Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Russian private military company Wagner, admitted on Tuesday to founding the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a notorious troll farm that the US government has sanctioned for interfering in American elections.
A Wagner Telegram channel on Tuesday published a statement from Prigozhin, asking him to react to the suggestion that he was the founder of the agency.
“I react with pleasure,” Prigozhin said in the statement. “I’ve never just been the financier of the Internet Research Agency. I invented it, I created it, I managed it for a long time. It was founded to protect the Russian information space from boorish aggressive propaganda of anti-Russian narrative from the West.”
The US Treasury Department sanctioned the IRA in 2018, accusing it of having “created and managed a vast number of fake online personas that posed as legitimate US persons to include grassroots organizations, interest groups, and a state political party on social media.”
“Through this activity, the IRA posted thousands of ads that reached millions of people online. The IRA also organized and coordinated political rallies during the run-up to the 2016 election, all while hiding its Russian identity. Further, the IRA unlawfully utilized personally identifiable information from US persons to open financial accounts to help fund IRA operations.”
Prigozhin’s comments on Tuesday come several months after he admitted to interfering in the US democratic process and pledged to do so again, in what appeared to be the first admission of a high-level meddling campaign from someone close to the Kremlin.
“Gentlemen, we interfered, we interfere and we will interfere,” Prigozhin said in November, one day before the US midterm elections. “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.”
Prigozhin is not a member of the Russian government, but has close ties to the president and has been dubbed “Vladimir Putin’s chef” after he began catering events for the Kremlin.
Prigozhin hadn’t admitted his involvement at the time, but the IRA shot to prominence for its attempts to interfere with the 2016 US presidential election, details of which were revealed in a federal indictment against 13 Russian nationals made public in February 2018.
The indictment showed how the company set up a vast network of fake American activist groups and used the stolen identities of real Americans in an attempt to wreak havoc on the US political system.
According to the indictment, the group, which is based in St. Petersburg, Russia, began monitoring the social media pages of real American activist organizations in 2014, before setting up fake pages and personas that became, the indictment says, “leaders of public opinion.”
In an effort to further polarize America ahead of the 2016 election, the IRA posted from accounts offering commentary on every side of the biggest social and cultural issues of the day.
But Prigozhin has evolved since the early days of the IRA.
While he once operated mostly in the shadows, his profile has grown in recent months as leveled scathing public criticism at Russian military officials for their failures in Ukraine while supplying thousands of Wagner forces – many recruited from prisons – to wage war in the country’s east.
Wagner fighters captured the small town of Soledar in the Donetsk region in recent weeks and have played a key role in Russia’s fight for Bakhmut, backed by artillery support from regular Russian forces and at the expense of hundreds of casualties in each assault.
Prigozhin has also deployed his shock troops to conflict zones including Syria, the Central African Republic and Libya.