Seizing Russian superyachts is easier said than done

(NewsNation) — They look like something straight out of a James Bond movie — superyachts owned by Russian oligarchs, some the size of small cruise ships worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Now, they’re being seized, at least in theory.

Attempting to seize assets is entirely different than successfully seizing them, experts point out.

Many of the lavish vessels are registered in secretive banks used by the ultra-rich to shield their wealth.

“I’ve been studying sanctions for some decades and we see frequently that the assets of the troublemakers are frozen. They’re locked down, they can’t use them, they can’t get access to dollars or to credit or hard currencies, but the idea of actually seizing assets, this is pretty unprecedented,” said David Cortright, director of the Global Policy Initiative at the University of Notre Dame.

Western allies have vowed to punish Russian oligarchs for their ties to President Vladimir Putin and support for the invasion of Ukraine. Last week, the White House released a list of “Putin’s cronies,” whose assets are being targeted in order to make sure Russia’s rich and powerful feel the heat.

“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,” President Joe Biden declared at his State of the Union address.

There is evidence to suggest that some Russian billionaires have received the message. A superyacht linked to oligarch Roman Abramovich, owner of Chelsea FC, left Barcelona earlier this week.

Some countries have been more successful than others at seizing assets.

In Italy, police have already seized at least $150 million from high-profile Russians after EU sanctions, including multiple superyachts.

Last Thursday, French authorities seized the superyacht Amore Vero near the Mediterranean resort town La Ciotat.

Earlier this week, the Associated Press compiled a list of 56 superyachts — luxury vessels exceeding 79 feet in length — believed to be owned by a few dozen Kremlin-aligned oligarchs.

AP tracked the last known location of the vessels and found that many of the superyachts had already fled to remote ports in small countries such as the Maldives and Montenegro, possibly beyond the reach of Western sanctions.

But there’s also the issue of size — many of the Russian-owned yachts are among the largest in the world, complete with pools, beauty parlors, disco clubs, helipads. Where will they end up?

Experts say the process of seizing the boats could take years and would require U.S. Marshals to seize the boats, which could then be sold at auction.

“What you have to do is use civil forfeiture to take this property. Civil forfeiture is the tool the government has to recover criminal proceeds when there is no criminal case but when it can still prove that there was a crime and there is a connection between the property and the crime,” said Stefan Cassella, CEO of Asset Forfeiture Law.

While the exact number of seized superyachts remains to be seen, there is broad support among the American public for the economic sanctions levied against Russia. A NewsNation poll found 72% of respondents favor such sanctions.

The Biden administration has not ruled out further action against Putin and his inner circle of supporters.

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