ROME — Italian financial authorities said Friday that they have impounded a $700 million megayacht that has been linked in media reports and by anti-Kremlin groups to Russian President Vladimir Putin. But an element of mystery remains: Italy, in what it called its “freezing decree,” did not say who the owner might be.
Italian investigators had raced to investigate the vessel and prevent it from leaving the Tuscan port of Marina di Carrara. The yacht, known as the Scheherazade, had been undergoing repairs since before Russia invaded Ukraine. But this week, it returned to the water, according to a New York Times reporter who visited the marina, prompting fears that the vessel might depart and evade sanctions.
The ship, until the measures imposed Friday evening, would have been free to leave.
In announcing its action, Italy’s Finance Ministry said the yacht’s owner had “prominent” links with Russians already under European Union sanctions. The name of the owner was not specified, and Italy said only that its government had asked the E.U. to add the person to its sanctions list.
A spokesman for the Finance Ministry described Italy’s move as “provisional.”
Italy “proposed to the Council of the European Union the inclusion of the owner of the boat in the list,” the spokesman said. “Until then, the name cannot be public.”
In March, an investigation by the Italian daily La Stampa named the boat’s owner as Eduard Khudainatov, a former Russian oil executive. But the newspaper also raised a question about how somebody not listed as a billionaire could afford to purchase one of the world’s most luxurious yachts.
So, speculation about the Scheherazade has only intensified. Investigators working for jailed Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny say the yacht’s owner is Putin himself. In March, Navalny’s team published what it said was the crew list of people who had worked on the yacht. They purportedly include members of the Russian state agency responsible for Putin’s personal protection.
“We think that this is a solid enough proof that Scheherazade belongs to Putin himself and must be immediately seized,” said Maria Pevchikh, the head of the Navalny-founded FBK investigation team.
The assets of Russia’s ruling and billionaire class are generally kept in tight secrecy, controlled on paper through opaque offshore companies. That has made it difficult in some cases for European countries to ascertain the real owners of villas, yachts and other luxury items. The Scheherazade is officially owned by an offshore company from the Marshall Islands, Pevchikh said.
Before Friday, Italy had managed to detain a $560 million megayacht connected to Andrey Melnichenko, a coal and fertilizer tycoon who is one of Russia’s 10 richest people. Italy has also blocked access to villas that oligarchs use as summer getaways.