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Putin ally boasts he ‘interfered’ in U.S. midterm elections

Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin, already under sanction for interfering in U.S. elections in 2016 and 2018, boasted Monday that he had interfered in this year's midterms. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)
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Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin, an ally of President Vladimir Putin and head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, which is fighting in Ukraine, boasted Monday that he was interfering in the U.S. midterm congressional elections and planned to continue doing so.

Prigozhin gained infamy as an operator of internet “troll farms” and was placed under sanction by the U.S. Treasury Department for his role in meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, using a company he owned, then called the Internet Research Agency, to spread misinformation and sow discord, especially on social media platforms.

Asked by Russian media about interference in the midterm elections, Prigozhin replied: “Gentlemen, we interfered. We are interfering and we will interfere. Carefully, precisely, surgically and in our own way, as we know how to do.”

His comments were published by his press service on the Russian social media platform VKontakte.

“During our pinpoint operations, we will remove both kidneys and the liver at once,” Prigozhin said.

Prighozin’s provocative remarks, on the day before Election Day in the United States, were impossible to verify. U.S. government cyber agencies have said they largely neutralized the interfering Russian troll farms in subsequent election cycles.

Major social media platforms also have become far more vigilant about policing suspicious content, though Elon Musk’s recent large-scale staffing cuts at Twitter have raised questions about whether the company could properly monitor content ahead of Tuesday’s vote.

Whether Prigozhin’s remarks were true, or merely disinformation intended to raise alarm in the United States, they nonetheless reflected how Putin and his supporters view Russia as fighting a multifront war against the U.S.-dominated, allegedly hegemonic West. Putin and his allies have said that Russia is fighting the United States and other NATO members in Ukraine, and have blamed the West for prolonging the war Putin started.

On Nov. 7, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said claims that Russian President Putin is interfering in the U.S. elections, aren't "surprising.” (Video: The Washington Post)

State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Monday that Prigozhin probably had Russian leaders’ approval before publicizing the claims. “His 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.

Russia has also used disinformation, its muscle in energy markets and its control over Ukrainian food exports in an effort to shatter Western unity on support for Ukraine. A key Kremlin objective is weakening Western democracies, by promoting far-right candidates, targeting centrists and spreading divisive online rhetoric.

Influencing the overall outcome of the midterms, given the hundreds of candidates on the ballot across the country, is more complicated than swaying a head-to-head presidential race. But individual congressional races, in small districts or individual states, can be prone to outside interference.

The Treasury Department imposed sanctions against Prigozhin in March 2018 for his role in interfering in the 2016 presidential election, and again in 2019 for meddling in the 2018 congressional elections. In each case, the department cited his role in financing the Internet Research Agency troll farm in St. Petersburg.

Britain and the European Union have also imposed sanctions against Prigozhin.

The oligarch, who made his fortune through Russian government catering contracts, including for kindergartens, schools and the military, is known as “Putin’s chef.”

He also runs the FAN news agency, which pushes his agenda, including attacks on his political enemies and praise for his own projects, such as his push into Africa in recent years, offering security services and advice on political manipulation to autocrats in return for access to the continent’s resources.

After years of denying any link to the Wagner mercenary group, Prigozhin in recent months has openly admitted his association with the private militia, even personally recruiting fighters in Russian prisons, despite the fact that mercenary groups are illegal under Russian law.

Wagner mercenaries for months have tried unsuccessfully to push Ukrainian forces out of Bakhmut, in Ukraine’s east, a battle that has taken a heavy toll on each side and left the city in ruins, even though Western military analysts have said there is no strategic military logic to pushing to take the city.

Bloomberg News reported that the Graphika social media analysis firm had found that a Russian political interference network associated with the Internet Research Agency has been engaged in new political interference, promoting right-wing conspiracy theories with the aim to swing the midterms against Democratic candidates.

The latest U.S. sanctions on Prigozhin came in July, related to his “Project Lakhta,” a disinformation campaign he financed that targets audiences in the United States, Europe and Ukraine. According to the Treasury Department, Project Lakhta spends tens of millions of dollars to fund troll farms “and other mechanisms of malign influence.”

“Since at least 2014, Project Lakhta has used, among other things, fictitious online personas that posed as U.S. persons in an effort to interfere in U.S. elections,” according to the Treasury Department.

Graphika reported that the Russian network made “direct attempts to undermine support for Democratic candidates in Pennsylvania, Georgia, New York, and Ohio,” starting in August and September. A prime vehicle was the release of political cartoons, “almost certainly intended to go viral.”

“The network comprises a series of fake personas on alt-tech platforms popular with far-right online audiences in the U.S., including Gab, Parler, Gettr, and the discussion forum These personas routinely spread inflammatory narratives about sensitive cultural and political issues in the U.S., including vaccines, gun control, racial injustice, and allegations of child sexual abuse. The actors are consistently critical of the Biden-Harris administration,” the Graphika report said.

The figures in the network also shared articles from right-wing media and screenshots of social media posts accompanied by incendiary political commentary, the report found.

It also said online trolls from the Internet Research Agency had targeted Democratic candidates — including Sen. Raphael G. Warnock and gubernatorial hopeful Stacey Abrams in Georgia, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, Senate candidate John Fetterman in Pennsylvania and Senate candidate Tim Ryan in Ohio — with racist or inflammatory material.

In a new development, the accounts also weighed in on Russia’s war against Ukraine, promoting the false Kremlin narrative that Ukraine is a Nazi state and suggesting that the Biden administration’s support for Ukraine had hurt American standards of living.

But Graphika reported that the latest campaign had achieved minimal online traction.

Prigozhin’s political currency has risen in the Kremlin because of his role in the war, not only sending Wagner into battle but also setting up “people’s defense groups” on Russian territory near the Ukrainian border.

At the same time, Prigozhin has emerged as one of the loudest critics of the Russian military over its failures and retreats in Ukraine. He recently vented angrily to Putin about the subject, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the matter. The exchange was included in the daily intelligence briefing provided to President Biden. Prigozhin has denied speaking to Putin.