MAY 13, 2022
LONDON — The U.K. sanctioned Alina Kabaeva, a retired Olympic rhythmic gymnast who several Western governments believe to be Vladimir Putin’s girlfriend, as part of a crackdown on people close to the Russian president.
The move is part of a wider attempt by Western allies to raise pressure on Mr. Putin to end the war in Ukraine. After initially targeting Russian oligarchs and other high-profile business figures, Western governments are increasingly turning their focus to individuals who are personally close to Mr. Putin or financially connected with him.
The European Union also plans to hit Ms. Kabaeva with sanctions when the bloc moves to further penalize Russia, according to two EU diplomats.
The U.K. Foreign Office said that it had also sanctioned Ms. Kabaeva’s grandmother and Mr. Putin’s ex-wife, Lyudmila Ocheretnaya, along with several of Mr. Putin’s cousins. The British government said Ms. Kabaeva was alleged to have “a close personal relationship” with Mr. Putin and was rumored to be his partner.
The move puts London ahead of the Biden administration, which has held off on sanctioning Ms. Kabaeva out of concern that it could further escalate hostilities between Russia and the U.S., The Wall Street Journal previously reported.
A Biden administration official said Friday the U.S. was continuing to look into sanctioning Ms. Kabaeva, but declined to comment further.
The U.S. government believes Ms. Kabaeva to be the mother of at least three of his children, The Journal has reported.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pushed allies to take a hard-line against the Kremlin and Mr. Putin in particular over the war in Ukraine. The U.K. was initially slow to sanction Russian oligarchs but changed its laws to make it easier to freeze their assets.
The Kremlin has long denied any romantic relationship between Mr. Putin and Ms. Kabaeva. It didn’t immediately reply to requests for comment Friday. In 2008, Mr. Putin said in response to newspaper reports: “I have always disliked those who, with their snotty noses and erotic fantasies, break into other people’s private affairs.”
The U.K. government said that official Russian records show that Mr. Putin holds few valuable assets. These include a small flat in St. Petersburg, two Soviet-era cars from the 1950s and a small garage. It says much of his wealth is spread among a web of close friends and business associates.
“In reality, Putin relies on his network of family, childhood friends, and selected elite who have benefited from his rule and in turn support his lifestyle,” the U.K. said. “Their reward is influence over the affairs of the Russian state that goes far beyond their formal positions.”
Others targeted Friday include Anna Zatseplina, grandmother of Ms. Kabaeva. The British government said she had received a luxury flat in Moscow from another sanctioned ally of Mr. Putin. Mr. Putin’s ex-wife, Ms. Ocheretnaya was targeted, the U.K. said, for benefiting from preferential business relationships with state-owned entities.
The government also sanctioned Igor and Roman Putin, two of the Russian leader’s cousins, and his close friend, Alexander Plekhov, who the U.K. alleged benefited from state patronage.
The Russian leader has two daughters from his marriage to Lyudmila, which ended in 2014. The U.K., U.S. and EU have all sanctioned those two daughters.
The 69-year-old Mr. Putin has never acknowledged a relationship with Ms. Kabaeva, a 39-year-old former Olympic gymnast once famed for her extreme flexibility. British officials say Ms. Kabaeva is part of a group of Putin confidants with links to Bank Rossiya, an entity sanctioned by the U.S. and U.K for its close ties to the Kremlin.
After Ms. Kabaeva retired from gymnastics, she entered politics as a lawmaker for Mr. Putin’s ruling United Russia party. Ms. Kabaeva left parliament in 2014 to become chairwoman of Russia’s New Media Group, which controls major pro-government TV, radio and news websites. She was appointed by NMG owner Yuri Kovalchuk, the largest shareholder in Bank Rossiya.
British officials point to NMG and its connection to Bank Rossiya as evidence of Ms. Kabaeva’s financial links to Mr. Putin.
Among others targeted Friday, the U.K. sanctioned Mikhail Shelomov, Mr. Putin’s first cousin once removed, due to his shareholding in Bank Rossiya. British officials believe he is a proxy for Mr. Putin. Mikhail Klishin, an executive at Bank Rossiya was also sanctioned Friday.