Putin Teases That His Troll-Factory Ally Is Just Like Soros

(Bloomberg) -- Vladimir Putin has long denied meddling in Western elections, including U.S. allegations that one of his allies backed a “troll factory” targeting the presidential vote in 2016. But this week, the Russian leader seemed to drop a hint the picture might not be so black and white.

In an interview with Austria’s ORF television released Monday, he drew a parallel to financier George Soros, who’s long been accused in the former Communist world of subverting governments at Washington’s behest.

“He intervenes in things all over the world,” Putin said, adding that Soros has lately been accused of trying to break up the euro zone. “But the State Department will tell you that it has nothing to do with that, that this is the personal business of Mr. Soros.”

“Well for us, this is the personal business of Mr. Prigozhin,” Putin said, referring to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a wealthy businessman who’s been accused by the U.S. of funding Internet trolling and other election interference. “There’s your answer. Does that response satisfy you?” Putin, smiling, asked. Without responding, the Austrian interviewer moved on to another topic. Soros has long denied allegations of political meddling.

Though Putin prefaced the comments with his usual denials of any Kremlin ties to Prigozhin’s alleged actions, the teasing exchange was the closest he’s come to allowing that someone in Russia may have had a role in election meddling since he said a year ago that “patriotically minded” Russian hackers might have taken it upon themselves to defend their motherland in cyberspace.

‘Putin’s Cook’

For years, Putin has accused Western leaders of hypocrisy when they’ve denied links to acts by other branches of government or independent citizens. Few in the Kremlin, with its tight control over politics, economics and society in Russia, believe assertions by Western officials.

Known as ‘Putin’s cook’ because of his extensive catering business serving the Kremlin, Prigozhin and three of his companies were named in an indictment by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller in February. The 37-page document describes how hundreds of Russians used social media, fake rallies, and secretive operatives in the U.S. to create “political intensity” among radical groups, opposition social movements, and disaffected voters.

Lawyers for Prigozhin and his companies deny the allegations and are fighting them in U.S. court.

In the interview, Putin played down his alleged ties to Prigozhin. “I know lots of people, in Moscow and in St. Petersburg. Ask them,” Putin said.

The sometimes-combative tone of the conversation contrasted to the warm reception Putin’s expected to get on his visit Tuesday to Vienna, where conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and his nationalist coalition partner back warmer ties to Russia.

Among other topics in the interview, Putin discussed:

  • Relations with U.S. President Donald Trump: The two leaders have discussed the need for talks to avoid a new arms race but the political situation in the U.S. is preventing them from agreeing on when to meet, Putin said.
  • North Korea: “We of course put great hope in the meeting of President Trump and the leader of North Korea Kim Jong Un,” Putin said. “I think this road of North Korean denuclearization should be a two-way street. If the leader of North Korea confirms his intentions with practical steps such as forgoing further missile and nuclear tests, the other side should make some appreciable steps, too. I think continuing military activity, maneuvers, is counterproductive in this situation.”
  • Plans for when his term expires: Putin said he would abide by constitution limits that prevent him from running again in 2024, but didn’t rule out retaining political influence after that. “A lot will depend on how we will work, I mean me and my team,” he said. “I’ve been working in government for a rather long time and will have to decide myself what to do when my current presidential term ends.”

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