Armed Conflict

Yevgeny Prigozhin, We Knew Him When

Quinta Jurecic, Gia Kokotakis, Eugenia Lostri, Tyler McBrien
Tuesday, June 27, 2023, 8:47 AM
Years before he launched an abortive mutiny against the Russian Ministry of Defense, Prigozhin was busy interfering in the 2016 U.S. election.
Yevgeny Prigozhin in a screenshot taken from a video taken footage posted on June 24, 2023 to the Telegram account of the press service of Concord—a company linked to Prigozhin. (

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When Russian catering magnate-turned-warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin announced his mutiny against the country’s Ministry of Defense and began his soon-to-be aborted march toward Moscow this past Friday, most American news coverage—understandably—focused on Prigozhin’s role as leader of the paramilitary Wagner Group. After all, it was the Wagner mercenaries under Prigozhin, on whom the Russian military has relied heavily in prosecuting the invasion of Ukraine, who seemed to be gearing up for a possible coup against Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

But here at Lawfare, we were reminded of a different, earlier business venture of Prigozhin’s—one that had significantly less to do with mutiny, and significantly more to do with Facebook memes.

In between his gig as the owner of a hot dog stand in 1990s Russia, and his attempted uprising against the Putin government thirty years later, Prigozhin made news in the United States for his role in Russian election interference. According to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Prigozhin established and funded the Internet Research Agency—the “troll farm” famous for posting divisive content on U.S. social media platforms in the runup to the 2016 election. Back in those days, the Lawfare team closely followed Prigozhin’s adventures. Now that Prigozhin has graduated from a U.S. indictment on charges of conspiracy to defraud the United States, to a brief criminal investigation in his home country for inciting an armed rebellion against the Russian government, to a possible dismissal of that investigation now that he’s turned around and departed for Belarus, we’re proud to say we knew him way back when. 

Prigozhin has seized headlines in the last 72 hours, and for good reason. After months of harsh public criticism of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu over Russia’s lackluster performance in its war against Ukraine, Prigozhin ratcheted up his rhetoric and demanded Shoigu’s ouster on June 23. The next day, Wagner troops, under Prighozin’s command, took control of the Russian military’s southern headquarters in the city of Rostov-on-Don, which led to surreal scenes of soldiers waiting in line for coffee and a seemingly unflappable city worker sweeping the street in between tanks and armored vehicles. Prigozhin then ordered his troops to march on Moscow. The Wagner columns came within 120 miles of Russia’s capital, until Prigozhin called off his dogs, as a result of an apparent deal struck between the Wagner commander and the Kremlin.

Americans not closely following the war in Ukraine could be forgiven for wondering: who exactly is this guy? Prigozhin got his start as a hot dog salesman in St. Petersburg, following his release from a Soviet prison on robbery charges. He went on to build a catering empire and became known as “Putin’s chef” for the many contracts he won with the Kremlin; many press photos of government functions show Prigozhin displaying plates of food to the Russian president. 

But Prigozhin’s activities quickly expanded beyond food service. In the mid-2010s, journalists and investigators began to trace links between the caterer and the Wagner Group, a paramilitary organization that backed pro-Russian “separatists” in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and deployed to Syria to back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against a rebellion. Wagner Group mercenaries are also widely known to operate across several African countries, mostly on behalf of authoritarian regimes or warlords. They’ve supported General Khalifa Haftar’s forces in Libya,  guarded diamond mines in the Central African Republic (CAR), and propped up the CAR’s weak president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra. Another Prigozhin-linked company received diamond and gold mining licenses in CAR around the time that Wagner came to Touadéra’s aid.

Strong evidence suggests these forces have committed war crimes and other atrocities. A UN report linked Wagner soldiers to the slaughter of roughly 500 people in a Malian village in March 2022, along with the rape and torture of scores more. The group also stands accused of several massacres of civilians in CAR. 

Throughout this period, Prigozhin was touchy about any reporting concerning his involvement with Wagner. In 2021, he brought a U.K. libel case against Eliot Higgins, the founder of the open-source investigative group Bellingcat, who had published evidence about Prigozhin’s involvement with the group. (After finally acknowledging his Wagner role in September of the following year, Prigozhin said about his previous denials that “in any issue there should be room for sport.”) Higgins, for his trouble, was stuck with an estimated bill for £70,000 in legal fees, even though the case sputtered out when Prigozhin’s British lawyers withdrew following the invasion of Ukraine. Journalists in Russia have not been so lucky. In February 2022, a Moscow court found Russian journalist Alexey Venediktov guilty of defamation for calling Prigozhin the “overlord of PMC Wagner.”

But after the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Prigozhin’s coyness around his involvement with Wagner quickly vanished. In September 2022, he proudly announced that he’d founded Wagner. As one of the bigger boosters of the invasion, he popped up recruiting Russians—including prisoners—to join Wagner and travel to Ukraine to fight alongside the Russian military. Wagner mercenaries grew increasingly prominent in the war as the army struggled, and Prigozhin’s troops notched a few victories for Russia—committing atrocities in the process. The most notable of both occurred in the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, where Wagner soldiers led the charge, racking up substantial casualties on both sides.  In one disturbing incident, Wagner troops executed a returned defector with a sledgehammer. 

As part of his sudden eagerness to associate himself with his own private military force, Prigozhin also publicly took credit for the first time for another of his businesses, the Internet Research Agency (IRA). The “troll farm,” as it’s come to be known, was centrally involved in Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Though Prigozhin had previously admitted generally to interfering in U.S. elections, he specifically copped to his leading role in a social media post from February 2023. "I was never just the financier of the Internet Research Agency,” he wrote. “I thought it up, I created it, I managed it for a long time." 

The IRA’s existence was first reported on by the Russian opposition outlet Novaya Gazeta in 2013. The paper chronicled how the organization would coordinate to spread pro-Kremlin propaganda or disruptive falsehoods using fake accounts on social media. Further reporting by the paper Moy Rayon unearthed links between Prigozhin and the IRA, tracing the agency’s corporate ownership to a holding company owned by Prigozhin. And the Mueller investigation would uncover further links, mapping out the links between Prigozhin’s companies and the financial support flowing to the IRA. According to a February 2018 indictment, just before Prigozhin’s birthday, the organization “arranged for a real U.S. person to stand in front of the White House in the District of Columbia under false pretenses to hold a sign that read ‘Happy 55th Birthday Dear Boss.’” 

That indictment, along with the Mueller report and separate reports released by the Senate Intelligence Committee, provides extensive detail about the IRA’s operations during the 2016 election cycle. As the Mueller report puts it:

The IRA later used social media accounts and interest groups to sow discord in the U.S. political system through what it termed "information warfare." The campaign evolved from a generalized program designed in 2014 and 2015 to undermine the U.S. electoral system, to a targeted operation that by early 2016 favored candidate Trump and disparaged candidate Clinton. The IRA's operation also included the purchase of political advertisements on social media in the names of U.S. persons and entities, as well as the staging of political rallies inside the United States. To organize those rallies, IRA employees posed as U.S. grassroots entities and persons and made contact with Trump supporters and Trump Campaign officials in the United States. 

It’s important to keep in mind, though, that the agency  was only one element in Russia’s interference campaign against the US during the 2016 election. While the IRA conducted social media influence efforts, Russian military intelligence (GRU) focused on a ‘hack-and-dump’ operation against the Clinton campaign. The GRU stole “hundreds of thousands of documents” and later leaked them “through online personas, “DCLeaks” and “Guccifer 2.0,” and later through the organization WikiLeaks.” According to the Mueller report, the leak “was designed and timed to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election and undermine the Clinton Campaign.” 

The Russian “active measures”—which the Mueller report defines as “operations conducted by Russian security services aimed at influencing the course of international affairs”—began in 2014, when the IRA began building its network of accounts on platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter (and later Tumblr and Instagram). These accounts pretended to be personal accounts of US persons. By early 2015, the IRA evolved its tactics, and focused on creating social media pages or groups “that claimed (falsely) to be affiliated with U.S. political and grassroots organizations. In certain cases, the IRA created accounts that mimicked real U.S. organizations.” These accounts covered a range of issues across the political spectrum. As Alina Polyakova explains, “It was only once the IRA established its audience base that it turned explicitly to the U.S. elections around February 2016, with the explicit goal of undermining the Clinton campaign.” The final step in this campaign was to actively promote Trump’s campaign, which it started doing around the spring of 2016.

The Russian presence and reach on platforms like Facebook and Twitter was significant. The IRA spent around $100,000 on over 3,500 ads on Facebook. According to the report, “the IRA’s social media accounts reached tens of millions of U.S. persons. Individual IRA social media accounts attracted hundreds of thousands of followers.” In August 2018, Facebook deactivated several IRA-controlled accounts, which had “made over 80,000 posts” reaching “at least 29 million US persons. On Twitter, the strategy included the use of individual accounts pretending to be individuals, and the use of a bot network that amplified its existing content. In early 2018, Twitter identified 3,814 accounts associated with the IRA; 1.4 million people were believed to “have been in contact with an IRA-controlled account.” Some of the popular tweets were quoted by media outlets who “attributed them to the reactions of real U.S. persons” and several “high-profile US persons” —including several affiliated with the Trump campaign—promoted IRA tweets.

The IRA also attempted to target and recruit US persons who could amplify its content online, and they pursued these people across the political spectrum. The recruited would moderate social media groups or even “perform political acts”—some of them bizarre performances, like “walking around New York City dressed up as Santa Claus with a Trump mask.” But the IRA was particularly interested in engaging with people affiliated with the Trump campaign. In many cases, campaign affiliates promoted content produced by the IRA, seemingly without knowing its origin. In the few instances in which the IRA employees reached out to the campaign directly, they requested “signs and other materials to use at rallies” or “help coordinate logistics.” The investigation did not identify “evidence that any Trump Campaign official understood the requests were coming from foreign nationals,” and the extent of coordination seems to have been limited to volunteers setting aside some signs. 

The IRA’s ambitions did not stop at viral memes. The report shows that the IRA hoped to extend its influence into “real life” by organizing dozens of rallies. Starting in 2015 with the “confederate rally,” it attempted to organize gatherings on “socially divisive issues in the United States.” Attendance at these rallies was not consistent, with some of them drawing “few (if any) participants, while others drew hundreds.” The organization of these rallies seems to have followed a similar playbook to social media activity. Only in June 2016 the rallies began to focus on the election “often promoting the Trump Campaign and opposing the Clinton Campaign.”

Mueller’s February 2018 indictment named Prigozhin as a defendant along with the IRA, 13 other Russians, and two of Prigozhin’s companies, Concord Management and Consulting and Concord Catering.” (In a strange twist, the indictment became public within weeks of a firefight in Syria between the U.S. military and Wagner Group mercenaries, which ended with multiple Wagner members and up to 300 pro-Assad Syrian fighters dead.) The two Concord entities fought the charges, arguing that the indictment should  be dismissed on the grounds that, among other things, Mueller had been appointed “unlawfully” and the charges were “unconstitutionally vague.”After a prolonged back-and-forth, in January 2019, the Justice Department accused Concord of using the case to obtain confidential information from the government that it then “altered and disseminated as part of a disinformation campaign" seeking to undermine the credibility of the Mueller investigation.  In order to prevent Concord from obtaining any further information and publishing it online, including government sources and methods for an investigation, prosecutors recommended the charges be dropped in the interest of preserving national security. The judge tossed out the case.

That wasn’t the end of the U.S. government’s efforts to counter the troll farm, though. In March 2018, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned the IRA LLC, Concord Management and Consulting, and Concord Catering along with Prigozhin and twelve other individuals for their interference with the 2016 election and malicious cyberattacks. In December that year, the OFAC issued new designations related to the IRA. These designations linked the IRA to Project Lakhta, a Russian effort “which has sought to interfere in political and electoral systems worldwide.” The Concord enterprises are named as the controllers and funders of Lakhta.

Despite efforts to suspend and remove IRA activity online, the troll farm keeps plugging away. “Gentlemen, we have interfered, we do interfere and we will interfere,” Prigozhin wrote in advance of the 2022 U.S. midterm elections. In March 2023, the National Intelligence Council made public the declassified version of an assessment on foreign threats to the 2020 elections, which found “short-lived troll farms that used unwitting third-country nationals in Ghana, Mexico, and Nigeria.” The social media research company Graphika has documented IRA operations on Facebook in the Central African Republic and South Africa, which took place over the course of 2020. Thanks to the #WagnerLeaks—hacked documents on Prigozhin’s companies—we now have a better picture of how the troll-farms controlled by Prigozhin operated in Mexico. And even after the IRA was designated in March, the Federal News Agency LLC—which was used by Project Lakhta to “obscure its activities”—announced “a new Russian-funded, English-language website called USA Really.” USA Really acted similarly to the IRA, posting content on divisive issues and attempting to hold rallies.

The Treasury’s OFAC has continued to designate and take action against IRA-related individuals and entities. In September 2020, three actors that supported the IRA’s cryptocurrency accounts were sanctioned. The OFAC has continued to increase its pressure on Prigozhin, sanctioning him pursuant Executive Order 13848 on election interference, Executive Order 13693 for cyber activity, and Executive Order 13661 for activity in Ukraine. “Several” of his private jets and his mining interests in Sudan have been targeted by the Treasury.

What will happen to Prigozhin next is anyone’s guess. As of now, he’s said to have accepted a deal to travel to Belarus, although it’s not exactly clear where he is or what will happen to Wagner troops in Ukraine. From our perspective, though, it’s also worth asking what Prigozhin’s fall from grace might mean for future information operations coming out of the IRA. On the social media platform BlueSky, former Twitter Head of Trust and Safety Yoel Roth has suggested that he’d “expect less—and less successful—activity” from the organization in the 2024 U.S. presidential election. (He also noted that the agency reportedly struggled with staffing reductions and low morale in 2020—perhaps just like any other tech startup.)

It can be tempting to exaggerate the IRA’s influence. In the U.S. context, there is scant evidence that the trolling operation made any significant difference in the 2016 election, much less that it won the election for Trump. There’s good reason to believe that the GRU hack-and-leak, which relied on the credulity of the mainstream press, was actually far more influential than the social media prong of the operation—though even there, the specific electoral impact is impossible to pin down. 

At the same time, it would also be a mistake to write off Prigozhin’s troll factory as a silly sideshow. As Jim Rutenberg has written in the New York Times, the war in Ukraine casts into sharp relief the connections between far-right, antidemocratic forces in the U.S. and Russia, with Ukraine caught in between. Some of the communications described by Mueller between a suspected GRU spy and Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort involve a Russia-backed “peace plan” for eastern Ukraine that would have involved massive concessions to Russia from the government in Kyiv—presaging the Russian invasion six years later. 

An outright invasion is, of course, a very different thing than an information operation.  But the Ukraine war shows that Prigozhin and Putin, whatever the current state of their relationship, have been collaborators in a series of efforts to undermine democratic self-governance around the world, by seeking to influence elections and now by directly attacking a burgeoning democracy in Ukraine. It’s likewise harder to write off Russia’s 2016 election interference as fair play by Putin now that the far-right regime in the Kremlin has launched a war to obliterate its democratic neighbor, with Prigozhin differing only on the question of how much support his private army should receive in service of that invasion. Unlike some of the bizarre memes that the Internet Research Agency posted on Facebook, that’s not funny at all.

Quinta Jurecic is a fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and a senior editor at Lawfare. She previously served as Lawfare's managing editor and as an editorial writer for the Washington Post.
Gia Kokotakis was an intern at Lawfare and is a senior at Georgetown University, where she studies government, French, and Jewish civilization. She received an Attestation d’Études Politiques from Sciences Po Lyon in May 2023.
Eugenia Lostri is Lawfare's Fellow in Technology Policy and Law. Prior to joining Lawfare, she was an Associate Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). She also worked for the Argentinian Secretariat for Strategic Affairs, and the City of Buenos Aires’ Undersecretary for International and Institutional Relations. She holds a law degree from the Universidad Católica Argentina, and an LLM in International Law from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
Tyler McBrien is the managing editor of Lawfare. He previously worked as an editor with the Council on Foreign Relations and a Princeton in Africa Fellow with Equal Education in South Africa, and holds an MA in international relations from the University of Chicago.

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