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Why is it so difficult to seize the luxury yachts of the Russian oligarchs?

The hunt for “superyachts,” the most ostentatious sign of the “oligarch’s” fabulous wealth, has become a show of Western sanctions against these Russian billionaires known to be close to the Kremlin, but these luxury vessels have proven difficult to seize.

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“Most of them are in Turkey and others have been spotted in the UAE,” says Alex Finlay, the American author and former CIA agent who created the hashtag #YachtWatch. A few of them have also taken refuge in the Maldives and the Seychelles.

A handful have been frozen, and nations have seized rare boats.

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Among them is Amore Vero, valued at more than 100 million euros, linked according to customs to Igor Sechin, head of the Russian oil giant Rosneft. Kazimo Trade & Invest Limited, which is based in the British Virgin Islands, objects to this association and claims to be the owner.

The Amore Vero yacht owned by a company linked to Igor Sechine.

Photo by Nicholas Tokat/AFP

The Amore Vero yacht owned by a company linked to Igor Sechine.

The giant white ship, which was seized by French customs last March, is moored in the port of La Ciotat (Bouches-du-Rhône) under surveillance. After a complaint by the customs, a judicial investigation is also underway and can lead to the auction.

Other bouts confirmed Super Yacht Times, such as Amadia Corporation, which is associated with billionaire and politician Suleiman Karimov, in Fiji on behalf of the United States. The catch is estimated at about $300 million.

The luxury yacht Fay (38 million pounds sterling or 45 million euros) was confiscated from his side in London and the Tango was confiscated in Mallorca, Spain.

Last month, the United States indicted two men suspected of helping Viktor Vekselberg, a close ally of Putin, hide his $90 million Tango ownership.

“participate in hunting”

Alex Finley began the search for these luxury ships by creating a fictional book with an oligarch character.

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, netizens have taken up the topic, posting some photos of luxury yachts seen near their homes under the hashtag #YachtWatch.

“People were very interested because the yachts are really a visual symbol of what was happening. These are very important assets, beyond the reach of most ordinary humans,” she told AFP.

“Then it became a game once the sanctions fell and we started to see the yachts disappear,” she continued. “Everyone wanted to take part in the hunt.”

These boats are equipped with a tracking system. Only in rare cases, for safety reasons, is it allowed to be turned off, Finlay said, such as when the boat is sailing in pirate-infested waters.

So the location of each vessel is usually available in real time on marine traffic websites such as MarineTraffic or VesselFinder.

Some disappeared from the radar before resurfacing in the waters of nations that do not sanction Russia.

Another problem: The list of sanctioned yachts is hard to pin down. The ships avoid the Russian flag, making them targets.

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On the other hand, it is rarely directly owned by oligarchs, who use front companies to cover their tracks.

Thus, the leak of documents shared privately with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) made it possible to determine that Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, who is known to be the owner of Chelsea Football Club, will own no less than 10 yachts. In more than 6 already known to the public.

Who pays?

Added to this is the thorny issue of maintenance costs for ships that have been immobilized or seized for months.

“Maintenance costs represent, as a general rule, about 10% of a ship’s value annually,” suggests Ralph Dart, of Super Yacht Times. Fees can climb quickly for some larger yachts or older boats.

Because it is of course a matter of keeping the ship in working condition, safe and in compliance with the regulations, taking into account all operating costs, such as crew, food and beverages, fuel, etc.

For the rare yachts that are commandeered, the maintenance costs are borne by the governments that have acquired the boats.

In the case of yachts that have simply been immobilized, “it’s not always clear who’s paying,” says Alex Finlay. Especially since “their crews are still on board a large number of these boats” to ensure their maintenance.

But for the yacht-tracker, no matter the cost, the goal is to undermine the lifestyle of oligarchs who “support Putin to destabilize” the West, but at the same time “enjoy the benefits of our democracy.”

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