FBI seizes $90m yacht owned by Putin ally Viktor Vekselberg in Spain

FBI seizes $90million mega yacht owned by Putin ally Viktor Vekselberg in Spain as US eyes tougher sanctions with Russians gunning down Ukrainian civilians in the street

  • Vekselberg is a Ukraine-born oligarch who is friends with Vladimir Putin 
  • He build a fortune in aluminum and oil industries
  •  FBI and Spanish authorities seized 254-foot vessel Tango in Palma de Mallorca
  • The yacht sails under Cook Islands flag and is owned by a company registered in the British Virgin Islands administered by different societies in Panama 
  •  Vekselberg featured in Mueller probe after Stormy Daniels released memo claiming hush payments flowed from his cousin’s firm to Michael Cohen
  • Biden Admin. contemplating new sanctions after images of atrocities in Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv 
  • Seizure coordinated through DOJ’s Task Force KleptoCapture 
  • It is valued at $90 million to $120 million 

The FBI and Spanish authorities seized mega yacht Monday owned by oligarch and Putin friend Viktor Vekselberg – amid calls for even tighter sanctions on Russia following new discoveries of atrocities outside Kyiv.

The 254-foot vessel was docked in Palma de Mallorca, the capital of Spain´s Balearic Islands and a playground and tax haven for the wealthy. 

The seizure was a joint operation including FBI and Homeland Security Investigations as well as Spain’s Civil Guard carried out at the request of U.S. authorities.

The seizure was the the first in the U.S. government’s sanctions initiative to ‘seize and freeze’ giant vessels and other pricey assets of Russian elites in an effort to turn up pressure on Putin in response to the invasion. 

It came hours after new horrors emerged from the suburb of Bucha outside Kyiv, Ukrainian forces who pushed back Russian invaders discovered bodies of Ukrainian citizens shot dead in the street, some with their hands tied behind their backs.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called it ‘genocide,’ and there was a new push within the Biden administration for tougher sanctions. 

‘I’m going to continue to add more sanctions,’ President Joe Biden said Monday as he arrived from his home in Delaware to Washington. He repeated his assessment that Putin had committed ‘war crimes,’ but stopped short of saying Russia had committed genocide.

The FBI and Spanish authorities seized a mega yacht belonging to oligarch Viktor Vekselberg on Monday, amid calls to further tighten sanctions on Russia

The U.S. is also pushing to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council – the panel charged with exposing abuses like the kind being uncovered amid Russia’s war on Ukraine. The move would require a two-thirds vote of the UN General Assembly.  

A Civil Guard source said the immobilized yacht is Tango, a vessel flagged in the Cook Islands that Superyachtfan.com, a specialized website that tracks the world´s largest and most exclusive recreational boats, values at $120 million.   

The Justice Department put the value lower, at $90 million, in its official release. 

The yacht is among the assets linked to Viktor Vekselberg, a billionaire and close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin who heads the Moscow-based Renova Group, a conglomerate encompassing metals, mining, tech and other assets, according to U.S. Treasury Department documents. 

All of Vekselberg´s assets in the U.S. are frozen and U.S. companies are forbidden from doing business with him and his entities.

While Vekselberg has not been sanctioned by the European Union, he is under investigation in the U.S. for possible tax fraud, money laundering and falsifying documents precisely to hide the ownership of the Tango yacht, the Civil Guard said in a statement.  

According to the Superyachtfan web site, the ship has 7 cabins and can sleep up to 14 guests, with a crew of 22. There are no available interior photos – although it has four 1,730 hp diesel engines and can make 22 knots. 

According to the Justice Department, a warrant for the seizure alleged ‘that the Tango was subject to forfeiture based on violation of U.S. bank fraud, money laundering, and sanction statutes. Separately, seizure warrants obtained in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia target approximately $625,000 associated with sanctioned parties held at nine U.S. financial institutions.’

Documents filed in the case allege that Vekselberg ‘used shell companies to obfuscate his interest in the Tango to avoid bank oversight into U.S. dollar transactions.’

He was sanctioned by the Treasury Department in 2018, but ‘continued to make U.S. dollar payments through U.S. banks for the support and maintenance of the Tango and its owners, including a payment for a December 2020 stay at a luxury water villa resort in the Maldives and mooring fees for the yacht.’

‘Today’s action makes clear that corrupt Russian oligarchs cannot evade sanctions to live a life of luxury as innocent Ukrainians are suffering,’ said Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco. She said DOJ was delivering ‘on our commitment to hold accountable those whose criminal activity strengthens the Russian government as it continues to wage its unjust war in Ukraine. That commitment is one we are not finished honoring.’

Viktor Vekselberg, chairman of the Board of Directors of Renova Group, is friends with Russian President Vladimir Putin

A U.S. federal agent and two Civil Guards board the yacht called Tango in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, Monday April 4, 2022. U.S. federal agents and Spain’s Civil Guard are searching the yacht owned by oligarch Viktor Vekselberg

The seized yatch ‘Tango’, which belongs to Renova Group head Viktor Vekselberg, moors in the port of Palma de Mallorca, a tax haven and playground for global elites 

Vekselberg, who made his fortune in aluminum and oil, featured in the Mueller probe

She seizure follows discoveries of atrocities against civilians in Bucha, outside Kyiv

Here the Tango is seen moored in Malaga. Vekselberg bought it in 2011, according to the Justice Department

Interior photos are not available, although it can accommodate 14 guests

The move is the first time the U.S. government has seized an oligarch´s yacht since Attorney General Merrick Garland and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen assembled a task force known as REPO – short for Russian Elites, Proxies and Oligarchs – as an effort to enforce sanctions after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February.

Vekselberg has long had ties to the U.S. including a green card he once held and homes in New York and Connecticut. The Ukrainian-born businessman built his fortune by investing in the aluminum and oil industries in the post-Soviet era.

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

Vekselberg and Intrater were thrust into the spotlight in the Mueller probe after porn 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 Vekselberg played any role in its payments to Cohen.

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

The 64-year-old mogul founded Renova Group more than three decades ago. The group holds the largest stake in United Co. Rusal, Russia´s biggest aluminum producer, among other investments.

Vekselberg was first sanctioned by the U.S. in 2018, and again in March of this year, shortly after the invasion of Ukraine began. Vekselberg has also been sanctioned by authorities in the United Kingdom.

The yacht sails under Cook Islands flag and is owned by a company registered in the British Virgin Islands administered by different societies in Panama, the Civil Guard said, ‘following a complicated financial and societal web to conceal its truthful ownership.’

Agents confiscated documents and computers inside the yacht that will be analyzed to confirm he real identity of the owner, it said.

The U.S. Justice Department has also launched a sanctions enforcement task force known as KleptoCapture, which also aims to enforce financial restrictions in the U.S. imposed on Russia and its billionaires, working with the FBI, Treasury and other federal agencies. That task force will also target financial institutions and entities that have helped oligarchs move money to dodge sanctions.

The White House has said that many allied countries, including German, the U.K, France, Italy and others are involved in trying to collect and share information against Russians targeted for sanctions. In his State of the Union address, President Joe Biden warned oligarch that the U.S. 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 there said they had seized a vessel valued at over $140 million owned by the CEO of a state-owned defense conglomerate and a close Putin ally.

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

Italy has also seized several yachts and other assets.

Italian financial police moved quickly seizing the superyacht ‘Lena’ belonging to Gennady Timchenko, an oligarch close to Putin, in the port of San Remo; the 65-meter (215-foot) ‘Lady M’ owned by Alexei Mordashov in nearby Imperia, featuring six suites and estimated to be worth 65 million euros; as well as villas in Tuscany and Como, according to government officials.

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