This Article is From Feb 26, 2022

Russian Billionaire Jets, Superyachts Roam Free Amid Attack

Russia's ultra-rich are among the biggest owners of private jets and superyachts, two of the most opulent displays of massive wealth.

Russian Billionaire Jets, Superyachts Roam Free Amid Attack

Roman Abramovich is not currently on the U.K.'s sanctions list.

For all the talk of sanctions on Russia and its elite, the status symbols of the billionaire class remain free to roam the skies and the seas.

Russia's ultra-rich are among the biggest owners of private jets and superyachts, two of the most opulent displays of massive wealth.

So far, even as the U.S. and U.K. have ramped up sanctions on more than 100 Russian individuals and entities, these assets of the country's elite -- which can be worth hundreds of millions of dollars each -- have avoided any direct hit. So too have their high-end real estate holdings, which in London range from Chelsea penthouses to Highgate mansions.

One of the most high-profile status symbols in the U.K. is drawing attention lately: Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich's ownership of the prized English football club Chelsea FC. It's one of Europe's most successful teams and valued at about 1.9 billion euros ($2.1 billion). Prime Minister Boris Johnson mistakenly said on Tuesday that Abramovich had already been sanctioned.

As tensions in the region escalate, some U.K. lawmakers are pressing to widen the scope of those subject to harsh penalties for Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to invade Ukraine, even as he signals a potential willingness to talk. 

"Surely Mr. Abramovich should no longer be able to own a football club in this country," Labour MP Chris Bryant said on Thursday. "Surely we should be looking at seizing some of his assets, including his 152 million pound home, and making sure that other people who have had Tier 1 visas like this are not engaged in malign activity."

Abramovich is not currently on the U.K.'s sanctions list.

Aircraft Activity

Aircraft controlled by Abramovich, as well as Dmitry Mazepin and Alexey Mordashov, landed in Moscow on Thursday, according to flight data website ADS-B Exchange. Abramovich's Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner took off from an airport near Monaco, while Mazepin's Gulfstream G650 flew from the New York area. Mordashov's Bombardier Global 6000 traveled from the Seychelles region in the western Indian Ocean, according to the data, which didn't include details of passengers on the flights.

Putin had invited executives and owners of major Russian businesses to a meeting on Thursday at the Kremlin. Mazepin was there, as was Mordashov. So was Vladimir Potanin, Russia's wealthiest person in the Bloomberg Billionaires Index with a $26.1 billion fortune. 

The aircraft owned by Mordashov, Russia's second-richest person with a net worth of $23 billion, then flew back to the Seychelles region on Thursday, the flight data show. Mordashov's yacht Nord, completed in 2020 at an estimated cost of $500 million, has been sailing in the island nation for 10 days.

Representatives for Mazepin, 53, and Mordashov, 56, declined to comment, while a representative for Abramovich, 55, didn't respond immediately to a request for comment.

Billionaire Comforts

Assets like planes or yachts could be targeted by a round of sanctions, according to Andrew Lohsen, a fellow in the Europe, Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The challenge is they could be held through shell companies, complicating the ownership chain.

Imposing sanctions on Russian's ultra-rich "is important, but I recognize that it is complex," Natalie Jaresko, Ukraine's former finance minister, said in a telephone interview. "It takes time, but you have to take away their comforts."

The U.K. took the additional step late Friday of banning all private Russian aircraft from the nation's airspace. However, most of the billionaires have registered their jets in other jurisdictions, raising questions about the measure's effectiveness.

Meanwhile, public backlash is mounting against Abramovich due to his Chelsea FC ownership. Sports investors and private equity firms, including some from the U.S., have began to draw up potential takeover offers for the football club in case sanctions force the Russian billionaire to sell, people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg News. Chelsea has already fielded an enquiry this month, one of the people said. 

One of Abramovich's yachts, the Solaris, is in Barcelona, while the other, the Eclipse, is in Saint Martin in the Caribbean.

Russian billionaires crave the legitimacy afforded from places frequented by high-net-worth individuals, such as New York, London and Singapore, said Raj Bhala, a professor at the University of Kansas Law School who specializes in international trade.

"To then be denied that access or to be shunned from those sorts of places does hurt them," he said. "I wouldn't underestimate that."

Family Risk

If the U.S. imposes sanctions on Russia's ultra-wealthy individuals, penalties could extend to family members as well, said Rachel Fiorill, a lawyer for Paul Weiss and former enforcement section chief at the Treasury Department.

If sanctions were a risk, "you would want to remove all of your assets from the United States," she said in an interview. "That would include financial assets as well as physical assets."

A broadside against Russia's billionaire class isn't so simple for most countries. Neither is penalizing a head of state, though the U.S. plans to join the European Union and the U.K. in sanctioning Putin, people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg News on Friday, with the announcement of the symbolic step expected soon. 

Meanwhile, Putin is rolling out a domestic response to sanctions that will initially focus on assisting lenders hit with penalties, people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg News, which may soften any economic blow in the coming weeks. The country's richest lost $39 billion on Thursday alone, according to the Bloomberg wealth index.

Still, many of the billionaires are enjoying global travels. At least four of their superyachts remained anchored in Barcelona. Two were last parked along the Florida coast, in Miami and Palm Beach.

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)