For a growing number of Russia’s richest and most powerful men, now would be a very bad time to take their private jets and superyachts to their mansions in the United States.
Yesterday, the White House announced it would expand the list of Russian oligarchs subject to full blocking sanctions – the highest level of restrictions – as it ramps up punishment against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Some of the newly named oligarchs overlapped with a list of Russian elites on whom the European Union imposed sanctions earlier this week, although there were some notable differences.
The federal government won’t just stop at freezing these targets’ assets, but will seize them, Joe Biden announced in his State of the Union address on Tuesday.
In charge of appropriating these assets will be KleptoCapture, a newly announced justice department taskforce, with support from the treasury department, FBI, IRS and other federal agencies. Under US law, the justice department may use civil forfeiture to confiscate the proceeds from foreign crimes, including corruption, when they are found in the United States.
Their efforts will complement those of a transatlantic taskforce announced over the weekend between the United States, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Canada and the European Commission.
“We are joining with our European allies to find and seize your yachts, your luxury apartments, your private jets. We are coming for your ill-begotten gains,” Biden said.
The Feds may have their work cut out. US regulations are lax when it comes to requiring disclosures of real estate transactions by foreign individuals, making the country a prime destination for Russian’s uber-rich looking to snap up prime properties without scrutiny.
Other favorite toys of oligarchs like planes and boats are commonly registered through shell companies. And many of those luxury craft have begun traveling toward extradition-free territories such as the Maldives, according to Bloomberg News.
Here’s an introduction to the Russian oligarchs now joining the US sanctions list – as well as a few others who haven’t been targeted yet, but have notable US ties.
Russians know Alisher Usmanov as one of Vladimir Putin’s “favorite” oligarchs. The country’s richest man until 2015, Usmanov owns a majority stake in Russia’s second-largest phone network, MegFon, and a large stake in the iron and steel giant Metalloinvest.
But few Americans know that Usmanov also helped give us Facebook. The billionaire began investing in the social network in 2009, when Zuckerberg’s firm was having trouble accessing funding in the wake of the financial crisis. Usmanov ultimately poured over $900m into the firm, owning as much as 10% of the company before selling his stake in 2014 and netting himself billions. He was also a major investor in Apple, Twitter, LinkedIn, Groupon and Zynga.
Usmanov was subjected to sanctions by the EU on Monday, and on Wednesday German authorities seized his $600m megayacht, the Dilbar – which boasts the world’s largest yacht-based indoor swimming pool. On 3 March he was among those added to the sanctions list by the US. The oligarch still has a $200m private Airbus A340.
Long before brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg became two of Russia’s wealthiest tycoons, they were teenage Vladimir Putin’s judo training buddies, a role they continued into adulthood. Clearly they were good at it, because after Putin became president he rewarded the brothers with the control of large state-owned enterprises and lucrative contracts, netting them a massive fortune.
The Rotenbergs have since built a huge family empire of international investments under a web of shell companies, which has made Arkady’s son Igor a billionaire in his own right. Despite Arkady and Boris getting US sanctions after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, the brothers “continued actively participating in the US art market by purchasing over $18 million in art in the months following the imposition of sanctions”, according to a US Senate report. Rotenberg-linked shell companies continued making transactions in the US financial system worth over $91m long after the sanctions, according to the report.
In addition to Arkady and Boris, Igor and five additional family members were added to the US sanctions list this week.
Russia’s deputy prime minister from 2008 to 2018, Igor Shuvalov is now the chairman of VEB, the Russian development bank that finances major infrastructure projects, including the Sochi Olympics. He has claimed to be one of Russia’s cleanest officials, telling media he transferred all his wealth to Russia in 2013, and only kept it offshore before that to avoid spoiling his kids. But an investigation by the anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny found that Shuvalov, through a shell company, bought two London luxury apartments in 2014 for $11.4m and has used a secret private jet to fly his wife’s corgis around the world because, as one of his staffers explained, “it’s not that comfortable in business class”.
He won’t be able to fly his corgis as many places now that he’s on the US and EU’s sanctions lists.
Legend has it Yevgeniy Prigozhin began his rise to power selling hot dogs, shortly after getting released from prison for robbery. The wiener venture was apparently a smash hit, and within years he had opened high-end restaurants that counted Russia’s leader among their clientele, earning him the nickname of “Putin’s chef” and catapulting him into the inner circles of Russia’s elite.
Americans might be more familiar with another one of Prigozhin’s businesses: the Internet Research Agency, which employed a troll army that began by supporting Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, before turning its efforts to influencing the 2016 US presidential election in favor of Donald Trump. Prigozhin and the Internet Research Agency were indicted by a US grand jury in 2018 for interfering with the election, and he was added to an FBI wanted list in 2021.
He’s now on both the US and EU sanctions lists for running disinformation campaigns to support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
A former KGB officer who befriended Vladimir Putin in the 1980s while living in the same apartment building, Sergey Chemezov rose through Russia’s public and private sector in Putin’s wake, and in 2007 was appointed as CEO of Russia’s state-owned defense giant Rostec, a position he still holds today. Chemezov was sanctioned by the US in 2014 amid Rostec’s role as a supplier for Russia’s invasion of Crimea, and Washington is targeting him again, now with his family members.
According to investigative reports and allegations from the jailed activist Alexei Navalny, Chemezov’s relatives have used shell companies to accumulate eye-watering assets, including superyachts and luxury villas around the world. But Chemezov says he’s clean, telling Russian media in 2019: “I do not accumulate wealth. I don’t stuff money in the corners. I don’t have yachts or airplanes.”
Another former KGB officer who served alongside Putin and Chemezov, Nikolai Tokarev took over former Soviet state assets as Putin built his political power, and in 2007 became the head of the state-controlled oil giant Transneft. The oligarch has used his position at Transneft to build a business and real estate empire, which reportedly includes sponsoring an extremely fancy palace that’s said to be personally used by Putin. Tokarev was hit by US and EU sanctions this week.
Reportedly the second richest man in Russia, the banker, metals mining tycoon and former deputy prime minister Vladimir Potanin was among a small circle of oligarchs who met with Putin last week as the invasion of Ukraine began.
Potanin has played a big role in American arts: he has been a board member of New York’s Guggenheim Museum for two decades, until he stepped down on Wednesday. He has also given millions to the Kennedy Center in Washington, which carved his name into a wall. He is also known to have owned property in New York City, which came to light during a divorce fight that could cost him $7bn.
Potanin isn’t currently under US sanctions, which is good news for his three megayachts and two private jets (that we know about).
Russia’s richest man in 2016, Leonid Mikhelson is the founder and chairman of natural gas producer Novatek, a close friend of Putin’s, and a business partner of Gennady Timchenko, a billionaire who has been under US sanctions since 2014.
Mikhelson loves art: along with his $200m art collection, he joined the board of trustees at New York’s New Museum in 2013, and has sponsored exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago and London’s Tate Modern. His ostentatious superyacht, the Pacific, can reportedly accommodate two helicopters.
But his other assets may be harder to trace. In 2017, the Panama Papers revealed that Mikhelson had used an intricate system of shell companies to secretly register a $65m Gulfstream private jet in the United States, which in most cases requires US citizenship or permanent residency.
The tycoon is not currently subject to sanctions, though his company Novatek is.
Petr Aven is the head of Alfa Group, a commercial bank subject to US sanctions that helped him amass an estimated $5.5bn fortune. A well-known collector of classical Russian paintings, Aven has lent works from his collection – reportedly worth $200m – to New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Neue Galerie. Aven reportedly has never bought a plane or yacht, and told the FT “all my money goes in to art.” That is, of course, if you don’t count the millions he spent transforming an 8.5-acre plot in England into a “KGB-proof” mansion, complete with a bomb-proof panic room.
Last year, Aven filed a libel lawsuit against HarperCollins for a book it published about Vladimir Putin’s rise, Putin’s People.
Aven was sanctioned on Monday by the EU, which described him as “one of Vladimir Putin’s closest oligarchs” and one of “approximately 50 wealthy Russian businessmen who regularly meet with Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin”. He has not yet been placed under sanctions by the US or UK.
Petr Aven’s business partner, Mikhail Fridman, is Alfa Group’s founder and a Ukrainian-born Russian oligarch. Fridman has made substantial investments in the United States, which include spending a reported $1bn in 2011 to buy up distressed properties across the east coast, telling the Wall Street Journal at the time, “The American market is the most well-regulated and liquid market in the world. It has the best protection for investor rights.”
Through Fridman’s investment group, LetterOne, the billionaire also sank $200m into Uber, and $50m into the telecom startup FreedomPop. Fridman also caused a stir in 2018 when he spoke alongside Aven at a closed-door dinner hosted by the Atlantic Council, a major US foreign policy thinktank, in what critics saw as an unofficial Kremlin mission to protest against US sanctions.
Last week, Fridman became one of the first oligarchs to speak out against the invasion of Ukraine, calling it a “tragedy” and writing that “war can never be the answer.” Nonetheless, Fridman was subjected to sanctions on Monday by the EU, which named him as “a top Russian financier and enabler of Putin’s inner circle”. Like Aven, he has not yet been placed under sanctions by the US or UK.
The oligarch has a son, Alexander, who is reportedly attending NYU’s Stern business school, after a stint in Moscow selling hookah.
Currently Russia’s richest man, Alexei Mordashov owns a third of Tui, Europe’s biggest tourism firm, and gained his billions as the chief executive of Russia’s largest steel and mining firm, Severstal. He is also a large shareholder of the Bank of Rossiya, which has opened up branches across Russia-occupied Ukrainian territory in recent years.
Over the last two decades, the billionaire has also poured money into the United States, investing heavily through Severstal in steel companies in the midwest before selling them for $2.3bn in 2014.
Mordashov has been hit with sanctions by the EU, but the US hasn’t taken action yet. They would be interested in his Bombardier Global 6000 private jet and multiple superyachts, including the $500m Nord, which Senator Bernie Sanders noted on Tuesday had been “sailing in the Seychelles region for more than 10 days” in a Twitter thread about Russian offshore wealth.
Roman Abramovich, the longtime owner of Chelsea FC, has been described by a member of the UK parliament as a “key enabler” of Putin’s regime, which Abramovich has long denied. An orphan raised by his grandparents in Siberia, Abramovich pulled himself up by his bootstraps the old-fashioned way: wriggling into the inner circles of government and then profiting hugely by selling previously state-owned assets that he acquired after the fall of the Soviet Union.
The billionaire owns one of the world’s most outlandish yachts, complete with an onboard submarine and three helicopters. He has also owned a number of ultra-expensive properties in the United States, including a trio of buildings in New York City’s Upper East Side worth more than $90m combined, which he transferred to his third wife, Darya Zhukova, in 2018.
Abramovich is not currently under western sanctions. Earlier, the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, told the House of Commons that Abramovich was “already facing sanctions” though later said he “misspoke”.