'Putin's Chef' Has His Fingers In Many Pies, Critics Say Yevgeny Prigozhin, a high-end caterer with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, is accused of interfering in the 2016 U.S. election and is linked to Russian mercenaries in Syria and Ukraine.
NPR logo

'Putin's Chef' Has His Fingers In Many Pies, Critics Say

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/685622639/690102298" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Putin's Chef' Has His Fingers In Many Pies, Critics Say

'Putin's Chef' Has His Fingers In Many Pies, Critics Say

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/685622639/690102298" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Our next story is about a Russian linked to all of the following events - Russia's occupation of Ukraine, the Internet troll farm that interfered in the U.S. presidential election and a large-scale clash with the U.S. military in Syria. We're not talking about Russian President Vladimir Putin but rather the man referred to as Putin's chef. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre has this improbable tale.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE W BUSH: Morning.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Morning.

(CROSSTALK)

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: There's this photo from a 2006 summit that shows Russian leader Vladimir Putin hosting U.S. President George Bush at a dinner in St. Petersburg. Standing behind him in a tux and a white bow tie is the caterer, Yevgeny Prigozhin. And why should we care about Prigozhin, the man known as Putin's chef? I asked Angela Stent, the head of Russian studies at Georgetown University and author of the forthcoming book "Putin's World."

ANGELA STENT: He epitomizes a real renaissance man in contemporary Russia, which is to say that he runs some very high-end restaurants.

MYRE: That's nice. Anything else?

STENT: He was the one running this Internet Research Agency, this troll factory in St. Petersburg that managed to mobilize thousands of Americans from 5,000 miles away to demonstrate and protest in the 2016 election.

MYRE: OK, that gets your attention.

STENT: And then he also runs Wagner, which is one of the - I guess it's the largest mercenary private military group in Russia. And his troops are in Syria. They're in Ukraine.

MYRE: It can be confusing tracking the key figures around Putin and how they fit into the Russia investigation in this country. But Yevgeny Prigozhin is one name worth knowing. He's burly, bald, age 57, and he's largely invisible even in Russia.

DIMITRI SIMES: He doesn't have much of a public persona in Russia. Until very recently, he was virtually unknown.

MYRE: Dimitri Simes heads the Center for the National Interest, a Washington think tank.

SIMES: This is not a person who speaks at important political or business meetings. This is not a person who regularly appears on TV.

MYRE: Prigozhin spent most of his 20s in prison on robbery and fraud convictions. He rebuilt his life with hot dog stands, which evolved into a catering business. Then...

MICHAEL KOFMAN: He proceeded to get a big break catering high-profile events. One was Vladimir Putin and French President Jacques Chirac in 2001.

MYRE: Michael Kofman closely follows Russia at the research organization CNA.

KOFMAN: Eventually he got a massive contract for feeding the Russian military and the Russian armed forces, which is probably where most of his money come from.

MYRE: Vladimir Putin dodged the question when asked recently about his putative chef.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through interpreter) All my chefs are members of the Federal Security Service. They're all military personnel of different ranks. I have no other chefs.

MYRE: And regarding Russian mercenaries, Putin said...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PUTIN: (Through interpreter) If they comply with Russian laws, they have every right to work and promote their business interests anywhere in the world.

MYRE: Those interests extend to Syria. In a dramatic confrontation last year, hundreds of Russian mercenaries tried to seize an oil facility held by the U.S. and its allies. Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told Congress he first wanted to make sure the attackers were not part of the actual Russian military.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIM MATTIS: Senator, the Russian high command in Syria assured us it was not their people.

MYRE: Once that was cleared up...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATTIS: My direction was for the force then was to be annihilated.

MYRE: And it was. The Americans say more than 200 Russian mercenaries were killed in withering airstrikes before they retreated. Meanwhile, Robert Mueller's team indicted Prigozhin last year on charges that he funded the Internet company that interfered in the 2016 U.S. election. Prigozhin responded with a rare public comment, saying, quote, "Americans are very impressionable people. They see what they want to see. If they want to see the devil, let them see one."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Spanish).

MYRE: And one place to look may be Venezuela. Media reports say hundreds of Russian mercenaries have flown in to support the embattled president, Nicolas Maduro. The Kremlin denies this. Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.