How Russian Oligarchs Are Hiding Their Superyachts In Plain Sight

Shell companies within shell companies are meant to obfuscate yacht's true owners

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An Italian Finance Police car is parked in front of the yacht “Lady M”, owned by Russian oligarch Alexei Mordashov, docked at Imperia’s harbor, on March 5, 2022. (Photo by Andrea BERNARDI / AFP)
An Italian Finance Police car is parked in front of the yacht “Lady M”, owned by Russian oligarch Alexei Mordashov, docked at Imperia’s harbor, on March 5, 2022. (Photo by Andrea BERNARDI / AFP)
Photo: Photo by ANDREA BERNARDI/AFP via Getty Images (Getty Images)

If there’s one thing rich people are good at, it’s making sure they hold on to their riches. Russians oligarchs are practically magicians, making whole entire giant ships hundreds of feet long disappear — at least, on paper.

Yesterday we brought you the story of the superyacht that is rumored to belong to President Vladimir Putin, though its true ownership is shrouded in mystery. The New York Times article that first broke that story noted that Putin doesn’t really personally own much and is known for using the yachts belonging to his cadre of the hyper rich. Putin is not alone in hiding what really belongs to him. A new report from Vice explains that even these toadies don’t really own these yachts:

Mega-yachts, private jets, and penthouses owned by ultra-wealthy individuals are often held through shell companies, which can obscure the identity of the real owner. Shady individuals, or those with reason to fear their assets could be seized, can layer multiple shell companies on top of one other in separate offshore havens to create a legal maze for investigators to sort through.

For the moment, whenever Western officials announce action against a luxury property owned by a sanctioned Russian individual, the reaction from the wealthy Russian in question has generally been silence—creating a haze of uncertainty about whether officials have even got the right vessel.

“Life would be much simpler if someone like Igor Sechin would just own everything in own his name, and put his picture on the side of his boat, but that’s not the world we live in,” said Adam Smith, who served in the Obama Administration as the senior advisor to the director of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control, the agency that administers and enforces U.S. trade sanctions.

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It’s such a tough gig that investigators routinely turn to the Instagram profiles of an Oligarch’s friends and families to ensure they’re seizing the correct boat. And once an asset has been seized, wealthy Russians have plenty of cash to throw at legal challenges to get their stuff back. Yachts reportedly belonging to Russian oil tycoons Evgeny Shvidler and Igor Sechin were seized by officials and are in the middle legal wrangling as those shell companies try to prove they alone own the yachts.

And it’s not just yachts. Planes, apartments, and even sports teams are being picked up by European countries with sanctions against Russia (though Biden talked a big game about sanctions, the U.S. has yet to announce any major seizures or freezing of Russian assets in the country, Vice notes).

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Someone tune up the world’s smallest violin and play a Shostakovich concerto just for the Oligarchs and their big boats.