By Claire Parker
The US imposed sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin's reported romantic partner this week, part of the latest raft of penalties targeting Kremlin-linked officials and entities in response to Russia's war in Ukraine.
Alina Kabaeva, 39, was among 13 Russian nationals added to the Treasury Department's sanctions list on Tuesday.
A former star gymnast with two Olympic gold medals, Kabaeva has become better known in recent years as the 69-year-old Russian leader's rumoured girlfriend.
The US announcement cited Kabaeva's "close relationship to Putin", though it did not point to a romantic tie specifically.
But the US government holds that Kabaeva is the mother of at least three of Putin's children, the Wall Street Journal reported, and had previously prepared a sanctions package against her before making a last-minute decision in late April to hold off, to avoid hurting prospects for a negotiated peace in Ukraine.
Kabaeva has also served as a lawmaker for Putin's party in the State Duma and heads the pro-Kremlin National Media Group, which operates a network of TV and radio stations and publishes newspapers in Russia. Kabaeva was under EU and UK sanctions.
"As innocent people suffer from Russia's illegal war of aggression, Putin's allies have enriched themselves and funded opulent lifestyles," Treasury Secretary Janet L Yellen said.
"The Treasury Department will use every tool at our disposal to make sure that Russian elites and the Kremlin's enablers are held accountable for their complicity in a war that has cost countless lives."
Kabaeva, who was born in Uzbekistan in 1983, rose to prominence in Russia as one of rhythmic gymnastics' most decorated athletes. Her athletic career was not without controversy, though – she had to return two medals from the 2001 Goodwill Games after a doping scandal.
Kabaeva retired from the sport around the same time reports emerged that she was romantically linked with Putin.
The Kremlin has denied the alleged relationship. A Russian newspaper that published an article in 2008 saying Putin and Kabaeva were romantically involved was quickly shut down under mysterious circumstances.
Putin and his wife of 30 years, Lyudmila Putina, divorced in 2014.
Kabaeva and her family have benefited handsomely from connections to Putin's circle, according to Russian and US media reports.
A classified US intelligence assessment of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election listed Kabaeva as a beneficiary of Putin's wealth, the Journal reported in April, citing a US official.
The luxurious lifestyles of Putin's reported girlfriends have fuelled speculation about their relationships with the Russian president.
The Pandora Papers, a trove of documents revealed by The Washington Post and a consortium of news organisations last year, showed that another woman who was reportedly romantically involved with Putin owned a fancy apartment in Monaco and a shell company in the British Virgin Islands – even as it was unclear how she had amassed so much wealth.
Kabaeva was spotted publicly for the first time in months in late April, when she led her annual "Alina Festival", a patriotic rhythmic gymnastics festival in Moscow.
She stood in front of a backdrop decorated with the letter "Z", the state's symbol for its invasion of Ukraine.
The US previously imposed sanctions on Putin's daughters from a former marriage, Katerina Tikhonova and Maria Vorontsova, after evidence emerged of alleged war crimes committed by Russian forces during their occupation of the suburbs of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. The atrocities included the beheading and torture of civilians.