US Treasury hits ‘Putin’s chef’ with new sanctions

The US Treasury has ramped up sanctions against one of Vladimir Putin’s closest confidants for alleged attempts to influence the 2018 elections and warned Moscow that it will “aggressively pursue” future attempts to meddle in next year’s vote.

Private jets and a luxury yacht owned by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a businessman nicknamed “Putin’s chef” due to his relations with the Kremlin, were sanctioned alongside a handful of companies and individuals associated him and his Internet Research Agency. US officials have described the firm as a St Petersburg-based “troll farm” that uses social media accounts and fake news stories to interfere in US elections.

The sanctions are the first to be imposed under a new US law signed in September 2018 to target election interference, marking a new push by the US government to respond to Russian meddling, despite reluctance on the part of President Donald Trump to directly condemn his Russian counterpart or the Kremlin for the alleged attacks.

“Treasury is targeting the private planes, yacht and associated front companies of Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the Russian financier behind the internet Research Agency and its attempts to subvert American democratic processes,” Steven Mnuchin, Treasury secretary, said in the statement. “This administration will work tirelessly to safeguard our electoral process, and will aggressively pursue any other foreign actor that attempts to interfere in the 2020 elections.” 

The move is part of a broader push to deter countries — chiefly Russia, Iran and China — from seeking to influence the upcoming 2020 election, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (Ofac), which oversees sanctions policy, said in a statement on Monday.

Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, said Washington “will continue to work to ensure that [Mr] Prigozhin and others like him find no refuge or comfort as long as they carry out destabilising activities that threaten the interests of the United States and its allies and partners”.

“We will not hesitate to impose further costs on Russia for its destabilsing and unacceptable activities,” he added.

Ofac said in the statement that “there was no indication that foreign actors were able to compromise election infrastructure that would have prevented voting, changed vote counts, or disrupted the tallying of votes”.

Mr Prigozhin was a prominent St Petersburg restaurateur in the early 2000s when he befriended Mr Putin. He went on to win catering contracts for Russian schools and the country’s military worth hundreds of millions of dollars and has cooked for meetings between the Russian president and visiting foreign leaders.

Mr Prigozhin, the Internet Research Agency and four of the six other people named in Monday’s announcement were already under US sanctions imposed due to what the Treasury said was an earlier effort to interfere in the 2016 election and help Mr Trump win. Mr Prigozhin and multiple Internet Research Agency employees are also facing criminal charges in the US brought by Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Representatives of Mr Prigozhin declined to comment, citing ongoing legal actions. The Kremlin has always denied any Russian attempts to meddle in US elections.

Monday’s sanctions extend the restrictions to include three companies connected to Mr Prigozhin, three private jets and the St Vitamin, a luxury yacht on which his family have holidayed, Ofac said.

One of the jets has been used by Mr Prigozhin to travel to multiple African countries since 2017, including the Central African Republic and Sudan, two countries where Wagner, a Russian private security company that Russian media have reported has ties to Mr Prigozhin, has operations.

One of the jets, with tail number M-SAAN, is registered in the Isle of Man, a British Crown Dependency, Ofac said: “By continuing to service these aircraft and the vessel, providers of such services run the risk of facilitating or supporting Prigozhin’s nefarious activities and may also be subject to future sanctions.”

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