US authorities seize Russian oligarch’s super yacht in Spain

President Joe Biden warned oligarchs that the US and European allies would 'find and seize your yachts, your luxury apartments, your private jets'

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The US government has seized a 78-metre yacht in Spain owned by an oligarch with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It was a first by President Joe Biden's administration under sanctions imposed against luxury assets of Russian elites after the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Spain’s Civil Guard and US federal agents descended on the Tango on Monday at the Marina Real in the port of Palma de Mallorca, the capital of Spain’s Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean Sea.

The US Justice Department, which obtained a warrant from a federal judge in Washington, alleges the yacht should be forfeited for breaching US bank fraud, money-laundering and sanctions statutes.

Superyachtfan.com, a website that tracks the world’s largest and most exclusive recreational boats, values the 78-metre vessel, which carries the Cook Islands flag, at $120 million.

The yacht is among the assets linked to Viktor Vekselberg, a billionaire and close Putin ally who leads the Moscow-based Renova Group, a conglomerate encompassing metals, mining, tech and other assets, US Treasury Department documents show.

All of Mr Vekselberg’s assets in the US are frozen and American companies are barred from doing business with him and his entities.

The Ukrainian-born businessman built his fortune by investing in the aluminium and oil industries in the post-Soviet era.

Prosecutors allege Mr Vekselberg bought the Tango in 2011 and has owned it since, although they believe he has used shell companies to try to hide his ownership and avoid financial oversight.

They says Mr Vekselberg and those working for him continued to make payments using US banks to support and maintain the yacht, even after sanctions were imposed on him in 2018.

Those payments included a stay in December 2020 at a luxury water villa resort in the Maldives and fees to moor the yacht.

It is the first US seizure of an oligarch’s yacht since US Attorney General Merrick Garland and US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen assembled a task force known as Repo, short for Russian Elites, Proxies and Oligarchs, to enforce sanctions after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

“It will not be the last.” Mr Garland said.

US seizes Russian oligarch's yacht in Spain

In this handout image released by Spanish Guardia Civil on April 4, 2022, Spanish civil guards and US agents of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) search a yacht owned by Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg in Palma de Mallorca.  - Authorities seized on April 4, 2022 a mega yacht in Spain owned by an oligarch with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin at the demand of the United States, Spanish police said.  The 78-meter-long yacht named Tango was impounded at the Mediterranean port of Palma de Mallorca by Spanish police in coordination with US federal agents, Spain's Guardia Civil police force said in a statement.  (Photo by Handout  /  Spanish Guardia Civil  /  AFP)  /  RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO  /  GUARDIA CIVIL  /  HANDOUT" - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

“Together, with our international partners, we will do everything possible to hold accountable any individual whose criminal acts enable the Russian government to continue its unjust war.”

Mr Vekselberg has long had ties to the US, including a green card he once held and homes in New York and Connecticut.

He was also questioned in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, and has worked closely with his American cousin, Andrew Intrater, who leads the New York investment management firm Columbus Nova.

Mr Vekselberg and Mr Intrater were thrust into the spotlight in that investigation after the lawyer for adult film star Stormy Daniels released a memo that claimed $500,000 in hush money was routed through Columbus Nova to a shell company set up by Donald Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen.

Columbus Nova denied that Mr Vekselberg played any role in its payments to Cohen.

Mr Vekselberg and Mr Intrater met with Cohen at Trump Tower, one of several meetings between members of Mr Trump’s inner circle and high-level Russians during his 2016 campaign, and the transition before his presidency.

Mr Vekselberg founded Renova Group more than three decades ago. The group holds the largest stake in United Rusal, Russia’s biggest aluminum producer, among other investments.

Mr Vekselberg first had sanctions imposed by the US in 2018, and again in March this year. He has also had sanctions imposed by authorities in the UK.

Agents confiscated documents and computers inside the yacht that will be analysed to confirm the real identity of the owner.

The US Justice Department has also launched a sanctions enforcement task force known as KleptoCapture, which also aims to enforce financial restrictions in the US imposed on Russia and its billionaires, working with the FBI, the US Treasury and other federal agencies.

The task force will also focus on financial institutions and entities that have helped oligarchs move money to avoid sanctions.

The White House has said that many allied countries, including Germany, Britain, France, Italy and others, are involved in trying to collect and share information against Russians who are targets for sanctions.

In his State of the Union address on March 1, Mr Biden warned oligarchs that the US and European allies would “find and seize your yachts, your luxury apartments, your private jets".

“We are coming for your ill-begotten gains,” he said.

Monday’s capture is not the first time Spanish authorities have been involved in the seizure of a Russian oligarch’s superyacht.

Officials said they had seized a vessel valued at over $140 million owned by the chief executive of a state-owned defence conglomerate and a close ally of Mr Putin.

French authorities have seized superyachts, including one believed to belong to Igor Sechin, a Putin ally who runs Russian oil giant Rosneft, which has been on the US sanctions list since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

Italy has seized several yachts and other assets.

Italian financial police moved quickly seizing the superyacht Lena belonging to Gennady Timchenko, an oligarch close to Mr Putin, in the port of San Remo.

Updated: April 06, 2022, 10:53 PM