U.S. authorities seized a 255-foot luxury yacht in Spain owned by Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg on Monday under a new sanctions drive to punish the financial elite close to Russian President Vladimir Putin by seizing assets such as ships, luxury real estate and private aircraft.
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the seizure, the first by the United States as it and its allies have sought to penalize Kremlin supporters for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Today marks our taskforce’s first seizure of an asset belonging to a sanctioned individual with close ties to the Russian regime. It will not be the last,” Garland said with Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray in a written statement. “Together, with our international partners, we will do everything possible to hold accountable any individual whose criminal acts enable the Russian government to continue its unjust war.”
President Biden announced a multinational effort to target assets held by Russian billionaires close to Putin in his State of the Union address on March 1, saying, “We are coming for your ill-begotten gains,” including “your yachts, your luxury apartments, your private jets.”
Sanctions were imposed on Vekselberg and the company he founded, the Renova Group, in April 2018 by the Treasury Department after the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain that Western intelligence officials have attributed to Russia.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vekselberg was hit with new penalties by the U.S. government on March 11 that named him; three family members of Putin’s spokesman; 12 members of the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament; and 10 people on the board of VTB Bank, the second-largest lender in Russia.
All of Vekselberg’s assets in the United States are frozen, and U.S. companies are barred from doing business with him and his entities, whose holdings include metals, mining, technology and other assets with a net worth of more than $6 billion, according to the Treasury Department.
The seizure warrant states that despite his status as an individual under sanction, Vekselberg and those working on his behalf made payments in U.S. dollars to support the Tango, including during a December 2020 stay at a luxury water villa resort in the Maldives.
U.S. investigators alleged that Vekselberg structured transactions to conceal his identity, including through the use of shell companies. Investigators cited three confidential witnesses, including a manager and employee of a company that provided services during the vessel’s design and construction who said the Russian was the true owner.
Vekselberg was included on a March 16 Treasury Department list of 50 Russian elites whom the United States viewed as top priorities for a new multinational body hunting assets of Kremlin backers, called the Russian Elites, Proxies and Oligarchs Task Force (REPO).
The task force is a key tool for the United States and more than half a dozen of its allies to identify and track where Russian oligarchs are parking their assets, a task complicated by the opaque or complicated financial instruments frequently used by the ultrawealthy to hide their holdings from public view.
The Treasury Department publicly released 28 of the 50 names on the list — including Putin’s — but did not name the 22 others to avoid tipping them off.
“Corruption is the financial and political capital lifeblood for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and slaughter of innocent civilians,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Zia M. Faruqui said in an order approving the seizure warrant and finding that U.S. investigators did not need court approval to search documents, electronics and other items aboard the Tango. The judge called the seizure “just the beginning of the reckoning that awaits those who would facilitate Putin’s atrocities,” adding that it “echoes the message of the brave Ukrainian soldiers” who reportedly told a Russian warship to “go f--- yourself.”
France, Italy and Spain have seized several boats of billionaires in recent weeks, even as others traced to Russia’s wealthiest people have weighed anchor for the Maldives, which has no extradition treaty with the United States, or appear stranded in European ports unable to purchase fuel.
France on March 2 seized a yacht whose main shareholder was Igor Sechin, head of Russia’s state-controlled oil giant Rosneft, at a Mediterranean port near Marseille. Spanish authorities on March 15 seized another vessel said to belong to Sechin, the 440-foot Crescent, in Catalonia.
Spain also has seized a $140 million, 280-foot yacht registered to the stepdaughter of Sergei Chemezov, a former KGB officer who heads the state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec and who with his wife and stepdaughter are on U.S. sanctions lists.
Italy has reportedly seized at least three yachts — vessels worth up to $580 million each — belonging to Russian steel, petroleum and coal magnates who are under sanction.
According to CBS News, however, a satellite image shows a yacht said to be owned by Putin docked at a Russian port — and out of reach of any possible sanctions or seizure.
The Justice Department said Monday’s seizure was coordinated by an interagency KleptoCapture task force responsible for sanctions, export restrictions and economic countermeasures aimed at Russia that Garland announced March 2. In addition to the Tango, seizure warrants targeted about $625,000 held at nine U.S. financial institutions by individuals under sanction.
Vekselberg, born in western Ukraine in 1957 to a Jewish father who lost several relatives in the Holocaust, graduated from the Moscow Institute of Transportation Engineering in 1979 and has maintained close ties to Putin and former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev since his rise to wealth. He also has ties to U.S. interests, including a multimillion-dollar pied-à-terre in New York City and a $5 million house in Weston, Conn.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Vekselberg, once a researcher at a state-run laboratory, joined the rush to snatch up parts of Russia’s privatized natural-resource sector in the 1990s, eventually founding the oil and metals conglomerate Renova Group, which is headquartered in Switzerland.
He became for a time Russia’s richest man in 2012, with an estimated fortune of $18 billion, after selling his controlling stake in a joint oil venture with Britain’s BP to the Kremlin-controlled Rosneft. Medvedev named Vekselberg president of the state-funded tech developer Skolkovo Foundation, ostensibly Russia’s answer to Silicon Valley, before his sanctions designation.
Vekselberg was among the Russian business executives close to the Kremlin whose contacts with Donald Trump and his 2016 presidential campaign were investigated by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Vekselberg and Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen met at Trump Tower in New York days before the 2017 inauguration with Vekselberg’s cousin, Andrew Intrater, a New York investment manager. Later that month, Cohen signed a lucrative consulting contract with Intrater’s investment firm, Columbus Nova.
U.S. authorities describe Vekselberg as participating with government officials on diplomatic and soft-power activities on behalf of the Kremlin, and he has been active in Russian cultural and philanthropic circles. He is said to own more Fabergé eggs than any other individual, buying nine of the bejeweled treasures from the Forbes family for $900 million in 2004. The return to Russia of the eggs — once prized possessions of the czars and looted after the Bolshevik revolution — was cast as a patriotic gesture, with some of them later displayed at the Kremlin and in St. Petersburg.