The British government on Friday sanctioned Alina Kabaeva, the Olympic champion gymnast who is allegedly Vladimir Putin’s longtime lover and mother of some of his children, in a move expected to rile the Russian president as his war in Ukraine nears its 80th day.
“Today’s sanctions will hit this cabal who owe Putin their wealth and power, and in turn support Putin and his war machine,” the British government said in a release.
Countries around the world have been working to cut off Putin and his inner circle of oligarchs and cronies since his February invasion of Ukraine as a way to crank up the pressure on Moscow and cut key allies off from the world financial system. But the pressure is growing to expand that list to include his family members and closest allies to make the sanctions sting.
The British sanctions targeting Kabaeva also target her grandmother, Anna Zatseplina, as well as Putin’s ex-wife, Lyudmila Ocheretnaya, and several other associates and family members.
The European Union, too, has proposed sanctioning Kabaeva, one European sanctions authority told The Daily Beast, but the potential sanctions have been held up due to Hungary’s objections over banning oil from Russia. Bloomberg News first reported the rumored sanctions.
Kabaeva, who took gold in rhythmic gymnastics at the 2004 Olympic Games, has since retired and began working in politics as a pro-Kremlin lawmaker in Russia. She has since founded a charitable foundation and has worked as the head of the Russian National Media Group, which oversees pro-government media, cashing in with a salary hovering near $12 million as of 2018, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Her leadership in the media group, and its role in pushing Russian propaganda and thereby undermining Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the war, is part of why she is up for sanctions, Bloomberg News reported.
The Kremlin has denied the romantic links between Putin and Kabaeva.
“His family members form a core contingent of his inner circle—receiving positions of power due to their affiliation to the regime,” the British government said Friday.
The Biden administration has been considering sanctioning Kabaeva, but she was spared in recent days, in part because White House officials feared that sanctioning her would be viewed as such a low and personal blow that Putin might escalate the war in Ukraine in response, as the Journal reported.
The White House has indicated that more sanctions are yet to come.
“No one is safe from our sanctions,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, when asked about Kabaeva, said last week. “There’s more we will likely do.”
The tightening grip on the Kremlin inner circle comes as Putin weighs escalating the war in Ukraine beyond just the eastern regions of the country, in a return to his old goals of the conflict, intelligence officials in the Biden administration warned lawmakers this week.
But his private life may still prove a more volatile influence on the war. Putin has long been touchy about his private life, seeking to keep it guarded from public view. It’s been rumored Kabaeva gave birth to at least one of his children in a hospital in Switzerland in 2015, and that she is the mother of several of his other children as well.
Putin has previously commented on his rigid focus on shielding his private life from public view. “I have a private life in which I do not permit interference. It must be respected,” Putin said following reports he was romantically involved with Kabaeva.
When the Moskovsky Korrespondent reported that Putin’s former marriage had ended in divorce, and he was engaged to be married to Kabaeva at St. Petersburg's Konstatinovsky Palace, the publication quickly shut down, citing mysterious financial issues.
"Of course, society has the right to know about the lives of public figures, but even in this case there are certain limits,” Putin said at the time, according to a report from RFERL.
But Kabaeva, who is rumored to have taken up residence in a chalet in Switzerland while Putin wages war, according to Page Six reporting, is getting a flurry of negative attention for benefitting from her ties with the Kremlin. A petition that’s gained more than 70,000 signatures has been circulating, calling for her expulsion from Switzerland.
“Despite the current war, Switzerland continues to host an accomplice of Putin's regime,” the petition reads.
The Wall Street Journal has also reported Kabaeva was spotted in Switzerland.
It is unclear at this time if Kabaeva is indeed in Switzerland, though. The Swiss Federal Department of Justice and Police “has no indication of Ms. Kabaeva’s presence in Switzerland,” a spokesperson at the Swiss Embassy in the U.S. told The Daily Beast. Kabaeva also does not have a permanent residence permit in Switzerland, the spokesperson said.
She was spotted last month at a gymnastics event in Moscow, according to photos that Ekaterina Sirotina, the head coach of Russia's junior national rhythmic gymnastics team, posted on Instagram.
And regardless of the extent of her rumored romantic relationship, Kabaeva has been enriched by her work for the regime and has appeared to be pushing pro-Kremlin and pro-war propaganda herself.
Just last month, she stood in front of posters showing the “Z” logo, symbolic of support for the Russian war in Ukraine, to deliver remarks at the gymnastics event.
“Every family has a war-related story, and we must pass these stories to next generations,” Kabaeva said. “We will only win from this.”
Putin may not have a neutral party in the Swiss to shield his alleged mistress, despite the country’s tendency to declare neutrality, though. Switzerland has jumped on board with other European and Western nations to sanction Russians and implement punitive measures. And even though Jacques Pitteloud, the Swiss ambassador to the U.S., has said his nation will maintain a legal definition of neutrality, the Swiss have sanctioned hundreds of Russians since the war began, including two of Putin’s daughters, so it seems that loved ones are not off the table.