By Sanjeev Sharma
New Delhi/Washington, April 16 | Yevgeniy Prigozhin is the Russian financier of the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the Russian troll farm that the US Treasury sanctioned for interfering in the 2016 presidential election. Karachi-based Pakistan nationals and companies are now part of US sanctions for helping IRA activities and acting as proxies. While going after and tracking down IRA and Prigozhin, the US Treasury has sanctioned the Karachi-based individuals and companies.
Prighozhin is also known as “Putin’s chef” and is a Russian catering magnate.
According to the Moscow Times, Prigozhin is widely referred to as “Putin’s chef” for his catering businesses that host dinners for the Kremlin but also for his reported involvement in advancing Putin’s interests abroad, particularly in Africa.
The FBI in February added Kremlin-linked catering magnate Yevgeniy Prigozhin to its wanted list with a reward of up to $250,000 for information leading to his arrest, a move that he called “a witch hunt.”
A Karachi-based company Second Eye Solution and its owners and employees were sanctioned by the United States for helping IRA to evade US sanctions by providing fraudulent addresses and IDs.
“Treasury will target Russian leaders, officials, intelligence services, and their proxies that attempt to interfere in the U.S. electoral process or subvert U.S. democracy,” said Secretary Janet L. Yellen. “This is the start of a new U.S. campaign against Russian malign behaviour.”
Pakistan-based Second Eye Solution (SES), also known as Forwarderz, is an organization that specialises in creating and selling fraudulent identities and has assisted the IRA in concealing its identity to evade sanctions, the US Treasury said.
Since at least 2012, SES engaged in a scheme to provide digital photographs of fake documents including passports, drivers licences, bank statements, utility bills, and national identity documents. SES markets these fake documents for use to verify online accounts including money service business accounts and social media website accounts. In 2017, the IRA purchased 15 fraudulent U.S. driver licences images from SES. The purchased licences were used as supporting documents for online social media accounts opened by the IRA.
Pakistani Nationals Mohsin Raza, Mujtaba Raza, Syed Hasnain, Muhammad Hayat, Syed Raza, and Shahzad Ahmed are the owners and employees who were instrumental in processing payment for fraudulent identities. Fresh Air Farm House, Like Wise, and MK Softtech are four Pakistani front companies used to launder SES profits.
The fraudulent documents produced by SES are likely used at many online services to evade sanctions and anti-money laundering (AML) screening protocols beyond what OFAC has been able to identify. SES advertises that their fraudulent documents may be used on social media, freelancing job postings, and commerce platforms.
As per the latest sanctions, Russian national Alexander Malkevich (Malkevich) and his company, the Foundation for National Values Protection (FZNC), have facilitated Prigozhin’s global influence operations since at least 2019.
Malkevich, who was previously designated in 2018 for directing USAReally, another designated Prigozhin-financed influence entity, has continued to support Prigozhin’s disinformation operations. Malkevich runs the FZNC website. Malkevich utilised the FZNC website along with other Prigozhin operatives to spread messages on behalf of Prigozhin. Prigozhin has evolved from simply providing financial support to his global disinformation network to also writing content to denigrate the U.S. electoral process. Malkevich and the FZNC were designated for supporting Prigozhin’s global influence operations.
As per documents, The Association For Free Research And International Cooperation (AFRIC), International Anticrisis Center, and Russian nationals Petr Byschkov (Byschkov), Yulia Afanasyeva (Afanasyeva), and Taras Pribyshin (Pribyshin) facilitate Prigozhin’s malign operations in Africa and Europe while primarily operating from Russia.
AFRIC has served as a front company for Prigozhin’s influence operations in Africa, including by sponsoring phony election monitoring missions in Zimbabwe, Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Africa, and Mozambique. Despite posing as an African-led initiative, AFRIC serves to disseminate Russia’s preferred messaging, often related to disinformation. AFRIC works in coordination with other elements of the Prigozhin network, including FZNC and the International Anticrisis Center, a fraudulent think tank controlled by Prigozhin’s operatives.
Byschkov manages Prigozhin’s “Africa Back Office,” a team of political consultants tasked with devising strategies for manipulating African politics in support of Prigozhin’s interests. Afanasyeva, an employee of the “Africa Back Office,” ran AFRIC and the International Anticrisis Center. Pribyshin has conducted influence operations in Africa for the IRA in support of Prigozhin’s objectives in the region since at least 2019.
AFRIC, International Anticrisis Center, Byschkov, Afanasyeva, and Pribyshin were sanctioned for their roles in Prigozhin’s operations.
In addition, Prigozhin uses a complex network of shell and front companies to evade U.S. sanctions and to obscure his ownership in property.
In 2019, two Russia-based companies, Trans Logistik, OOO (Trans Logistik) and OOO Yunidzhet (Yunidzhet), acted as covert procurement agents for Prigozhin to obtain aircraft related parts and maintenance.
Trans Logistik obfuscated the ownership of Prigozhin’s blocked property, including the previously identified aircraft that is blocked property, M-VITO, while Yunidzhet provided management services to another previously identified aircraft that is blocked property, M-SAAN. Artem Stepanov (Stepanov) is the Deputy General Director of Yunidzhet. Maria Zueva is the General Director of Yunidzhet. Kirill Shcherbakov is Yunidzhet’s ultimate owner and also owns OOO Alkon, a company with close ties to Yunidzhet.
The FBI announcement also noted Prigozhin’s ties to Indonesia, Qatar and Estonia in addition to the Russian government, adding that he should be considered an “international flight risk.”
(Sanjeev Sharma can be reached at Sanjeev.email@example.com)