MOSCOW (AP) — He's been indicted in the U.S. for meddling in the 2016 presidential election with an army of trolls and his private military company has trodden battlefields in Ukraine and Syria. Still, the Russian multimillionaire dubbed "Putin's chef" runs yet another asset that is valuable to the Kremlin: a sprawling Russian media empire.
St. Petersburg restaurateur Yevgeny Prigozhin is believed to control more than a dozen news portals in Russia that attract tens of millions of visitors and serve as an important state propaganda weapon as President Vladimir Putin runs for re-election in the March 18 vote.
While the media outlets themselves have been tight-lipped about their owners, an investigation by the respected RBC business magazine and reports by other Russian media have revealed their connections to other Prigozhin assets, including the "troll farm," 12 of whose operatives were indicted in the U.S. along with Prigozhin.
The troll factory, the innocuously named Internet Research Agency, initially operated under the same roof with the Federal News Agency and other media outlets that allegedly belong to Prigozhin, but later they split and moved to different buildings on the northern edge of St. Petersburg. RBC reported that Mikhail Burchik, one of the indicted troll farm operatives, also played a key role in Prigozhin's media holdings.
Just three years after their creation in 2014, the Federal News Agency and 15 other news portals allegedly under Prigozhin's control had more than 30 million monthly visitors, surpassing Russia's top state news agencies. They have covered a wide range of subjects, from foreign policy to economy to celebrities. And while their profiles differed, the editorial course was identical — adulation of Putin and stinging criticism of the West.
"They want to dominate the information space and shape the news agenda," said Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin. He noted that along with the troll farm and private military contractors, the media business is part of Prigozhin's efforts to curry favor with Putin.
Oreshkin pointed at Prigozhin's estimated $1.2-billion contract with the Defense Ministry to provide food and services for the military as an example of reward the businessman gets for the favors he offers the Kremlin.
"Close links with the top echelons of power open access to state contracts," he said. "Those who have such ties are never short of money."
The Federal News Agency, the largest of 16 media outlets allegedly controlled by Prigozhin, has carried a stream of fawning accounts of Putin's activities along with articles containing scathing criticism of the U.S. and its allies. As the presidential election approaches, it has regularly published glances and quote boxes about how life has improved under Putin.
It has gained visibility thanks to exclusive reports from the front lines in eastern Ukraine and Syria, where the Wagner group of military contractors linked to Prigozhin operated. Its reporters were the first to report from the ancient town of Palmyra in eastern Syria after Syrian troops took it from the Islamic State group.
A long commentary this week disparaged the U.S. military, alleging that it has been plagued by drug addiction, crime and low morale. Other commentaries rejected accounts of massive personnel losses suffered by the Wagner group in Syria this month as Western-fed propaganda. One report alleged that the U.S. was developing biological weapons at secret laboratories in Russia's ex-Soviet neighbors, Ukraine and Georgia.
Economics Today, a business news portal also considered part of Prigozhin's empire, ran an article emphasizing the importance of turning out to vote in the presidential election in sync with the Kremlin's push for maximizing attendance at the polls to make Putin's victory more impressive.
It also juxtaposed reports about positive trends in the Russian economy with accounts of economic woes faced by Ukraine, and predicted the imminent collapse of Western sanctions against Russia.
Prigozhin's media outlets employ several hundred journalists, offering higher salaries compared with other St. Petersburg-based media outlets, according to RBC. It estimated the annual cost of running Prigozhin's media empire at $3.2-4.7 million.
Prigozhin hasn't responded to requests for an interview.
While investing in his media assets, Prigozhin has taken methodical steps to muzzle independent media outlets that ran investigative reports about his businesses.
Diana Kachalova, a reporter for Novaya Gazeta in St. Petersburg, said the Kremlin-critical newspaper's exposure of Prigozhin's business drew his revenge.
"After that, he began to hate all the newspapers and supposedly he began to organize trouble for the media, including cyberattacks," she said.
On one widely reported occasion, a woman linked to a Prigozhin business applied for a job at Novaya Gazeta in an apparent attempt to gather information about its operations. The woman, whom the newspaper dubbed "Masha Hari" in a mocking reference to the World War I spy Mata Hari, was later spotted at the troll factory, Kachalova said.
At some point Prigozhin tried unsuccessfully to win a court order that would require internet search engines to remove several dozen critical reports about his activities.
They included one that pointed out that even as Prigozhin's catering company served the participants in the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg in 2013, other structures allegedly linked to him engaged in sloppy propaganda stunts intended to advance Kremlin goals.
A newspaper linked to Prigozhin posted a report about gay activists coming to greet former President Barack Obama during his visit to the G-20, a fake that came in counterattack to the U.S. criticism of a Russian law blasting gay "propaganda." A lookalike of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny also was filmed outside a hotel where Obama was staying to back the Kremlin's description of Navalny as a man serving the U.S. interests.
The actions appeared to reflect an eccentric side of Prigozhin, which broke through in a rare 2011 interview with a St. Petersburg newspaper in which he talked about a children's tale he wrote that featured midgets protecting a king against ill-wishers.
Prigozhin, who served nine years in prison on robbery and other charges during Soviet times and started his business from a hot-dog stand, also went on to boast of being on a first-name basis with a few European royals. He added that Putin appreciated both his adroitness in business and his unassuming demeanor.
"Vladimir Putin saw how I developed my business starting from a food stand. And he also saw that I never shrink from personally serving a plate to dignitaries who are my guests," he said.
Irina Titova in St. Petersburg contributed to this report.