Last week, French officials seized this superyacht which they say belonged to Russian oligarch Igor Sechin.  But the company that runs the boat said it was  "definitely not detained" by him.

Last week, French officials seized this superyacht which they say belonged to Russian oligarch Igor Sechin. But the company that runs the boat said it was “categorically not theirs”. Photo: Théo Giacometti/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A week after Russian forces invaded Ukraine, French officials trumpeted the seizure of a $120 million ultra-luxury yacht, which they say belonged to a sanctioned Kremlin insider.

But there was a catch. The Monaco-based company that runs the yacht has insisted that the Kremlin insider in question, oil tycoon Igor Sechin, does not own the ship or Kazimo, the company it claims owns. of the ship.

“The yacht is categorically not owned by Mr. Sechin, nor is he related to Kazimo in any way (directly or indirectly),” an Imperial Yachts spokesperson wrote in an email to VICE News. “Kazimo’s lawyers are in active discussion with French customs.”

The same goes for the global hunt for mega-yachts by Russian oligarchs, which Western countries announced with great fanfare after Russia invaded Ukraine last month. Locating these enormous sea monstrosities is the easy part: they loom over the horizon like apartment buildings that have collapsed and managed to float. The fanciest of them have multiple helipads, indoor pools that can turn into dance floors, elevators, gymnasiums, and rooms for dozens of guests.

But proving who they belong to is another matter.

Mega-yachts, private jets and penthouses owned by ultra-rich people are often owned by front companies, which can obscure the identity of the true owner. Shady individuals, or those with reason to fear their assets will be seized, can layer multiple front companies on top of each other in separate offshore havens to create a legal maze for investigators to sort through.

For now, whenever Western officials announce action against a luxury property owned by a sanctioned Russian individual, the reaction of the wealthy Russian in question has usually been silence, creating a shroud of uncertainty about whether officials even got the right ship.

“Life would be a lot easier if someone like Igor Sechin owned everything in his name and put his picture on the side of his boat, but that’s not the world we live in,” said Adam Smith, who served in Obama. Administration as senior adviser to the director of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control, the agency that administers and enforces U.S. trade sanctions.

In the past, teams of anti-corruption activists have scoured Instagram for pictures posted by family members and friends oligarch owners suspected of owning the world’s largest yachts for clues.

The yacht seized by the French authorities over alleged ties to Sechin, the Amore Vero is not the only property whose ownership remains disputed or uncertain.

the New York Times wrote an investigative article this week, about a $700 million mega-yacht parked near a small Italian on the Tuscan coast that locals have dubbed “Putin’s yacht,” but is actually owned by… nobody knows.

The ship would have two helipads and gold-plated bathroom fixtures. Yet his connection to Russian President Vladimir Putin is tenuous. The captain of the boat insisted that Times that Putin does not own the ship and that the ship does not belong to anyone on the sanctions list. But he added that he couldn’t really say more because he’s under a “watertight nondisclosure agreement”.

On Wednesday, British officials said they had seized a private jet at Farnborough Airport in Hampshire, which had arrived the previous week. They said they were investigating whether the plane could be permanently leased to a Russian oil tycoon named Evgeny Shvidler. But they weren’t sure.

Recent events have shown that owning trophy properties in the open can be a risky proposition for the Russian elite.

British officials demonstrated the downsides this week when they imposed sanctions on Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, the owner of British soccer team Chelsea, which is worth around $3.2 billion. The move effectively halts Abramovich’s attempts to sell the team and leaves it unclear whether he will ever get his money back.

In a reportthe UK government said it was open to a possible sale of Chelsea, but that “the proceeds of any sale could not go to the sanctioned individual while they are subject to sanctions”.

Last week, President Joe Biden used his State of the Union address to declare that the United States would go after the assets of the oligarchs.

“Tonight I say to the Russian oligarchs and corrupt leaders who have built billions of dollars on this violent regime, no more,” Biden said. “We join with European allies to find and seize their yachts, their luxury apartments, their private jets. We come for your ill-begotten gains.

But the United States has yet to make any major announcements regarding the freezing or seizure of the oligarchs’ assets.

Some observers say the mind-boggling rhetoric about seizing yachts has gone beyond what can reasonably be expected under Western law.

In fact, the confiscation of assets from a sanctioned individual requires a complex and potentially lengthy legal process. And wealthy Russians can often afford to hire a lawyer with top-notch legal help.

For example, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska and some of his companies, including aluminum producer Rusal, in 2018. But sanctions on the companies were later lifted under former President Trump after Deripaska agreed to reduce his stake. Deripaska also filed a lawsuit to have himself personally removed from the sanctions list, although he lost this suit in 2021.

So, in addition to simply determining who owns what, Western governments targeting the assets of wealthy Russians must also consider the potential for fierce resistance in the courtroom.

“When the other party has the best law firms and is willing to go to court to protect their assets, that should be understood as part of the process,” said Ross Delston, independent attorney and compliance expert at the fight against money laundering. . “The evidence presented by the authorities must be bulletproof.”