Sudan

New US sanctions hit 'Putin’s chef' for threatening Sudan's democracy

Yevgeniy Prigozhin serves food to then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at Prigozhin's restaurant outside Moscow, Russia, 11 November 2011.
Yevgeniy Prigozhin serves food to then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at Prigozhin's restaurant outside Moscow, Russia, 11 November 2011. © AP - Misha Japaridze

US authorities on Wednesday slapped sanctions on entities linked to Russian financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin over attempts to “suppress and discredit” democratic reforms in Sudan. 

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

The action targets five companies located in Sudan, Hong Kong and Thailand and three individuals who are “involved in furthering Prigozhin’s operations in Sudan”. 

The US Treasury said Prigozhin's role in Sudan demonstrates the relationship between Russia’s paramilitary operations, support for authoritarian regimes and exploitation of natural resources. 

US authorities noted how Russia had developed a relationship with Sudan’s former president Omar al-Bashir, offering military assistance and getting involved in oil, natural gas, agriculture and gold. 

Bashir was ousted in April 2019 and a transitional government installed. The US Treasury said new sanctions would stop Prigozhin from interfering with “Sudan’s democratic transition and allow the new government an opportunity to regain control of Sudan’s national assets”. 

“The ongoing theft of Sudan’s natural resources is a scandal that the civilian-led government should end immediately,” said Suliman Baldo, senior advisor at The Sentry, a non-profit organisation supported by actor George Clooney. 

“The continued presence of these Prigozhin-linked companies in Sudan represents a threat to the fledgling democratic transition in the country,” said Baldo, in a statement reacting to the newly announced sanctions

'Putin's chef'

Prigozhin is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, described by some as the man responsible for the Kremlin’s push into Africa. 

He is a former hotdog seller, who grew up in in Putin’s home city of Leningrad, and served time in jail before setting up an elite restaurant, according to the Guardian newspaper

After serving the Russian premier at his restaurant in 2001, he got to know Putin and began helping to organise his parties, earning himself the nickname, “Putin’s chef”.

"Putin’s chef” got government contracts to provide children’s school dinners and foodstuffs to the Russian military, becoming rich in the process.  

After gaining the president’s trust, Prigozhin allegedly supported and financed internet troll networks that interfered with the US elections. He is said to fund the Wagner Group, a Russian private military contractor operating on the African continent. 

US authorities previously targeted Prigozhin for supporting the Internet Research Agency, a group that is accused of using fake social media profiles to spread disinformation in an effort to influence the 2018 US midterm polls. 

The US Treasury Department in September 2019 targeted Prigozhin’s property, slapping sanctions on companies supposedly used to manage three private jets and one yacht. 

Sudanese gold for Russian mercenaries

Russian investigative website The Bell previously reported on how ties between Sudan and Russia were developed in November 2017 with the deployment of Wagner Group contractors and a company connected to Prigozhin started to prospect for gold in Sudan. 

Putin and Bashir met in Sochi, according to the The Bell, and discussed setting up a Russian naval base on the the Red Sea. 

An agreement was also signed between the two governments paving the way for a company called M Invest to secure a gold concession. 

M Invest is owned or controlled by Prigozhin and serves as a cover for Wagner Group forces operating in Sudan, according to the US Treasury. A subsidiary of M Invest, Meroe Gold, is responsible for mining gold in Sudan. 

Besides M Invest and Meroe Gold, the US has targeted Shine Dragon Group Limited, Shen Yang Jing Cheng Machinery Imp&Exp. Co., and Zhe Jiang Jiayi Small Commodities Trade Company Limited, for their role in transferring more than $7.5m seemingly in Prigozhin's interest. 

Sanctions will also hit Andrei Mandel, who works as M Invest’s director general, and Mikhail Potepkin, acting as M Invest’s and Meroe Gold’s regional director in Sudan. 

US authorities said Prigozhin uses a vast network of financial faciliators and front companies to evade sanctions and carry out transactions in US dollars, despite being blocked from the US financial system. 

The new US sanctions raised the ire of Moscow, the TASS news agency reported on Thursday

“We always feel highly negative about any sanctions regarding Russian citizens, Russian legal entities,” said Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov. 

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