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U.S. sanctions companies linked to businessman close to Putin

The Trump administration has imposed sanctions on companies connected to a Russian businessman who is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and suspected of helping finance the covert social media campaign aimed at American voters ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

The actions announced Wednesday take aim at front companies that officials say Yevgeniy Prigozhin has relied on to process millions of dollars and to evade sanctions in Sudan, where the Trump administration says Russia has been involved in paramilitary operations and supporting authoritarian regimes.

“Today’s actions will further limit attempts by Prigozhin and his backers to foment disorder or undermine democratic reforms in Sudan,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement announcing the sanctions by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

“Yevgeniy Prigozhin and his network are exploiting Sudan’s natural resources for personal gain and spreading malign influence around the globe,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said.

Russian financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin, left, shown with President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg in 2010, was indicted in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation in 2018 for interfering in the 2016 U.S. elections. (Alexei Druzhinin/The Associated Press)

Prigozhin, whose close relationship to Putin has earned him the nickname of “Putin’s Chef,” attracted attention in 2018 after he and Russian companies he controlled were indicted in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign. He was accused of financing an effort to use social media posts to spread disinformation and to divide American public opinion on hot-button social issues ahead of the election.

The U.S. Justice Department in March dropped charges against two of those companies, Concord Management and Consulting LLC and Concord Catering, citing concerns that the entities would use the case to send sensitive law enforcement tools back to Russia while facing no meaningful punishment even if convicted.

Wednesday’s action freezes U.S. assets of those companies blacklisted and generally prohibits Americans from dealing with them.

Those hit with sanctions include Russia-based M Invest, controlled or owned by Prigozhin, which the Treasury said served as a cover for a designated Russian Ministry of Defence proxy force and was responsible for developing plans for former Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir to suppress protesters seeking democratic reforms.

Also blacklisted are M Invest subsidiary Meroe Gold, M Invest’s director general Andrei Mandel and Mikhail Potepkin, the regional director based in Sudan for both companies.

The Treasury also targeted Thailand and Hong Kong-based entities Shine Dragon Group Limited, Shen Yang Jing Cheng Machinery Import and Export Co. and Zhe Jiang Jiayi Small Commodities Trade Company Limited, accusing them of having facilitated over 100 transactions exceeding $7.5 million US that were sent in the interest of Prigozhin between 2018 and 2019.

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