Some journalists on the left like Aaron Mate and Dan Lazare tell me that the charges of Russian interference in U.S. politics are a “hoax” or “don’t really matter.” While I share their opposition to a new Cold War with Russia, that does not require averting one’s eyes from the record of Yevgeny Prigozhin, international troubleshooter for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Most recently, Prigozhin and the IRA have been linked in intelligence reports to Peace Data, a Russian-sponsored news site for American leftists that supposedly pumped out Russian disinformation.
As Jacob Silverman pointed out in Slate, these claims seems “wildly overblown.” The Peace Data site didn’t attract much traffic. The content was mostly left-wing takes on the news, which had a strong ideological flavor but hardly qualified as “disinformation.” The Prigozhin connection to the Peace Data site was asserted more than it was documented and it is impossible to independently confirm. “When asked,” Silverman noted, “Facebook and the FBI declined to provide any technical data or other information that could firm up the attribution.”
So, it is fair to ask, are the U.S. intelligence community and Internet giants wrong about Prigozhin? Have they invented a bogeyman?
Prigozhin is a Russian businessman who spent nearly a decade in jail for robbery and human trafficking. He then went into the restaurant and catering business and won Putin’s attention. In 2002, President George W. Bush met Putin at Prigozhin’s floating eatery in St. Petersburg.
These days Prigozhin is best known as the financier of the Internet Research Agency, which sought to influence the U.S. presidential election in 2016 with social media disinformation, spewed through fake accounts such as TN_GOP. That is why Robert Mueller indicted Prigozhin and a dozen of his employees.
Whether the IRA activities made a difference in the 2016 results outcome was debated hotly and inconclusively. What is not open to dispute is that the IRA used fraudulent tactics on a massive scale. Prigozhin’s firm was certainly trying to influence the U.S. election in Trump’s favor–and seeking to hide Russia’s hand in doing it.
But the Internet Research Agency is not Prigozhin’s most important operation. That distinction belongs to his private military company, known as Wagner. Manned by veterans of Russia’s special forces, Wagner is reputed to have up to 5,000 men under arms. Wagner personnel are known to be active in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and the Central African Republic. They serve as a deniable special operations force that can bolster Russian clients in various proxy wars.
Putin and Prigozhin are known to have their differences. In February 2018, Prigozhin’s troops sought to move into an oil-rich province in northern Syria. Prigozhin has an interest in firms that reportedly get a cut of the revenues from Syrian oil fields they defend.
Kimberly Marten, chair of the political science department at Barnard College, told Congress in July it is “virtually certain” Prigozhin’s forces acted in concert with the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service. The U.S. military pulverized the Wagner forces, killing scores of men. Putin was not pleased. Yet Prigozhin remained in Putin’s inner circle.
Last year, LobeLog, a consistent voice against U.S. interventionism, ran a penetrating profile of Prigozhin’s far-flung operations. You can read it here.
There can be little doubt that Prigozhin is instrumental to Putin’s agenda.
Peace Data Vanishes
Silverman’s conclusions about the Peace Data story are judicious:
Rather than a threat to the placid ecosystem of American journalism, the picture of Peace Data that emerged highlights some of digital media’s great flaws—including the tendency of beat journalists to quickly run with whatever embargoed information government authorities and large tech companies offer. Rather than an advanced propaganda operation, Peace Data was something much less sophisticated and more familiar: a content farm.
It also might reflect he adds, a certain Russian modus operandi observed in the run-up to the 2016 election
in which websites and social media accounts are slowly built up over time, with a record of “normal” posting adding to their patina of authenticity. It’s unclear whether Peace Data was in this stage or simply never got traction with reading audiences.
Whoever was behind Peace Data, they denied the reports–and then vanished.
“A few days after being publicly unmasked as a potential Russian operation, Peace Data ceased publishing and scrubbed its archives.”
In short, some Russians were acting suspiciously and all government claims about Prigozhin need to be fact checked, not regurgitated. That doesn’t mean that reporting on Prigozhin’s links to Putin is “fake news.”
The details of Prigozhin’s service to Putin have been confirmed by independent Russian sources such as Meduza and The Bell. These sites have no relationship with U.S. intelligence and have no interest in a new Cold War. Like reporters everywhere, they are trying to break the impunity of local power barons and hold them accountable for their crimes. In response, they get crude death threats.
To say Prigozhin’s service to Putin is a “hoax” is not only a bad joke to those reporters. It’s a favor that neither man deserves. Reporting the facts about Prigozhin is not an endorsement of a new Cold War with Russia. That’s Twtter logic. Deflating the Peace Data story is not the work of “pro-Putin” apologists. It’s good journalism.
The DB story, not a bit overblown, illustrates a reality that skeptics of the Trump-Russia story often overlook. The content of the IRA social media offensive of 2016 came straight from the Steve Bannon playbook: racist memes and jokey fascism.
Likewise, Prigozhin’s playbook relies on racists and fascists.
In the last two years Yevgeny Prigozhin, working through a series of cut-outs and front organizations, has partnered with a host of racist and fascist activists in Europe to stir up, of all things, purportedly anti-colonialist politics in sub-Saharan Africa.
Prigozhin’s front organization, AFRIC, presents itself as a “soft power” institution that presents the image of a nonprofit using covert techniques of an intelligence service.
AFRIC, one slide announces, is a “network of agents of influence” paid in untraceable forms of cryptocurrency to provide “expert evaluations and opinions beneficial to Russia.” It recruits and compensates local African activists, all while keeping their Russian underwriter hidden.
Once again, Prigozhin sounds and acts like a spymaster engaged in international influence operations. That’s not a hoax. It’s a fact pattern.
Are Prigozhin’s front companies active or effective in the United States today? No. The Peace Data operation indicates they might be trying.
Do Putin and Prigozhin want to help Trump get re-elected? Certainly.
Will they covertly deploy Prigozhin’s front companies to do it? Probably.
Will Prigozhin amplify the voices of racism and fascism? Certainly.
Do we need a new Cold War with Russia? No, we need to call out the secret ploys of the Trump-Putin freebooters.