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U.S. Adds More Russians To Sanctions List, Including 'Putin's Chef'

St. Petersburg businessman and caterer Yevgeny Prigozhin (file photo)
St. Petersburg businessman and caterer Yevgeny Prigozhin (file photo)

WASHINGTON -- The United States has levied new sanctions against more Russians for Moscow's actions in Ukraine, hitting well-connected insiders, including the man known as Russian President Vladimir Putin's chef.

The updated list, announced on December 20 by the Treasury Department, includes seven Russians and more than three dozen companies in Russia and Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

The names added to the Specially Designated Nationals List include Yevgeny Prigozhin, a St. Petersburg businessman whose company has provided catering to the Kremlin.

"These targeted sanctions aim to maintain pressure on Russia by sustaining the costs of its occupation of Crimea and disrupting the activities of those who support the violence and instability in Ukraine,” John Smith, acting director of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, said in a statement.

The announcement triggered an angry response from Moscow, where Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov called the fresh sanctions a "hostile move" and warned that Russia would retaliate.

"We will be expanding our lists, we will see how we can respond asymmetrically," the state-run TASS news agency quoted Ryabkov as saying.

Prigozhin has been dubbed "Putin’s chef" thanks to major state catering contracts his firms have secured with the Kremlin and elsewhere.

He has also been linked to a notorious "troll factory" that paid Russians to post anonymous comments to news sites, social media networks, and blogs in an effort to bolster Kremlin policies.

The Treasury announcement said Prigozhin had provided financial, material and technological support for senior Russian defense officials, and has had extensive business with the Defense Ministry. That includes a company linked to him that has a contract to build a military base near the Russian border with Ukraine, the department said.

“Russia has been building additional military bases near the Ukrainian border and has used these bases as staging points for deploying soldiers into Ukraine,” the announcement said.

News reports have also linked Prigozhin’s employees to a shadowy private military contractor called ChVK Vagner.

Mercenary groups like Vagner and other private contractors are believed to have played an increasingly important role in Russian foreign policy in recent years, particularly in Ukraine and Syria.

The groups operate in close coordination with formal Russian military units, such as the country’s lead military intelligence organization, known as GRU.

But because they are not formally part of the Russian armed forces, it has been harder for reporters, investigators, and analysts to track casualties, financial flows, and other details.

Earlier this month, the Russian believed to be the head of the Vagner mercenary group was spotted at an exclusive Kremlin awards ceremony -- a clear indication, many observers said, of Moscow's embrace of such groups.

Other newly sanctioned individuals include executives with current or previous ties to Bank Rossiya, which the Treasury Department previously sanctioned and called the "personal bank for senior officials of the Russian Federation."

The current chairman of the bank’s board, Dmitry Lebedev, is among those included on the new list.

"These targeted sanctions aim to maintain pressure on Russia by sustaining the costs of its occupation of Crimea and disrupting the activities of those who support the violence and instability in Ukraine,” John Smith, acting director of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, said in a statement.

Several subsidiaries of natural gas giant Novatek were added to the sanctions list. The parent company itself, which is Russia's largest independent gas producer, was included in the original sanctions list issued by the United States in 2014.

Fourteen other companies added are subsidiaries of Russian Agricultural Bank, а government-owned bank whose president is Dmitry Patrushev. His father, Nikolai Patrushev, is the head of Putin’s Security Council.

Russian Agricultural Bank was also included in the original sanctions list in 2014.

'No Connections' To Russian Hacking

The new sanctions come one month before President Barack Obama leaves office and his successor, Republican Donald Trump, takes over.

Trump said during his campaign that he would consider lifting Ukraine-related sanctions against Russia. Officials in Russia have also already expressed optimism that bilateral ties could improve under the new president.

Sergei Ryabkov appeared to suggest that Moscow is bracing for more possible punitive actions from Washington during Obama’s final month in office.

"We have repeatedly said and say once again that we all must be on alert," Ryabkov told TASS. "We don't know what next hostile-to-us moves could be taken by the present U.S. leadership."

Obama has ordered a special report on an alleged Russian hacking campaign to meddle in the presidential elections to be issued before Trump’s January 20 inauguration.

Obama said in a radio interview broadcast December 15 that the United States will "take action" against Russia for the alleged meddling. Moscow has rejected the accusations.

"At a time and a place of our own choosing. Some of it may be...explicit and publicized; some of it may not be... Mr. Putin is well aware of my feelings about this, because I spoke to him directly about it," Obama told NPR.

White House spokesman Ned Price told RFE/RL that the new Treasury Department sanctions had “no connections whatsoever” to the allegations of Russian hacking.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.