Yevgeny Prigozhin used a so-called “troll farm” to influence global politics long before he betrayed Putin.
From the day he launched a failed mutiny against the Russian military leadership, Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin became known first and foremost as one thing: the leader of a private army who tried to take down Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The notorious mercenary commander, who is presumed dead after a private jet he was allegedly aboard crashed just north of Moscow on Wednesday, has come to be defined by that one, potentially fatal act.
Less talked about, however, is what may well be the most globally significant part of his legacy.
More than half a decade before he betrayed Putin, Prigozhin and his Wagner collaborators sought to exercise their influence on international politics in another way: by establishing a so-called “troll farm” which interfered in the United States elections and, according to high-ranking officials, tried to sway the results in favour of Donald Trump.
In February 2023, Prigozhin announced he was both the founder and financier of the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a company that allegedly sought to influence election results on the Kremlin’s behalf.
The US sanctioned the organisation in 2018 over its alleged role in the outcome of the 2016 elections, in which Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton to win the US presidency.
A report by former US Special Counsel Robert Mueller in 2018 found that: “The campaign evolved from a generalised program designed in 2014 and 2015 to undermine the U.S. electoral system, to a targeted operation that by early 2016 favoured candidate Trump and disparaged candidate Clinton.”
“IRA employees also travelled to the United States on intelligence-gathering missions,” the report added.
Despite being subsequently charged with conspiracy to defraud the US, however, it wasn’t until November – just days before the 2022 US midterm elections – that Prigozhin publicly acknowledged his role in electoral interference.
“We have interfered, we are interfering and we will continue to interfere,” Prigozhin said in a social media comment at the time. “Carefully, accurately, surgically and in our own way, as we know how to do.”
This was the first time a person formally implicated by Washington had admitted to interfering in US politics – and in February, Prigozhin went even further in outlining his links to the IRA.
“I thought it up, I created it, and I managed it for a long time,” he said in a post shared on social media on 14 February. “It was created to protect the Russian information space from boorish aggressive propaganda of the West’s anti-Russian talking points.”
Founded in 2013, the IRA is known to use fake accounts on social media platforms, discussion boards and digital news websites to promote pro-Russian propaganda, while at the same time denouncing or discrediting any information deemed contrary to Russia’s interests.
In a 2017 report, the United States Intelligence Community, which is made up of a group of US government organisations, observed: “The likely financier of the so-called Internet Research Agency of professional trolls located in Saint Petersburg is a close ally of Putin with ties to Russian intelligence.”
The report further noted the so-called troll farm was previously “devoted to supporting Russian actions in Ukraine – [and] started to advocate for candidate Trump as early as 2015.”
On 1 July this year, in the aftermath of Prigozhin and Wagner’s failed rebellion against the Russian military, Prigozhin shut down the the IRA as part of a wider closure of his Patriot media company.