Sanctioned oligarch's superyacht heads home to Russia as others go into hiding

The US and its allies have moved to seize yachts and other Russians' assets since Russia's attack on Ukraine. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - One of the world's biggest superyachts, reportedly owned by sanctioned Russian billionaire Alexey Mordashov, is headed home to the port of Vladivostok.

Others luxury vessels tied to oligarchs have abandoned popular Mediterranean hot spots, while many have simply disappeared in the wake of Western restrictions levied on some of Russia's richest citizens.

The scattering of Russian mega yachts comes after US President Joe Biden said that the country and its allies are prepared to seize the boats, luxury apartments and private jets of wealthy, politically connected Russians.

This month, the US announced expanded sanctions, targeting several dozen oligarchs accused of enabling President Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine. "We are coming for your ill-begotten gains," Mr Biden said.

The 142m Nord - a US$500 million (S$679 million) vessel that features two helipads, a cinema and 20 luxury cabins - is currently in the South China Sea and headed to Vladivostok, a Russian port city near Japan. Other Russian-linked yachts are turning off their transponders, leaving European resort towns and sailing toward the Middle East, where they might encounter less scrutiny.

According to data compiled by Bloomberg, at least nine yachts connected to Russian tycoons have gone dark between Feb 24 - when the invasion of Ukraine started - and March 11, when Mr Biden announced additional sanctions against businessmen close to Mr Putin, along with at least 47 of their family members and associates.

Most of the vessels are reportedly owned by sanctioned oligarchs or those flagged by the US as being close to Mr Putin by the Treasury Department, while a few are owned by moguls not on sanctions lists.

International maritime regulations require all passenger ships, regardless of size, to broadcast their positions to other vessels and coastal authorities. The devices, called automatic identification system or AIS, are supposed to be in operation at all times to track vessels.

"There's no reason why their AIS transmissions should be off for days," said Mr Gur Sender, a programme manager at Windward, which specializes in maritime risk and intelligence. "Even if you're in the middle of the ocean you have a satellite picking up your transmission once in at least eight hours. If you're a big yacht, it's in your interest to have it on so everyone can see the ship to prevent accidents."

The European Union and UK have also announced sanctions on many of the same tycoons, with authorities trying to locate their luxury boats. Italy seized a 530 million-euro (S$793 million) superyacht owned by Russian billionaire Andrey Melnichenko. The authorities detained Gennady Timchenko's Lena in the coastal city of Sanremo, along with another of Mordashov's boats - Lady M - in Imperia. Meanwhile, metal magnate Alisher Usmanov's mega yacht, Dilbar, is stuck in Germany.

That's prompted tycoons to avoid the Mediterranean and Northern Europe, which is typically packed with mega yachts in the northern hemisphere during spring and summer.

The Middle East, with its easy access to the Indian Ocean, tops other regions for being the last known location of many sanctioned vessels. At least eight ships were last seen near the United Arab Emirates, Oman, or Saudi Arabia, according to vessel data analyzed by Bloomberg News.

Mega yachts owned by Russians account for as much as 10 per cent of the global fleet, according to industry watcher Superyacht Group.

Remote video URL

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.