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Calls mount for U.S. to sanction Vladimir Putin's rumored girlfriend Alina Kabaeva, Russia's "Secret First Lady"

New sanctions target Russia's banks
New sanctions target Russia's major banks and President Vladimir Putin's daughters 05:35

U.S. officials held off on imposing sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin's rumored girlfriend, 38-year-old gymnast and Olympic gold medalist Alina Kabaeva, as the measure was seen as too drastic, The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday.

The newspaper cited unnamed officials as saying the 2016 investigation into Russia's interference in U.S. presidential elections revealed that Kabaeva had benefited from Putin's influence and personal wealth. The U.S. government suspected Kabaeva of concealing some of that wealth abroad, the Journal reported, adding that American officials also believe her to be the mother of at least three of Putin's children.

Possible sanctions against Kabaeva were eventually halted, however, since the step was considered "so personal a blow to Mr. Putin that it could further escalate tensions between Russia and the U.S.," the Journal wrote.

Russia Kabayeva
In this November 4, 2004 file photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with gymnast Alina Kabaeva at a Kremlin banquet in Moscow, Russia. ITAR-TASS/AP

Rumors have circulated for years about Kabaeva's personal relationship with the Russian leader. Russian tabloids have dubbed her "Russia's First Mistress" and even the "Secret First Lady."

In 2008, Russian newspaper Moskovsky Korrespondent reported that Putin had plans to divorce his longtime wife, Lyudmila, to be with Kabaeva. The paper was shut down two days later. But five years later, Putin announced that he and Lyudmila had separated.

Kabaeva began her international rhythmic gymnastics career in 1996 and became one of the most decorated athletes in the sport, securing two Olympic gold medals. She retired in 2007 and was quickly appointed to various high-profile posts within the Russian government and state-aligned businesses.

From 2007 to 2014, she served as the ruling United Russia party's deputy in the State Duma, Russia's parliament. In 2014 she was appointed chair of the board of directors of the National Media Group, which has large stakes in propaganda-heavy outlets like Channel One TV and the Life News tabloid.

Kabaeva had last been seen in public in December 2021, months before Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine. Just last week, however, she made a rare appearance to attend a junior gymnastics festival in Moscow, a patriotic event that also commemorated the Soviet Union's fight against the Nazis in the Second World War.

Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 9
Alina Kabaeva, Russian Olympic champion in rhythmic gymnastics, watches the men's Preliminary Round Group A ice hockey match Russia vs Slovakia at Bolshoi Ice Palace at the 22nd Winter Olympic Games on February 16, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. Visual China Group/Getty

Russia's fashion magazines noted that she was wearing a wedding band on her finger. Kabaeva made remarks at the event, standing opposite a wall adorned with "Z" symbols — state-propagated propaganda meant to showcase support for Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"Poor is the nation that does not remember its history — but we do. We remember and are proud of the feat of our great multinational people," local news outlets quoted her as saying.

A few days after Russia launched its attack on Ukraine, Kabaeva slammed international sports organizations for banning Russian athletes, echoing Kremlin talking points justifying the invasion as a "liberation" of Ukraine "from Nazis."

"They were not concerned and did not exclude from competitions any country that participated in the extermination of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, Syria," Kabaeva was quoted by state-run news-agency TASS as saying. "But sports officials got very angry when Russia decided to protect the Donbas and Luhansk from the Nazis."

In early April, the White House announced sanctions against Putin's two adult daughters, Katerina Tikhonova and Maria Vorontsova, from his marriage to Lyudmila. Some Russian opposition figures then called on the U.S. to extend those sanctions to Kabaeva.

Earlier this month, Georgy Alburov, an ally of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, posted Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation's findings on links between the former gymnast and Putin, and called for Kabaeva to be sanctioned "immediately."

"She is the beneficiary of Putin's corruption — her relatives get apartments and houses bought with money stolen from Russians. She is a member of Putin's inner circle, a member of his family who takes advantage of his position," he said in a tweet

Reacting to The Wall Street Journal's report, Alburov said: "Kabayeva should be put under sanctions immediately. And if after all the war crimes in Ukraine, foreign governments are still afraid to make Putin angry, then he really does have the right to continue wiping his feet all over the world and pouring rivers of blood."

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