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The United States has imposed sanctions on the former Olympic gymnast long rumored to be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s romantic partner – adding the person known as “Russia’s most flexible woman” to the growing list of people facing economic sanctions in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Alina Kabaeva, 39, has been romantically linked to Putin, 69, for more than a decade and is believed to have had at least three children with him. In announcing sanctions against her on Tuesday, the Treasury Department said “Kabaeva has a close relationship with Putin” and that she was targeted as part of an effort to “impose serious costs on those who support President Vladimir Putin’s war.”
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“As innocent people suffer under Russia’s illegal war of aggression, Putin’s allies have enriched themselves and funded lavish lifestyles,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a declaration. “The Treasury Department will use every tool at our disposal to ensure that Russian elites and Kremlin enablers are held accountable for their complicity in a war that has cost countless lives.”
While the Kremlin has long denied any relationship between Kabaeva and Putin, rumors of their partnership date back more than a decade. Here’s some of what we know about them.
She was a gymnastics star, but was once banned for doping
Kabaeva is one of the most decorated rhythmic gymnasts in Russian history. She took up the sport at the age of 4 and would eventually win 21 European Championship medals, 14 World Championship medals and two Olympic medals, including a gold at the 2004 Games in Athens. Her signature move, known as “Kabaeva,” helped earn her the nickname “Russia’s Most Flexible Woman.”
However, her career was not without controversy. In 2001, she tested positive at the Goodwill Games in Australia for the banned drug furosemide – a diuretic sometimes used by athletes to lose weight or hide the use of other drugs. She denied doping and said the drug came from a pill she bought at a local pharmacy. Nevertheless, she was briefly banned from competition and forced to return her medals from the 2001 World Championships in Madrid.
She entered politics, then the media industry
Kabaeva retired from professional gymnastics around 2007 and decided to enter politics. She was elected to a seat in the lower house of parliament, where she served as a member of Putin’s United Russia party. In parliament, she was a leading proponent of a law that deprived many Russian orphans of the opportunity to be adopted abroad.
In 2014, she left politics to serve as chairman of Russia’s New Media Group, which the US describes as “a pro-Kremlin empire of television, radio and print organizations.” For months, Kremlin critics have accused the organization of portraying Western commentary about the Ukraine invasion as a disinformation campaign. She was appointed to the job despite having limited experience in the industry beyond hosting a television talk show.
Putin and Kabaeva do not discuss the relationship
Kabaeva has denied a relationship with Putin, and Putin has similarly never acknowledged such a partnership. In 2008, the famously private Russian president was asked about Kabaeva during a press conference in Italy with Silvio Berlusconi, then the country’s prime minister-elect.
“Of course, I am aware of the cliché that politicians live in glass houses, but even in these cases there must be some limits,” Putin said while dismissing the rumours. “I always disliked people who go around with their erotic fantasies and stick their snot-filled noses into another human’s life,” he continued.
Berlusconi standing next to Putin mimed shooting the reporter who asked the question with an imaginary machine gun.
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The question came a few days later The Moskovsky Correspondent, a Russian tabloid owned by a former Soviet intelligence officer, reported that Putin planned to marry Kabaeva. The paper was quickly suspended “for financial reasons” and never resumed operations.
The sanctions may not have much effect
Kabaeva is just the latest person in Putin’s inner circle to face sanctions in retaliation for the war in Ukraine. Since launching the Russian invasion in February, the United States has announced sanctions against a wide range of Russian banks and companies, Putin associates and even two of his adult daughters.
But at this point in the war, it’s unclear how far sanctions against a single person will go to deter Putin, said Rachel Ziemba, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Ziemba says there is little evidence that Kabaeva herself has financial assets in the US and, in the wake of similar sanctions against her from both the UK and the EU, she is likely to have “prepared herself for the risk” of punishment from the US
“The idea is that by targeting people close to Putin himself, it will make his life and those close to him more difficult, which could lead to them sort of changing policy,” Ziemba said. “The ship must have sailed on it.”
Who is Alina Kabaeva, Vladimir Putin’s long rumored girlfriend? : NPR
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