News Brief

Putin ‘Didn’t Cook Up’ US Election Meddling. ‘It Was His Chef’

It wasn’t the Kremlin who came up with the idea to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but a powerful Russian businessman dubbed “Putin’s chef.”

That’s according to a former close associate of the tycoon, Evgeny Prigozhin, who was indicted by the U.S. earlier this year for allegedly financing the Russian election meddling operation.

The plan to manipulate the 2016 vote was “directly Evgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin’s idea,” said Andrey Mikhailov, in an interview with the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. “There were never any orders from any of the [Kremlin] ‘towers’ — it all came directly from Prigozhin.”

The billionaire tycoon earned the title “Putin’s chef” because his restaurants and catering companies have organized dinners that the Russian leader has hosted for foreign dignitaries. But he is also believed to oversee the Internet Research Agency (IRA) trolling operation, and the shadowy Wagner military company that has deployed Russian mercenaries to Syria.

In February, Prigozhin was one of the 13 Russians indicted as part of US Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s continuing probe into Moscow’s efforts to influence the 2016 vote.

Mikhailov, the former associate, said he had worked closely with Prigozhin in helping him build up his media interests, according to a report on his interview on the Meduza website, and so had learned of plans to create the St. Petersburg-based IRA. He had also helped him undermine rivals with dirty tricks that included staging a food poisoning at a banquet organized by a competitor.

Mikhailov told Novaya Gazeta he had decided to speak out after being abducted and beaten up last year by men he alleged were working for Prigozhin.

It comes amid reports of more Russia-linked trolling in the run-up to this week’s midterm elections, employing a new mocking approach. The IRA is believed to be behind a site titled “Internet Research Agency America Division,” set up with the apparent aim of keeping everyone guessing as to its motives. But according to the Daily Beast, it’s not clear if the website “is intended as self-parody, a parody of U.S. perceptions of Russian information operations, or an earnest effort to terrify the American citizenry and cast doubt on the midterm results.”