Farewell ceremony for private military company (PMC) "Wagner" soldier Alexei Nagin in the Triumphal Hall of the Battle of Stalingrad panorama museum. Governor of the Volgograd Region Andrey Bocharov (left) and manager of the Concord company Yevgeny Prigozhin (second left) at the ceremony. 24.09.2022 Russia, Volgograd region, Volgograd Photo credit: Artem Krasnov/Kommersant/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)

Mercenary Lawyers

Inside the Aggressive Legal War to Shield the Founder of Russia’s Wagner Group

Yevgeny Prigozhin, center, attends a funeral for Wagner mercenary Alexei Nagin in Russia on Sept. 24, 2022. Photo: Artem Krasnov/Sipa USA via AP

In September, a video surfaced online apparently showing Yevgeny Prigozhin, a wealthy businessman and close associate of Vladimir Putin, speaking to a group of incarcerated men in the yard of a Russian prison. Prigozhin was encouraging them to join the Wagner Group, the infamous mercenary organization he founded, and fight in Ukraine as a way out of prison.

The video signaled Prigozhin’s first apparent confirmation that he does, in fact, control Wagner. While Prigozhin had been known for years for his connection to the group, he had until recently always denied that he controlled its fighters, who have deployed in support of Russian campaigns in half a dozen conflicts around the world, where many have been accused of human rights abuses that include torture, rape, and the mass killing of civilians. More videos confirming Prigozhin’s role at the helm of Wagner have since emerged, and for the first time he acknowledged founding the group in a statement issued last month through one of his companies.

Wagner got its start during the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine, and as evidence of its mercenaries’ abuses mounted, Prigozhin fiercely fought off reports of his links to them, often enlisting the help of attorneys to do so. Now, a cache of hacked emails and documents reviewed by The Intercept details for the first time the behind-the-scenes relationship between Prigozhin’s legal team in Russia and several British and U.S. law firms that worked on his behalf to contest sanctions; defend him against U.S. prosecution; discredit journalists investigating his shadowy businesses; and sue Eliot Higgins, the founder of the investigative website Bellingcat.

Earlier this year, Higgins’s attorneys took action against the British firm that sued him for defamation on behalf of Prigozhin. In a complaint to the U.K. Solicitors Regulation Authority, Higgins accused the firm, Discreet Law LLP, of filing a so-called SLAPP, or Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation: litigation intended to intimidate or censor critics into silence by saddling them with the costs of defending themselves in court. Higgins told The Intercept that the hacked emails further reinforce his position.

“We always knew this was a SLAPP action and a possible abuse of process. It now appears that Prigozhin and, worse, his lawyers knew as well, but went ahead with it anyway,” Higgins wrote in a statement to The Intercept after reviewing the emails. “It seems this was a calculated effort by Prigozhin, aided by his lawyers, to quash the free press as part of a cynical PR campaign to challenge international sanctions.”

While reliance on foreign law firms is hardly unusual or illegal for an oligarch with global business interests, the emails and documents paint the most detailed picture yet of how a well-known but secretive figure — dubbed as “Putin’s chef” by the Western media because of his catering company’s business relationship with the Kremlin — worked with lawyers to clean up his worsening reputation as a Russian warlord. As he faced intensifying scrutiny in recent years, and as his businesses came under pressure following sanctions, Prigozhin relied on the services of at least four U.S. and U.K.-based firms, according to the documents.

The emails paint Prigozhin as a man fixated on challenging the narrative that had formed around him — even though he has come to embrace that narrative in the aftermath of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine that Russia launched in February. In a failed effort to contest sanctions, some of Prigozhin’s attorneys sought to discredit the growing body of reporting that connected him to the Wagner Group, which he believed to be the basis for the sanctions against him.

But while surrounding himself with teams of legal advisors, Prigozhin at times sought to do things his own way. The hacked documents, for instance, include a lengthy draft letter Prigozhin wrote to former President Donald Trump urging him to appoint former special counsel Robert Mueller to prosecute one of his companies, which U.S. officials had accused of election interference, so that Prigozhin could personally face Mueller in court and clear his name. (Prosecutors later dropped the case.) That draft letter, which appears to ultimately not have been sent, stated that it was written against the advice of Prigozhin’s U.S. attorneys.

The documents and emails were unearthed in a series of hacks against over 50 Russian companies and government agencies after this year’s invasion, in what appears to be the largest cumulative hack of a nation-state to have ever taken place. The companies hacked included a top Russian law firm that represents Prigozhin: Capital Legal Services, which has offices in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Helsinki, Finland. The identities of the hackers are not known. The CLS files were hacked by activists associated with Anonymous, but The Intercept was not able to speak with the people behind that hack.

The Intercept made repeated attempts, by email and phone, to speak with Prigozhin’s attorneys at CLS, but they did not respond. Attorneys with four other firms that exchanged emails with CLS did respond to requests for comment and did not dispute the authenticity of the hacked emails. The Intercept found no digital evidence of tampering or forgery in the emails.


Arms Sale to UAE Goes Forward Even as U.S. Probes Tie Between UAE and Russian Mercenaries

The collective files of the hacks — more than 13 terabytes in all — were provided to Distributed Denial of Secrets, a transparency collective that has published the raw documents on its website. Due to the amount of hacked material and the complexity of organizing it, there has been relatively little reporting on the voluminous files published by DDoSecrets. But several months ago, The Intercept and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project formed a consortium of news organizations to investigate the documents, which The Intercept and OCCRP indexed into searchable databases. This story is among the first to be published by a member of the consortium.

LYMAN, UKRAINE - OCTOBER 05: A view of destroyed armored vehicles and tanks belonging to Russian forces after Russian forces withdrawn from the city of Lyman in the Donetsk region (Donetsk Oblast), Ukraine on October 05, 202. Russian troops withdrawn from Krasny Port due to threat of siege as Kyiv had said that thousands of Russian soldiers were encircled by Ukrainian forces in the city of Lyman in the Donetsk region. (Photo by Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A view of destroyed Russian tanks after Russian forces withdrew from the city of Lyman in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, on Oct. 5, 2022.

Photo: Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Embracing Wagner

As Putin’s invasion of Ukraine escalated into a monthslong conflict with tens of thousands of casualties, the Wagner Group played a symbolic and at times strategic role supporting Putin’s war with thousands of mercenaries.

European officials believe that upward of 20,000 mercenaries were deployed in support of Russia’s war in the first months of the invasion, including fighters Wagner had recruited in Syria and Libya, where it has long operated. Wagner mercenaries are believed to have been behind a series of so-called false flag attacks in eastern Ukraine before the invasion, intended to give Russia a pretext to attack. Since the invasion, Ukrainian officials have accused Wagner mercenaries of committing war crimes, alongside Russian soldiers, that include the killing of civilians in Bucha. Wagner mercenaries have also faced losses in Ukraine, including after U.S.-provided rockets hit one of the group’s bases in the Luhansk region in August. As Putin has sought to replenish the ranks of Russia’s military, Prigozhin appears to have done the same with Wagner’s, including by recruiting in Russian prisons.

Prigozhin had long been known to U.S. and European officials, who have investigated his activities, including interfering in the 2016 U.S. election by funding a troll factory, the Internet Research Agency. In 2018, he was among the individuals and companies indicted by a federal grand jury for conspiracy in relation to the election interference. Two years later, just weeks before the case was supposed to go to trial, prosecutors dropped charges against two of Prigozhin’s companies, Concord Management and Consulting and Concord Catering. But Prigozhin continues to face charges. Before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Prigozhin was under sanctions in the U.S. over that interference, and in Europe over Wagner’s involvement in the conflict in Libya. Along with his mother, wife, and children, Prigozhin faced additional sanctions as a result of the invasion.

Yet until recently, Prigozhin had always denied any involvement with Wagner — and even the group’s existence. The emails reviewed by The Intercept offer new details about the lengths to which his lawyers took those denials, considering lawsuits against an array of publications that reported on his or his mercenaries’ exploits, and seeking to challenge reports that connected him to Wagner.

Prigozhin’s calculus seems to have abruptly changed as Russia’s war in Ukraine faltered this year, leading to recriminations inside the Kremlin and jockeying for power among Russian elites. As Putin faces growing internal criticism over his disastrous war, Prigozhin has positioned himself as a hard-liner and a critic of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. And as the war in Ukraine has raised his global profile, Prigozhin seems to have bet on embracing his connection to Wagner, rather than continuing to deny it.

Jack Margolin, former program director of the conflict finance and irregular threats program at C4ADS — a group of analysts who have researched Wagner’s activities extensively — noted a significant shift in the way Russian media covered Prigozhin since the start of the war.

“State media started acknowledging Wagner’s role, Prigozhin was reportedly awarded this ‘Hero of Russia’ title, and the space opened up for him to really capitalize on the success that Wagner’s had in Ukraine,” Margolin said, referring to reporting by several publications which was not confirmed by the Kremlin. “That’s not to say that Wagner has been instrumental and necessarily across the board has been this sort of game changer,” he added. “But it has been very important in Russia’s ability to staff its invasion.”

Margolin said that prior to the war in Ukraine, Prigozhin’s insistence on distancing himself from Wagner suggested that his businesses were being hurt by sanctions. “If he’s putting a lot of time and energy into engaging Western law firms to try and undo that [narrative], I think that that points to some kind of real effect on his bottom line,” Margolin observed.

A photo released by the Security Service of Ukraine purportedly shows Russian Wagner Group mercenaries in Syria.

Photo: SBU

Targeting Journalists

The emails reviewed by The Intercept include communications between Prigozhin’s representatives at Capital Legal Services, one of the targets of the hack, and European and American law firms with which he did business. Some 360,000 emails from CLS were in the hacked data, including several emails between CLS and the British firm Discreet Law, which Prigozhin’s representatives hired to file a defamation lawsuit against Higgins, the Bellingcat founder. Bellingcat was one of the first publications outside Russia to expose Prigozhin’s connections to the Kremlin, earning him the unwanted attention of sanctions officials. The emails between CLS and Discreet Law pull back the curtain on legal strategies that fostered a regulatory complaint against Discreet Law that the lawsuit was aimed at stifling reporting on Prigozhin. Some British legislators had previously criticized U.K. law firms for aiding powerful clients’ efforts to silence critics, with one British member of Parliament calling them “amoral lawyers” carrying out “legalised intimidation.”

Prigozhin retained Discreet Law to sue Higgins personally, rather than his publication, after Bellingcat published a multipart investigation in 2020 about him and his businesses, and Higgins shared the coverage in a series of Twitter posts. Prigozhin’s links to the Kremlin had been documented for years by Russian media, but the Bellingcat reports raised Prigozhin’s profile for Western audiences, detailing the extent to which the disinformation, political interference, and military operations to which he was connected were “tightly integrated with Russia’s Defense Ministry and its intelligence arm, the GRU,” according to Bellingcat.

In March, a month into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Discreet Law sought to withdraw from representing Prigozhin, and in May, the court dismissed Prigozhin’s claim against Higgins after he failed to find another firm to represent him. In a press release issued through his company, Prigozhin wrote that his lawyers were “forced to withdraw from the court case” because of a public pressure campaign against “English lawyers who work with Russian clients.” He claimed that finding alternate representation had become “objectively impossible.”

In a statement issued in May, Higgins’s attorney, Matthew Jury, welcomed the court’s decision to dismiss Prigozhin’s lawsuit, which had been filed in 2021, but warned against the harm done by firms enabling clients like him to silence essential reporting. “The current war in Ukraine highlights the immense importance of the work of organisations like Bellingcat,” Jury said. “We cannot continue to allow the UK Courts and lawyers to be used to stifle genuine public debate and criticism of those in power.”

Giselle Daverat, a spokesperson for Discreet Law, wrote in a statement to The Intercept, “It is public knowledge that this firm acted for Mr Prigozhin in defamation proceedings against Mr Higgins before we withdrew from the proceedings.”

“As you will appreciate, as lawyers we cannot comment on the affairs of any of our former clients,” Daverat added. “Communications between lawyers about a client’s case are also confidential and may be subject to legal professional privilege.”

Prigozhin hired Discreet Law to sue journalist Eliot Higgins, after Bellingcat published a multipart investigation in 2020 about Prigozhin and his businesses.

Photo: Courtesy Elliot Higgins
The documents reviewed by The Intercept show that before seeking to drop Prigozhin, attorneys at Discreet Law had strategized with their client on how to target Higgins without running afoul of protocol. In one email, dated August 13, 2021, Discreet Law attorney Andrew Stephenson cautioned Prigozhin’s representatives at CLS, the Russian law firm, that their client’s desire to quickly publicize the lawsuit before Higgins had been notified would be “a public relations disaster in the west” and potentially an “abuse of the process.”

“I warned of the risk that a court might regard the claim against Eliot Higgins in England, rather than Bellingcat in the Netherlands, as an abuse,” Stephenson stated in the email, referencing the decision to personally target Higgins by filing suit in the U.K., where he lives and where bringing defamation suits has historically been easier, rather than in the Netherlands, where Bellingcat is registered. “Let us not do anything to increase this risk.”

“I warned of the risk that a court might regard the claim against Eliot Higgins in England, rather than Bellingcat in the Netherlands, as an abuse.”

Discreet Law’s attorneys had previously discussed the possibility of bringing suit in the Netherlands, but Prigozhin’s lawyers in Russia decided not to pursue that option. Instead, the attorneys focused on finding a jurisdictional basis to bring the lawsuit in the U.K., and began monitoring Higgins’s Twitter account for tweets he published from there. Higgins’s tweets, which embedded Bellingcat’s reporting, provided the jurisdictional basis for the lawsuit. “As discussed on the call, we will review the social media posts in the UK in order to, first, try to establish stronger evidence of jurisdiction for the English Courts,” Edward Miller, another attorney at Discreet Law, wrote in an email dated July 12, 2021. “I will shortly be sharing the results of our search for posts of the offending article by Mr Higgins on his personal Twitter account,” he wrote again three days later.

The emails also reveal that an anonymous Twitter account was created in July 2021 to monitor and take screenshots of Higgins’s posts and track those who liked or retweeted them. The account only follows Higgins, not Bellingcat, suggesting that the founder was the only target. While most screenshots of Higgins’s tweets are taken from the fake account, some came from a different Twitter account connected to the firm Gherson Solicitors LLP, an immigration law firm founded by Roger Gherson, who is also a founding partner at Discreet Law and was included in communications with CLS.

In other emails, Discreet Law attorneys further discuss Higgins, at one point recommending investigating his personal assets should Prigozhin win the defamation case against him, forcing Higgins to pay damages. “We will, of course, need to investigate Mr Higgin’s [sic] asset position to try, as best as possible, to ascertain whether he has sufficient assets to meet any order for damages as well as costs,” Miller wrote in an email to CLS’s Pavel Karpunin, to which Karpunin responded, “It will be difficult to justify the material damage. … The client prefers making accent on public rebuttal of the article since it is one of the reasons for his sanction designation.”

Stephenson, the Discreet Law attorney, had once represented the late Boris Berezovsky, who helped propel Putin to power before falling out with him and becoming a fierce critic of his government; Berezovsky, who was fighting extradition to Russia, ultimately won asylum in the U.K. amid allegations that his rivals were trying to assassinate him there. Gherson, Discreet Law’s founder, advised the international team that has successfully defended Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash against extradition to the U.S., where he is wanted on corruption charges, in a case that took on political connotations.

Tracking the BBC

Discreet Law was not the only foreign law firm advising Prigozhin or one of the companies he controls. Other emails show communications between CLS and the U.K. firms Brick Court Chambers and Phillips Lewis Smith Ltd, which advised Prigozhin’s attorneys as they sought to appeal European sanctions against him, as well as the U.S.-based firm Reed Smith LLP, with which Prigozhin’s attorneys discussed U.S. sanctions. Prigozhin’s representatives discussed the possibility of bringing additional defamation claims with Phillips Lewis Smith. According to the hacked emails, an attorney at the firm and Prigozhin’s CLS attorneys also discussed communications with an editor at the British newspaper The Telegraph, and they discussed tracking coverage by the BBC. Separately, Prigozhin’s representatives in Russia also discussed with Discreet Law the potential of suing the BBC, at one point inquiring about options for “a successful defamation claim in UK against BBC” in response to an investigation published in August 2021 detailing Wagner’s activities in Libya.

“The article is carefully worded, and includes denials from Yevgeny Prigozhin of his involvement with Wagner,” Stephenson, of Discreet Law, wrote to CLS at the time. “My immediate impression is that it is very likely that prior to publication the article and research material will have been vetted by the BBC lawyers. … If you would like to discuss this, a conference call can be arranged.”

At one point, Prigozhin’s representatives raised the possibility of bringing additional defamation claims, in both the U.K. and the U.S., against other outlets that reported on Prigozhin, including the think tanks Foreign Policy Research Institute and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“Kindly comment on the Steps below that I will discuss with the DP tomorrow in an in-person meeting seeking to agree a path forward,” CLS’s Karpunin wrote to attorneys with Brick Court Chambers and Phillips Lewis Smith on July 14, 2021, using a shorthand for “Designated Person,” an apparent reference to Prigozhin. Karpunin went on to list a series of agenda items, including “Launch court challenges in UK / US against at least 3 articles (FPRI, Bellingcat, Carnegie) on grounds of defamation or as advised by local counsel.”

Maya Lester, an attorney at Brick Court Chambers who exchanged several emails with Prigozhin’s attorneys in Russia, and who was listed as one of Prigozhin’s representatives in a draft application against EU sanctions exchanged by CLS attorneys, wrote in an email to The Intercept that Prigozhin “is not my client and I do not represent him in relation to any application against EU sanctions or otherwise.” She added that rules of confidentiality and legal professional privilege prevented her from commenting on cases but said that she had “no involvement” in the draft document that listed her as a representative of Prigozhin.

Martin Lewis, the director at Phillips Lewis Smith, wrote in an email to The Intercept that confidentiality obligations prevented him from commenting on Prigozhin’s case before the European Court but noted that “Mr Prigozhin changed his representation in those proceedings by the time of the Hearing” (which Prigozhin ultimately lost).

Jack Margolin, of C4ADS, noted that these communications were well in line with Prigozhin’s long history targeting journalists — especially Russian ones — who reported on his activities.

“There’s a legal side of this, and there’s also just the harassment and completely extra-legal activity that his networks have undertaken against journalists,” Margolin said, citing among other examples, Wagner’s suspected role in the assassination of three Russian journalists who were investigating the group’s activities in Central African Republic. “He’s one of the people that’s probably the scariest for Russian journalists to be working on.”

“Law firms end up acting effectively as agents of foreign actors.”

While everyone has a right to defend themselves against libel and to appeal sanctions, Margolin added that Western law firms’ willingness to work with the man in charge of a mercenary network accused of widespread human rights abuses raises questions. “I think that it can create a dynamic that we’ve seen time and time again in the United States, where law firms end up acting effectively as agents of foreign actors,” Margolin noted.

“I would say that given Prigozhin’s activities prior even to the invasion of Ukraine, from an ethical standpoint, it’d be very hard to justify trying to defend such an individual,” he added.

In this video grab taken from a video released by the Libyan National Army shows Yevgeny Prigozhin, second right, attending a meeting Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of staff of Russia's armed with Libyan National Army head Khalifa Hifter, in Moscow, Russia, on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018. A Russian newspaper says video released by the self-styled Libyan National Army shows a businessman allegedly linked to a private contractor that sent mercenaries to Syria at a meeting with the head of the Libyan army and top Russian military officials. (Libyan National Army via AP)

Yevgeny Prigozhin, second from the right, attends a meeting with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, in Moscow on Nov. 7, 2018.

Photo: Libyan National Army via AP

Owning the Narrative

In the emails, Prigozhin’s attorneys paint their client as occasionally difficult and impatient, fixated with media coverage of himself and particularly preoccupied with “reputation management.” Prigozhin seemed especially concerned with media coverage that he believed formed the basis for the sanctions imposed against him.

The desire to take charge of the narrative surrounding him appears to have put Prigozhin’s lawyers in Russia at odds with his U.K. attorneys on more than one occasion. His representatives clashed with Discreet Law over his impatience to make public statements about the lawsuit against Higgins, with Pavel Karpunin of CLS noting that he would be “highly disappointed if he can say nothing.”

“We understand that you would prefer the client remain silent until the claim is served but that may not be possible,” Karpunin wrote on August 13, 2021.

“I will inform the client that it is necessary to refrain from any public information regarding the Claim Form,” Karpunin ultimately agreed, after the attorneys said that they had a four-month window between filing the initial claim and the time when Higgins had to be notified and the lawsuit could be publicized. “However, I am sure that he will not accept that the Particulars of Claim will be prepared and served within 4 months period. He is very impatient regarding the potential time losses and requests the publically [sic] visible result as soon as possible. Let us consider how it is possible to accelerate the process and prepare and serve the Particulars within a shorter period.”

Emails between Prigozhin’s representatives and attorney Martin Lewis of Phillips Lewis Smith, in relation to communications with The Telegraph, also suggest a certain frustration. “Do you want to hand it off in some way or do you want the DP simply to start writing to The Telegraph without cc’ing you?” Karpunin writes to Lewis at one point, once again referring to Prigozhin with an acronym for “Designated Person.” Lewis replies by complaining of “many hours of unpaid work on the DP’s affairs.”

“Media and reputation management is not our area of expertise and to undertake it and for no payment, exposes the DP as I have pointed out, to legal jeopardy not only in that regard, but also in his public administrative law procedures,” Lewis adds. “My suggestion is that we are copied in to advance drafts of the DP’s exchanges with the Telegraph and which I can review under the cloak of professional privilege on the grounds of making sure that nothing is said which compromises the public administrative law procedures. This will require a consequential variation of the [Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation] Licence, but I am content to eat a certain amount of time pending that.” (The Telegraph did not respond to The Intercept’s request for comment.)

In reference to that email, Lewis noted in a statement to The Intercept that his firm provides representation in relation to sanctions under licenses that “provide detailed approved work streams which are tightly drawn in their scope.” He added, “As such, work not covered by a Licence can be undertaken but not paid for and there are satellite exchanges that fall into this category in every case, but with the focus at all times remaining on promoting the overriding objective of the retainer.”

CLS also discussed European sanctions against Prigozhin with Brick Court Chambers. In a set of emails exchanged with an attorney at the firm and Lewis of Phillips Lewis Smith, Vladislav Zabrodin, CLS’s founder and managing partner, acknowledges the U.K. attorneys’ argument that litigating the “existence of Wagner Group” is irrelevant to Prigozhin’s claim in opposition to sanctions. “At the same time, it is important here to note the context,” Zabrodin writes, stating that the EU Council has acknowledged that the Wagner Group does not exist as a single legal entity registered under that name.

“This is extremely important to the DP, as he has maintained since the very first press reports on Wagner Group appeared in the Russian press several years ago and has made extraordinary efforts to get the press to report on this fact,” Zabrodin adds. “An official EU document acknowledging this will build on a momentum forming in the West in which the narrative construct of ‘Wagner Group’ is being deconstructed and abandoned.”

“At this point it is not clear what the ‘Wagner Group’ narrative will be replaced by so we should consider ourselves fortunate to have an opportunity to attack it officially at the same time it is collapsing on its own.”

Zabrodin goes on to cite a Foreign Policy article headlined “Russia’s Wagner Group Doesn’t Actually Exist” as evidence that media discourse around Wagner was beginning to shift. “At this point it is not clear what the ‘Wagner Group’ narrative will be replaced by so we should consider ourselves fortunate to have an opportunity to attack it officially at the same time it is collapsing on its own,” he concludes. “The Foreign Policy article linked above which explicitly confirms the DP’s consistent position throughout the pleadings before the [EU] Court and administrative correspondence with the [EU] Council: the Wagner Group is a mere narrative construct that makes it easier for Western media, politicians and experts to discuss a phenomenon (Russian-speaking international mercenaries) about which no reliable public information is available.”

In the same email, Zabrodin also introduces another argument on behalf of Prigozhin: that EU sanctions against Prigozhin served U.S. interests.

“The primary reason that since the beginning we have suggested in the pleadings that the Council is acting at the behest of the US is not because we think this is a winning legal argument, but because (i) this is something that the DP sincerely believes and (ii) we believe that the Europeans become highly annoyed when presented with evidence that they are subservient to the US,” Zabrodin writes. “Therefore we consider the time and effort spent by the Council addressing this issue to be a tactical victory that elevates a legal nonissue into a real issue in the mind of the Court.”

Reframing the narrative about Wagner by seeking to discredit media organizations reporting on the group was an essential element of Prigozhin’s legal strategy. In a draft application against EU sanctions, attached to some of the emails reviewed by The Intercept, Prigozhin’s attorneys contest EU sanctions over Wagner’s involvement in Libya primarily by dismissing the work of several media outlets that reported on it, including the BBC, Reuters, and Al Jazeera. In the draft, the attorneys question reporting on Wagner by a “student intern” at the Foreign Policy Research Institute; suggest that reporting by the BBC and Reuters, based on a “leaked UN Panel of Experts Report” is “second hand”; and argue that Al Jazeera, which is owned by the government of Qatar, is not a credible source. “Qatar’s hands are not clean and since Qatar owns and operates Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera’s hands are likewise unclean in the situation in Libya,” they write.

Prigozhin’s appeal failed. In June, the General Court, the EU’s second highest court, upheld the sanctions against Prigozhin, ruling that “the evidence pack contained sufficient details, accompanied by credible information, that the activities of Wagner Group, which were sufficiently identified, threatened peace, security and stability in Libya.”

Letter to Trump

At times, despite surrounding himself with teams of international lawyers to protect his interests, Prigozhin seems to have preferred to take matters in his own hands.

Among the documents reviewed by The Intercept is what appears to be a draft letter Prigozhin addressed to former President Donald Trump, as well as former Attorney General William Barr, former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and several other U.S. officials. Russian and English versions of the letter, stripped of metadata, were attached in emails by Prigozhin’s team at CLS, including some specifically instructing recipients to remove the metadata from the attachments. The Intercept could not determine whether a final draft of the letter was ever sent to its intended recipients, but three of the U.S. officials listed as recipients on the draft, including Barr, told The Intercept that they do not remember receiving it — suggesting that Prigozhin might have ultimately decided against sending it. A spokesperson for Trump did not respond to a request for comment.

The four-page letter, Prigozhin notes in a postscript, was “written and delivered against the advice of Concord’s able counsel, Eric Dubelier and Kate Seikaly.” The attorneys represented Prigozhin in the U.S. after special counsel Mueller filed criminal charges in 2018, accusing Prigozhin and Concord, the company he controls, of conspiracy to defraud the United States for their alleged role in election interference in the 2016 election. Dubelier, a U.S.-based attorney who with Seikaly defended Concord against federal prosecution, wrote in an email to The Intercept that Prigozhin “is not our client nor has he ever been our client.” He did not address additional questions or comment on the scores of emails he exchanged with Prigozhin’s attorneys at CLS.

In the draft letter, dated April 23, 2019, Prigozhin asks Trump to reappoint Mueller as a federal prosecutor so he can personally prosecute Concord, giving Prigozhin a chance to face him in court.

“[F]or some reason the press insists on calling me ‘Putin’s Chef,’ and not ‘Bush’s Chef.’”

“You have been led to believe, in great part due to Mr. Mueller’s accusations against me and my company, that I am of the same mind as Osama bin Laden or El Chapo, both villains that Mr. Mueller has insultingly compared me to in federal court,” Prigozhin writes, in a letter whose combative style is in line with Prigozhin’s frequent statements on Russian social media. “I will not hide that this is first and foremost a matter of personal honor for me. I built my restaurant and catering businesses from the ground up, with my own blood and sweat, like many American entrepreneurs.”

Prigozhin goes on to lament that his “business and brand” have suffered due to the sanctions imposed against him and Mueller’s indictment. He also writes about the reputation he has acquired in the West and takes particular issue with the way the press have covered him. “I had the honor of serving President George W. Bush at my New Island restaurant in 2002,” he writes, “but for some reason the press insists on calling me ‘Putin’s Chef,’ and not ‘Bush’s Chef.’”


Yevgeny Prigozhin walks toward a seated Vladimir Putin, center left, and George W. Bush, far right, on board the SS New Island on May 25, 2002.

Photo: Kremlin

While Prigozhin’s U.S.-based counsel appeared to be opposed to the letter, his team at CLS helped translate it, deliberating in some detail on English phrases like “Constitution be damned.” In the English draft, Prigozhin concludes by expressing a wish to face Mueller in court, where, he writes, “if American justice as devised by the Founding Fathers is still alive, we will prevail.”

That line seems to have been a suggestion from Kyle Davis, an attorney at CLS. “Think about changing ??????? ?? ???????? to ? ??????? ?? ???????,” Davis wrote in one of several emails about the draft translation, “‘prevail’ is a bit more fancy than just ‘win’.”

Correction: October 19, 2022, 5:20 pm E.T.
This story has been corrected to clarify that while U.S. prosecutors dismissed conspiracy charges against two of Prigozhin’s companies, Prigozhin himself continues to face charges.

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