“I know that person, but I wouldn’t consider him one of my friends,” Putin said. “This is just twisting the facts around. He is a businessman; he is involved in the restaurant business and some other business. But he is not a government official. We don’t have anything to do with him.”
Asked by Kelly how he felt about the indictments against Prigozhin and a dozen others, which had been announced just weeks earlier, Putin appeared amused. “I don’t care,” he replied. “I couldn’t care less because they don’t represent – they do not represent the government.”
When Kelly brought up Prigozhin’s Wagner Group activities, specifically in Syria, Putin said, “You know, this individual may have very diverse interests, including, for example, interest in the area of the fuel and energy industry in Syria.”
“However, we do not support him in any way,” he added. “We do not interfere with him in any way and we do not assist him. It is his own personal initiative.”