A group of Democratic U.S. senators is calling on the European Union to impose economic pressure on a Russian businessman and certain businesses over concerns of potential foreign interference as the U.S. presidential election nears.
The senators urged the EU in a March 12 letter to step up economic isolation of Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch with alleged ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the Wagner Group, a Russian security company that the senators say is tied to Mr. Prigozhin.
“We know that Mr. Prigozhin and his associated firms remain actively engaged in spreading malign influence,” wrote the senators, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) and Robert Menendez (D., N.J.), who is the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
They said concerns about potential threats weren’t limited to the U.S. and asked the EU to take steps to constrain Mr. Prigozhin and companies they say are connected to him that “pose a threat to western security interests and to our democratic institutions.”
Mr. Prigozhin was blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2018 for alleged involvement in interference with U.S. elections and for his alleged financing of the Internet Research Agency LLC. The IRA, a St. Petersburg, Russia-based entity that the Treasury alleged tampered with or altered information to meddle in the 2016 U.S. elections, was also blacklisted in 2018. The Treasury imposed sanctions on the Wagner Group in 2017, alleging that the company recruited and sent soldiers to fight alongside separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Efforts to reach Mr. Prigozhin, the Wagner Group and the IRA for comment weren’t successful. Lawyers that have represented Concord Management and Consulting LLC, which the Treasury said is controlled by Mr. Prigozhin and provided funding to the IRA, didn’t respond to requests for comment. The Kremlin and Mr. Prigozhin have previously denied the U.S.’s allegations. A spokesman for Mr. Prigozhin has previously said Mr. Prigozhin has no relationship to the Wagner Group.
“A number of Washington politicians stop at nothing to aggravate Russian-American interstate relations,” Nikolay Lakhonin, press secretary for the Russian embassy in Washington, said in a statement. “With their attacks on Russia and our people, they pursue only their own selfish interests in the run-up to the next election campaign. We consider unacceptable their attempts to drag the EU states into another scam.”
Mr. Prigozhin and the IRA, along with other Russian citizens and companies, were indicted in 2018 on charges of engaging in a widespread effort to interfere in the 2016 presidential election as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s wide-ranging probe.
Mr. Prigozhin has acted as an agent of the Kremlin’s security interests around the world through Wagner, according to the letter, which was addressed to Stavros Lambrinidis, the EU’s ambassador to the U.S.
“The effectiveness of the U.S. sanctions regime is only as strong as our multilateral alliances,” the senators wrote. “Our ability to punish, deter and put pressure on Prigozhin and respond forcefully to his malign behavior would be significantly enhanced by the active participation of the EU.”
In addition to Sens. Schumer and Menendez, the letter was signed by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs; Sen. Jack Reed (D., R.I.) ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee; and Sen. Mark Warner (D., Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“EU restrictive measures are decided by the Council (EU member states) acting by unanimity, and they are kept under constant review,” an EU official said in a statement. “Any decision to impose restrictive measures on individuals, entities or groups is for the Council to take.”
The Senate’s foreign relations committee in December passed a bipartisan bill introduced by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) that would allow the U.S. to levy more sanctions on Russian entities and individuals in response to the Russian government’s activities abroad, including alleged interference in the U.S. elections. The Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act of 2019 is awaiting consideration by the full Senate.
The Senate Democrats’ letter followed another letter that Sens. Menendez, Schumer and Brown sent to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in February. That letter demanded new sanctions on the Russian government and individuals acting on its behalf for alleged efforts to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election.
Spokeswomen for the Treasury Department and the State Department declined to comment, citing a policy of not commenting on correspondence.
U.S. lawmakers often send these kinds of letters to agencies such as the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which implements U.S. sanctions, and other parts of the U.S. government, said Michael Dobson, of counsel at law firm Morrison & Foerster LLP and previously a senior sanctions policy adviser at OFAC.
But it is somewhat unusual to send a letter directly to the EU, he said. “It’s nice to see Congress go directly to the EU to push for trans-Atlantic unity, to stay at pace with us,” Mr. Dobson said.
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