By Andrew Osborn and Jack Stubbs
MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Kremlin said on Monday that U.S. charges against 13 Russians and several Russian companies accused of meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign contained zero proof of Russian state involvement.
The comments were the Kremlin’s first reaction to charges drawn up by the office of U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller which centered on a Russian businessman nicknamed ‘Putin’s cook’ by the Russian media who U.S. officials say has extensive ties to the country’s military and political establishment.
The full indictment, released on Friday, said that a Russian propaganda arm funded by the businessman, Evgeny Prigozhin, oversaw a criminal and espionage conspiracy to tamper in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign to support Donald Trump and disparage Hillary Clinton.
The charges are awkward for the Kremlin which is keen to try to build a relationship with Trump in the hope that could eventually lead to U.S. sanctions imposed over its role in Ukraine being lifted.
The election-meddling allegations have soured U.S.-Russia ties further however, triggering new sanctions as well as pressure for more restrictions. Friday’s indictment and news that Mueller’s investigation is not yet finished mean the issue is likely to dog the troubled relationship for a long time.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday that the U.S. indictment centered purely on individuals and presented no tangible proof that the Kremlin itself or Russian government agencies were involved.
“They (the Americans) are talking about Russian citizens, but we have heard in announcements from Washington accusations about the involvement of the Russian state, the Kremlin and the Russian government,” Peskov told reporters on a conference call.
“There are no indications that the Russian state could have been involved in this and nor can there be any. Russia did not meddle, does not have the habit of meddling in the internal affairs of other countries, and is not doing so now.”
The U.S. indictment of Prigozhin, nicknamed ‘Putin’s cook’ because of his catering business that has organized banquets for the Russian leader and other senior political figures, is uncomfortable for the Kremlin.
Prigozhin, 56, has boasted of meeting Putin and of the Russian leader being impressed with his business acumen. The Kremlin did not refer to Prigozhin by name in its Monday comments.
The U.S. Treasury had sanctioned Prigozhin previously, in 2016, for providing material support to senior Russian government officials, saying he has extensive business dealings with the Russian Defence Ministry.
Friday’s indictment accused him of funding the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, known for its trolling on social media.
Companies which he directly or indirectly owns or controls are listed in an official corporate database as having won lucrative state contracts for the Russian presidential administration, parliament, and the defense ministry.
His biggest business appears to be supplying food to state-run schools and universities. One of the firms he owns and manages won contracts in that sector worth 459,467,464,056 rubles ($8.15 billion) between 2011-2017, the same database shows.
Prigozhin did not respond to a request for comment sent via his companies on Monday. On Friday, the RIA news agency cited him as saying he was unfazed by the indictment.
“The Americans are very emotional people, they see what they want to see. I have great respect for them. If they want to see the devil, let them,” RIA quoted him as saying.
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied it tried to influence the 2016 election, casting such allegations as part of an anti-Russian campaign in the United States which it says is primarily designed to hurt Trump politically.
(Editing by Richard Balmforth)