The war in Ukraine has drawn attention to Prigozhin’s role as leader of the Wagner mercenary group, but it’s his involvement in the IRA that resulted in the Department of Justice filing criminal charges in February 2018 against Prigozhin, the IRA, and 12 other Russian nationals linked to the troll factory.
They all were charged for their alleged involvement in a criminal conspiracy to defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the Federal Election Commission, the State Department, and the Justice Department.
The DOJ indictment said the defendants “had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election. … Defendants’ operations included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump … and disparaging Hillary Clinton.”
Their indictment by a federal grand jury resulted from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Mueller found that some IRA influence-mongers had dealt directly with Americans, including some Trump campaign workers, but did not find evidence that anyone in the U.S. knowingly conspired or coordinated with the troll farm. Mueller also did not make any allegation in the indictment that the IRA’s activities altered the outcome of the 2016 election.
But Lawfare said ”there’s good reason to believe” that the hack-and-leak operation carried out by the GRU, Russian military intelligence, “was actually far more influential than the social media prong of the operation” to help the Trump campaign.
deny, deny, deny
Prigozhin himself for years denied any involvement in the IRA and Wagner Group. He even filed libel lawsuits against outlets, including the online investigative journalism group Bellingcat in Britain and the independent Russian news site Meduza for reporting on his links to Wagner.
When the FBI added Prigozhin to its most wanted list in February 2021, Prigozhin cynically declared that he was being used as a scapegoat for the United States’ own internal crises. He said:
“American society is under an overwhelming burden of problems: oligarchs and politicians are plundering the budget. A horror story is needed to cover the colossal gap between the deep state and the people,” Prigozhin wrote on his Telegram channel.
“The Russian threat is the main idea of Operation Witch Hunt, which is taking place throughout the United States,” he added.
Prigozhin openly mocked the U.S. indictment in a satirical comedy, “The 16th,“ released by the St. Peterburg-based film company Aurum LLC, which he co-owned, in November 2021. Here’s how BuzzFeed News described the plot and the trollish marketing campaign:
In the film, the Internet Research Agency is reimagined as a small group of toy factory workers who must devise a series of increasingly outlandish schemes in order to repay a debt — but end up unintentionally swaying the 2016 US presidential election in Donald Trump’s favor.
The film’s marketing campaign used US social media sites to spread and promote videos similar to those that seem to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Remarkably, it also included home videos — purchased via Cameo — of Donald Trump Jr. and Rudy Giuliani that were repurposed to make it appear that they were congratulating the film’s fictional protagonist on his success. The content was then used to generate headlines across dozens of Russian-language state media sites.
“Never abandon your path, and America will be proud of you,” Giuliani said in his Cameo message.
There was also a fake news marketing stunt. Two bogus Twitter accounts claimed to depict a raid by the FBI and New York Police Department during the film’s U.S. premiere at the Angelika Film Center, according to BuzzFeed. A spokesperson for the theater told BuzzFeed that the Angelika had never screened the film, and the video footage was “definitely not our location.”
“Gentlemen, we have interfered, are interfering and will interfere. Carefully, precisely, surgically and in our own way, as we know how to do,” Prigozhin said. “During our pinpoint operations, we will remove both kidneys and the liver at once.”
Prigozhin went even further in February—as Wagner forces were advancing in a bloody fight to capture the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut—by admitting that he had founded the IRA. A Wagner Telegram channel published a comment by Prigozhin in which he was asked to respond to a suggestion by German reporters that he was the IRA’s founder.
“I react with pleasure,” Prigozhin replied. “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 independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta first reported on the existence of the IRA in 2013. At the time, its primary task was to flood the Russian internet with pro-Kremlin propaganda, including comments on social media platforms criticizing then Moscow mayoral candidate and anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, and other opposition activists.
The IRA also planted paid informants in the offices of opposition groups, created a network of fake opposition media, and harassed Putin opponents on the internet, according to an investigation of the troll factory by The Dossier Center. The nonprofit organization formed by exiled Russian opposition activist Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon, aims to combat corruption and promote democratic values in Russia.
Then came the February 2014 Maidan Revolution that ousted Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was paid millions of dollars to serve as a political consultant to Yanukovych. An angry Putin viewed the Maidan Revolution as a U.S.-backed armed seizure of power by Ukrainian nationalists that removed the duly elected Ukrainian president. Hillary Clinton was the U.S. secretary of state at the time.
the wagner group
Within weeks, Russian troops had occupied Crimea, and then backed pro-Russian separatists in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. That’s when Putin’s long-time friend Prigozhin formed the Wagner Group to support the separatists in the Donbas region. And that’s also when Prigozhin’s IRA began paying more attention to U.S. politics. The Mueller report read:
In mid-2014, the IRA sent employees to the United States on an intelligence-gathering mission. …
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.
After the 2016 election, Prigozhin would go on to establish a media conglomerate known as the Patriot Media Group, which included the IRA troll factory with its online commentators as well as dozens of Russian-language “news” sites with names like Politics Today, Economics Today, and the Federal News Agency. The IRA was linked to disinformation campaigns in Africa and Europe, but unsurprisingly its activities have focused on Ukraine in recent years.
In 2019, the troll factory increased its efforts to post comments on Ukrainian media websites. In August 2021, Prigozhin’s film company released a Hollywood-style action movie, “Blazing Sun,” which depicts Wagner mercenaries fighting in Luhansk in 2014. BuzzFeed News said the film depicts the mercenaries “as saviors who prevent Ukraine’s government from committing a genocide against its own people—mirroring Putin’s claim that he invaded Ukraine in order to “prevent genocide” and ‘denazify’ the country.”
ProPublica described how pro-Russian Twitter accounts spread a lie that Ukraine was fabricating civilian casualties after the invasion began. In March 2022, the Twitter accounts shared a video of a man standing in front of rows of body bags, then one of the encased bodies lifts its hand to stop the top of the bag from blowing away. The video was taken from an Austrian TV report about a climate change demonstration held in Vienna a month earlier. ProPublica wrote:
The Twitter profiles are part of a pro-Putin network of dozens of accounts spread across Twitter, TikTok and Instagram whose behavior, content and coordination are consistent with Russian troll factory the Internet Research Agency, according to Darren Linvill, a Clemson University professor who, along with another professor, Patrick Warren, has spent years studying IRA accounts.
Such efforts were mostly intended to shore up support among Russia’s population for Putin’s war. The trolls promoted official government statements justifying the war, blamed Russian military setbacks and casualties on NATO and the West, and mocked President Joe Biden, according to ProPublica,
The troll factory also helped launch the Cyberfront-Z Telegram channel, a project devoted to harassing Russian celebrities who spoke out against the war in Ukraine and spamming comment sections online with pro-invasion comments, the independent Russian news outlet Meduza, now operating out of Latvia, reported.
A study by the British government found that Cyber Front Z was posting most frequently outside Russia on Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok. The disinformation operation targeted the social media accounts of political leaders and popular entertainers as well as the comment sections of major media outlets.
In November 2022, an increasingly ambitious Prigozhin opened the PMC Wagner Center in St. Petersburg in a 23-story glass tower. He wanted the building to become an incubator for pro-invasion projects, offering free office space to “patriotic” creators, designers, and IT specialists, Meduza reported. The newcomers included a drone aviation school and a group offering military education master classes, including weapons training for orphans and “troubled teenagers,” using instructors with ties to neo-Nazi groups.
But over the next six months, Prigozhin got into an intensifying conflict with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, whom he accused of gross incompetence and covering up “colossal” battlefield failures in Ukraine. He accused the Ministry of Defense of intentionally depriving Wagner fighters of ammunition and support during the Battle of Bakhmut.
In a June 12 Telegram post, Prigozhin said his feud with Shoigu actually dated back to 2018 in Syria when several hundred Wagner fighters were killed by U.S. airstrikes during an attempt to capture an oil refinery defended by U.S. troops, Newsweek reported. Prigozhin claimed that the Ministry of Defense failed to warn his troops about the impending U.S. strikes and ordered Russian air defense systems to be turned off.
Things came to a head in June when Putin ordered Wagner and other mercenary groups fighting in Ukraine to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense by July 1. Prigozhin was loath to place his fighters under Shoigu’s command. Then with his back to the wall, Prigozhin ordered his troops to engage in “A March of Justice” to Moscow to demand the removal of Shoigu and armed forces Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov.
And in an extraordinary video, Prigozhin countered the arguments that his troll factory itself had been pushing to justify the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. He claimed the war wasn’t launched to protect ethnic Russians from the Ukrainian government, but rather to benefit Russian elites.
“The war was not needed to return our Russian citizens and not to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine,” Prigozhin said in the video. “The war was needed by oligarchs. It was needed by the clan that is today practically ruling in Russia. … They were stealing loads in Donbas, they wanted more.”
There may not be an arrest warrant out for Prigozhin, but in the wake of his aborted mutiny, Russian authorities have quickly moved to dismantle the business empire that the man known as Putin’s chef had worked so hard to build. The crackdown began during Prigozhin’s armed rebellion. Russia’s federal censor blocked websites and social media accounts belonging to the Patriot Media Group, while authorities raided offices, The Guardian reported:
“They barged in, smashing the front door. It felt like they were busting a brothel, and not the workplaces of patriotic journalists,” said a senior staffer at Ria Fan, the flagship Patriot online outlet, who was present during the search.
On June 29, Prigozhin dissolved the Patriot Media Group, which included the IRA troll factory, firing all of its employees, Novaya Gazeta reported. A big Wagner sign was removed from the company’s recently opened headquarters.
And Russia’s vast propaganda machine began pulling out all the stops to smear and discredit Prigozhin while casting Putin as the strong leader who saved Russia, The Washington Post reported. Putin’s TV propagandists had previously portrayed a positive image of Prigozhin, but now he was being branded as a “traitor.”
Russian TV news shows repeatedly showed clips from the police raid on Prigozhin’s St. Petersburg mansion where they found guns, piles of cash, gold bars, a helicopter, fake passports, and wigs used for disguises. There was also a medical treatment room and a collection of souvenir sledgehammers. The Wagner Group posted at least two videos of the sledgehammer executions of recruits considered to be disloyal. Commentators also brought up Prigozhin’s criminal record: He spent nine years in prison for robbing a woman on the street.
Eduard Petrov, a state television journalist, went on a rant on the Russia 1 program “Sixty Minutes” last week:
“Let’s just watch how a ‘fighter for truth’ has been living, a fighter for truth with two criminal records, a man who told us that everyone is stealing and here we see the hard currency in Prigozhin’s house — quite a sum,” Petrov said.
“And now let’s look at the palace,” Petrov continued dramatically. “So a palace, a helicopter, cash, cars loaded with cash, dollars, rubles, a palace, a helicopter, 600 million rubles. A fighter for justice had 600 million rubles!”
And what about the future of the IRA? Gavin Wilde, a former Russia and cybersecurity expert for the National Security Council, told USA Today that the IRA has been used “to quell domestic dissent online” and that’s something that is “likely to be especially important for Putin right now.”
And then there’s the 2024 U.S. election, which is of existential importance to both Putin and Trump right now. Wilde told USA Today that the name or ownership of the IRA might change, but that its infrastructure likely will be used to interfere in next year’s U.S. presidential election. “I personally don’t think it’s going to remain inactive for long, if at all. My money says by this time in the autumn, it will look much more like `rebranding,’ under new management than ‘shut down,’” said Wilde, who co-authored a U.S. intelligence community assessment of Russian activities targeting the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Other experts said there are already signs that Russian authorities have started to absorb parts of the IRA. The Guardian reported that some IRA trolls, controlled by low-paid employees, appear to have turned against Prigozhin.
“Prigozhin’s Trap,” a monitoring group that tracks internet trolls linked to the Wagner leader, said thousands of accounts on VKontakte (Russia’s Facebook) had flooded the site with negative comments about the “treacherous” warlord after previously praising him.