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Roman Abramovich, Chelsea football owner, sanctioned by U.K. in push to punish Russian oligarchs

Chelsea soccer club owner Roman Abramovich attends the UEFA Women's Champions League final soccer match in Gothenburg, Sweden, on May 16, 2021. (Martin Meissner/AP)

LONDON — Britain on Thursday froze the assets of seven prominent Russian business executives, including Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich, rapidly shedding its reputation as a place where rich Russians with connections to President Vladimir Putin were welcome to live, invest and donate.

As calls for his sanctioning mounted, Abramovich announced last week that he was putting his West London soccer club up for sale. But now that his name has been added to the list, that planned sale has been blocked. The team can still play games, but it cannot sell any tickets or merchandise or sign players.

In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and under international and domestic pressure, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has been keen to show it’s taking action against Russian elites and Putin allies. The government is pushing through legislation that will make it more difficult for wealthy individuals to hide their wealth in London. Since the invasion, it has also targeted 18 Russian oligarchs with sanctions — fewer than the numbers targeted by the United States or European Union, but a dramatic change from the stance of previous British governments.

“Today’s sanctions show once again that oligarchs and kleptocrats have no place in our economy or society,” British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said Thursday. “With their close links to Putin, they are complicit in his aggression.”

The best known of the wealthy Russians with assets in Britain is Abramovich, owner of one of world’s top sports franchises. Like other oligarchs, he built a fortune by gaining control of vast stores of resources, including oil and aluminum, that had been owned by the state before the Soviet Union’s collapse. He has stakes in steel giant Evraz and Norilsk Nickel.

In its sanctions rationale, the British government said Abramovich is “one of the few oligarchs from the 1990s to maintain prominence under Putin.” The government estimated his net worth at more than $12 billion.

Abramovich has previously denied having a close relationship with Putin.

When announcing that he wanted to sell the Chelsea club, Abramovich said proceeds would go to a foundation to benefit “all victims of the war in Ukraine.” Authorities in Moscow have banned the description of any deployment involving Russian armed forces as “war.”

Abramovich has also confirmed reports that he was contacted by Ukraine to help facilitate peace talks with Moscow. It is not clear what role he has played.

Chelsea football owner Roman Abramovich and the awkwardness of Russia sanctions

The others on the British sanctions list announced Thursday were Oleg Deripaska, a former business partner of Abramovich with stakes in En+ Group; Rosneft chief executive Igor Sechin; Gazprom chief executive Alexei Miller; Nikolai Tokarev, president of state-owned pipeline company Transneft; VTB Bank Chairman Andrey Kostin; and Bank Rossiya Chairman Dmitri Lebedev.

With its sanctions announcement, Britain’s foreign office tweeted — and then deleted — a picture of a different Dmitri — Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president.

Together, the seven Russians have a collective net worth of about $19.8 billion, the British government said. All are banned from travel to Britain and from doing business with British citizens or companies. Abramovich is the only one who has not also been sanctioned by the United States.

Chelsea’s oligarch owner is selling. Will scrutiny of other Premier League owners follow?

Anti-corruption activists said they would be watching closely to see whether the sanctions were enforced.

“It’s real progress, but we’re playing catch-up,” said Charlie Loudon, an international legal adviser at Redress, a human rights organization that is tracking sanctions. He added that while it’s “all well and good to put people on the sanctions list,” many activists are concerned about follow-through from the government and legal challenges from oligarchs with teams of lawyers. “You need to have lawyers and government officials to investigate their assets and make sure that these sanctions are being complied with,” he said.

Chelsea said Thursday that it would seek changes to the new operating rules.

“I know this brings some uncertainty,” Sports Secretary Nadine Dorries said. “But the government will work with the league and clubs to keep football being played while ensuring sanctions hit those intended.”

Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003 for about $185 million and transformed the club. During his tenure as owner, Chelsea won five Premier League trophies, five FA Cups and the 2012 and 2021 UEFA Champions League titles, the biggest prize in global club soccer. Last month, Chelsea won the FIFA Club World Cup for the first time; among its top players is American Christian Pulisic, a star on the U.S. national team.

A handful of Premier League teams are owned or partly owned by Americans — Arsenal, Manchester United, Leeds United, Fulham — and a number of American names have been floated as potential buyers of Chelsea.

Billionaire Todd Boehly, a part-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Lakers and Sparks, quickly surfaced as a possible buyer, as did Robert “Woody” Johnson, owner of the New York Jets and the U.S. ambassador to Britain during the Trump administration.

The Chelsea Supporters’ Trust, a fan group, implored the government “to conduct a swift process to minimize the uncertainty over Chelsea’s future.” It also called for supporters “to be given a golden share as part of a sale of the club.”

Boren reported from Washington.

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