The superyachts of the oligarchs, hunting trophies of hard-to-grab sanctions

The hunt for “superyachts”, the most ostentatious signs of the fabulous wealth of the “oligarchs”, has become the showcase of Western sanctions against these Russian billionaires reputed to be close to the Kremlin, but these sumptuous ships are proving difficult to seize.

“The majority of them are in Turkey and others have been spotted in the Emirates”, explains Alex Finley, American author and former CIA agent, who originated the hashtag #YachtWatch. A few have also found refuge in the Maldives and the Seychelles.

A handful were immobilized, and rare boats were seized by States.

Among them is the Amore Vero, with an estimated value of more than 100 million euros, linked according to customs to Igor Setchine, boss of the Russian oil giant Rosneft. Kazimo Trade & Invest Limited, headquartered in the British Virgin Islands, disputes this link and claims to be the owner.

The gigantic white ship, seized by French customs last March, is moored in the port of La Ciotat (Bouches-du-Rhône), under surveillance. Following a complaint from customs, a judicial investigation is also underway and could lead to its auction.

The superyacht Amadea moored in the port of Lautoka (Fiji) on April 13, 2022 (FIJI SUN/AFP – Leon LORD)

Other seizures have been confirmed by the SuperYacht Times, such as that of the Amadea, linked to billionaire and politician Suleiman Kerimov, in Fiji on behalf of the United States. A catch estimated at some 300 million dollars.

The superyacht Phi (38 million pounds or 45 million euros), for its part was seized in London, and the Tango in Mallorca in Spain.

The United States last month indicted two men suspected of helping Viktor Vekselberg, a close Putin ally, conceal his ownership of the $90 million Tango.

– “Participating in the hunt” –

Alex Finley began the hunt for these luxury ships by preparing a fictional book with an oligarch character.

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, netizens have taken up the subject, with some posting pictures of superyachts seen near their homes under the hashtag #YachtWatch.

“People were very interested because the yachts are really a visual symbol of what was going on. They are very important assets, beyond the reach of most normal human beings,” she told AFP.

“It then became a game as soon as the sanctions fell and we started to see the yachts disappear,” she continues. “Everyone wanted to participate in the hunt”.

These boats are equipped with a tracking system. Only on rare occasions, for safety reasons, is it allowed to be turned off, such as when the boat is sailing in pirate-infested waters, Ms Finley said.

The position of each vessel is therefore normally available in real time on maritime traffic sites such as MarineTraffic or VesselFinder.

Some have disappeared from radar before resurfacing in the waters of countries that do not sanction Russia.

the yacht
The yacht “Lady M”, owned by the Russian oligarch Alexei Mordashov, at the port of Imperia, on March 5, 2022 in Italy (AFP/Archives – Andrea BERNARDI)

Another problem: the very list of yachts concerned by the sanctions is difficult to establish. Ships avoid the Russian flag, which would make them targets.

On the other hand, they are rarely directly owned by the oligarchs, who use front companies to cover their tracks.

Thus, a leak of documents shared in particular with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) made it possible to determine that the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, known to have been the owner of the Chelsea football club, would own at least 10 yachts in more of the 6 already known to the public.

– Who pays ? –

Added to this is the thorny issue of maintenance costs for vessels immobilized or seized for months now.

“Maintenance costs, as a general rule, are about 10% of the value of the vessel per year,” said Ralph Dazert of the SuperYacht Times. Fees that can quickly climb for some large yachts or older boats.

Because it is of course a question of keeping the ship in working order, safe and in compliance with the regulations, while taking into account all the operating costs, such as the crew, the food and the drinks, fuel, etc.

For the rare seized yachts, the maintenance costs are the responsibility of the governments that took possession of the boats.

In the case of yachts simply immobilized, it is “not always obvious who pays”, says Alex Finley. Especially since “the crews are still on a large number of these boats” to ensure their maintenance.

But for the yacht tracer, no matter the cost, the aim being to undermine the lifestyle of the oligarchs who “support Putin to destabilize” the West, but at the same time “enjoy the benefits of our democracy”.

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