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US widens sanctions net against Kremlin-connected backer of ‘troll factory,’ mercenary group

Russia's President Vladimir Putin holds a video conference meeting in Moscow on June 19, 2020. (Alexei Nikolsky/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS/Abaca Press/TNS)
September 23, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The U.S. Treasury has announced sanctions against people and entities with links to the Kremlin-connected organizer and financier of the so-called Russian troll factory behind suspected assaults on U.S. and other foreign elections.

U.S. sanctions have long been in place against Yevgeny Prigozhin and his previously known companies, including the Internet Research Agency (IRA) and the Vagner Group, a Russian military contractor force active in Libya, Syria, and Africa.

“Yevgeny Prigozhin has an international network of supporters to spread his malign political and economic influence around the globe,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in announcing the new measures on September 23. “The United States will continue to target the ability of Prigozhin to conduct operations globally.”

Prigozhin’s St. Petersburg-based IRA initially gained a reputation for its alleged efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election through online influence operations.

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Former employees have given accounts of a workmanlike approach to producing and promoting misinformation through inauthentic online behavior and prodding Westerners into divisive debates online.

Vagner is one of the best-known of several Russian private paramilitary companies that have come into being over the past decade.

Vagner’s operations have always been held in close secrecy, in part because mercenary activity is illegal under Russian law and in part because the group is widely believed to operate in close cooperation with Russian military intelligence.

“The IRA conducts operations to exacerbate political tensions and divisions in foreign countries, including the United States,” the U.S. Treasury said. “Prigozhin is also believed to be the manager and financier of the Russian private military company (PMC) Wagner, an OFAC-designated Russian Ministry of Defense proxy force, which conducts or has conducted dangerous and destabilizing operations in foreign countries, such as Ukraine, Syria, Sudan, Libya, and Mozambique.”

Tens of Vagner employees were recently picked up in Belarus in what was described by some as a suspected Russian plot to contribute to unrest and prompt a crackdown by embattled Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s chef” for having personally catered an event for Russian leader Vladimir Putin during his ascent to key Kremlin insider, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

Last month, he claimed he intended to collect a debt from Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and his shuttered Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) as Navalny lay in a coma in Germany, recovering from what doctors say was poisoning with a Soviet-style nerve agent while in Russia.

The State Department in July announced sanctions against five companies with connections to Prigozhin in an effort to discourage his “destabilizing global activity.”

It noted his use of “front companies and facilitators” to operate through.

U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller in 2018 bought an indictment against the agency, along with Prigozhin and two other firms controlled by the Russian, following its investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2018 U.S. elections.

A Washington Post report in 2019 asserted that the U.S. military’s Cyber Command had blocked the Internet access of the Internet Research Agency amid reports that it had again meddled in U.S. elections in 2018.