The new geography of the Russian elite

Russian journalist Daria Poligaeva, who moved to Dubai several years ago is now seeing a wave of compatriots arriving. PHOTO: AFP

MOSCOW/NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - After the Russian invasion, the threat of closing borders, international sanctions and imprisonment drove tens of thousands to flee Russia.

Journalists, activists and tech workers flocked to Armenia, Georgia and Turkey - relatively affordable, nearby countries that allow Russians to enter without visas. In Europe, countries like Germany and Latvia took in Russians fearing persecution at home.

But another cohort of Russians - including business magnates and celebrities - made Dubai, the biggest city on the Persian Gulf, their main destination.

Before the invasion, only 3 per cent of private flights departing Russia flew to the United Arab Emirates, primarily to Dubai, according to an analysis by The New York Times of thousands of records from RadarBox.com, a flight tracking company. That figure rose to 6 per cent in the weeks after the invasion began, and 14 per cent by May.

The records provide striking evidence that Western sanctions over the war in Ukraine have succeeded in drastically changing the lives and habits of the Russian elite. The analysis captures both privately owned jets and jets leased by commercial companies, although the flight patterns suggest most of the jets are privately owned.

Before the invasion Feb 24, even amid the deep freeze in relations between Russia and the West, luxury European playgrounds in Britain, France and Switzerland offered havens for Russia's superrich.

But now, with European airspace closed to Russian jets, and European countries seizing the assets of Russian oligarchs, the days of flying to Geneva for a weekend shopping trip appear to be over.

Instead, a wartime geography of the reach of Russia's wealthy emerges in flight patterns analysed by the Times. Kazakhstan and Turkey, countries that did not join sanctions against Russia and that have provided a home for Russian businesses leaving the country, have become leading destinations. Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic that still nurtures close ties to both Russia and Ukraine, has also benefited from increased private jet travel.

But no country has seen as big a jump percentage-wise in wealthy Russian travellers as the United Arab Emirates, where the resort and financial centre of Dubai has emerged as the main hub connecting Moscow to the luxury and business opportunities still on offer from the rest of the world.

"Lots of people don't have a choice," said Daria Poligaeva, a Russian journalist who moved to Dubai several years ago and is now seeing a wave of compatriots arriving. "It's one of the few places where you can now transfer your business, where there's a market, where you can develop your business, and where you still have a market of international corporations," she added.

Multinational companies such as Goldman Sachs and Google have relocated Moscow-based employees to Dubai since the invasion. One of Russia's best-known restaurateurs is working on a new project in Dubai. And a Dubai-based wellness company recently opened what it says is the city's first banya, or Russian sauna - just in time for summer's 43 degrees Celsius days.

"We had to tweak it a little bit for Dubai," said the company's CEO, Dominique Laird, estimating that 90 per cent of her banya customers were Russian. "You can't drink vodka in the steam room. They definitely can't be naked."

During the May holidays in Russia, bookended by Labour Day on May 1 and World War II Victory Day on May 9, a parade of Russian celebrities descended on Dubai. Most striking among them: Dmitry Kiselyov, the host of the marquee weekly propaganda show on Russian state television, in which he regularly threatens the West with nuclear annihilation. In Dubai, he was photographed, cold drink in hand, in short, pink swimming trunks.

The Times' analysis shows that even amid the tensions between Moscow and the West in the weeks leading up to the invasion of Ukraine, private jets were flocking from Russia to Europe. In the first three weeks of February, their most popular destinations were France, Switzerland, Britain and Germany.

After the invasion on Feb 24, private jets continued to fly out of Russia - but, by late April, virtually none were heading to Europe. Instead, beyond the United Arab Emirates, they have also made for Turkey, which has offered a safe haven for Russian oligarchs' yachts and jets even as it sells lethal drones to Ukraine's military.

Kazakhstan, the biggest country in Central Asia by area, has become another hub for Russian business. It is where the American consulting giant McKinsey initially relocated hundreds of employees of its Moscow office as it exited the Russian market this spring, and it was the third-most popular destination for private jets departing Russia after the invasion.

Despite international sanctions and closing airspace, some of Russia's highest-profile oligarchs kept flying around the world after the invasion, the Times' analysis suggests.

Dubai has become a focal point for travel, with some business tycoons parking their jets there; more than 70 remain parked in the United Arab Emirates or were only returned to Russia after being stuck there for weeks, the analysis suggests.

A plane owned by Roman Abramovich, an oligarch and former owner of the Chelsea football club, flew to Dubai just days after sanctions against Russian individuals kicked in.

In June, American authorities obtained a warrant for two of Abramovich's planes, including the Dreamliner. They claimed that the plane had violated American sanctions when it was flown to Russia on March 4.

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