Abramovich scrambles to save remnants of his empire as sanctions bite

Roman on the run… portrait of a global pariah: As he flees Israel for Moscow, harried Chelsea FC billionaire Abramovich scrambles to save the remnants of his empire as sanctions bite

  • Roman Abramovich was spotted in the departure lounge of Tel Aviv’s airport
  • He looked this week a very different creature from the billionaire of yesteryear 
  • Gone was the modest smile, unseasonal tan and impeccably tailored wardrobe
  • The 55-year-old has turned into a global pariah owing to links to Vladimir Putin 

The Roman Abramovich spotted in the departure lounge of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport this week was a very different creature from the billionaire of yore.

Gone was the modest smile, unseasonal tan and impeccably tailored wardrobe. Instead he looked grey, tired and thin as he pretended to scroll through his phone to avoid catching the eye of his fellow travellers unashamedly taking photographs and filming him on their own devices.

He was pictured shortly before shortly before a jet linked to him took off for Istanbul, but it was not immediately clear whether he boarded the flight

A photograph obtained by Reuters on Monday afternoon showed a grey Roman Abramovich, owner of Chelsea Football Club, sitting in the lounge with a face mask pulled down over his chin, about to leave Tel Aviv airport as the EU decided to follow the UK and sanction him

As sanctions increase and safe havens reduce, Roman’s planes and boats are heading for places where they cannot be seized. The oligarch was last seen in Israel but could now be in Moscow

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Chukotka region governor and owner of Chelsea soccer club Roman Abramovich in Moscow at the Kremlin in 2005

And who can blame him? In the three weeks since Vladimir Putin’s tanks rolled into Ukraine, the 55-year-old oligarch’s world has been turned upside down.

He has gone from being a much-loved proprietor of Chelsea FC, one of the world’s top football clubs, to a global pariah, who seems to find himself persona non grata in more and more jurisdictions with each passing day.

First, the UK added him to its sanctions hitlist due to his links with the regime in Moscow, freezing his assets and imposing a travel ban. At a stroke of the pen, this put the kibosh on his plans to sell Chelsea for £3billion and dispose of a £500million portfolio of no fewer than 63 properties in London’s most exclusive boroughs.

The billionaire’s superyacht Solaris was seen off Tivat, Montenegro, yesterday, but amid a seizure threat it is now motoring towards Turkey

Eclipse was last seen off Gibraltar three days ago (pictured) – now it is motoring in the Med past Libya and Tunisia 

Abramovich’s jet, landing in Malta in 2020, is now in Moscow. He has more than one plane

Roman’s £49m jet left Tel Aviv yesterday at 1pm UK time, and the oligarch is believed to be on board. It then landed briefly at Istanbul before taking off again at around 10pm. The plane finally landed at around 3pm in Moscow

These include a £170million mansion in Kensington Palace Gardens and a £30million penthouse in Chelsea Harbour. 

Aware the EU would probably be the next body to sanction him, Abramovich made moves to put his two megayachts beyond the reach of their enforcement officers.

On March 3, the £330million Eclipse, a 530ft behemoth which boasts the obligatory helipad, slipped its moorings at Saint Martin in the Caribbean – near where Abramovich has a 70-acre estate on St Barts – and headed east across the Atlantic. 

Given that Saint Martin is an island split between France and the Netherlands, the fear may have been that any boat left there would be subject to EU sanctions.

Abramovich is worth up to £12billion and owns a £150m Kensington mansion, a £22m penthouse, and more than £1.2bn of yachts, private jets, helicopters and supercars based in Britain and around the world. He now cannot sell any of them

How Roman Abramovich’s steel firm is accused of supplying materials for Russian tanks bringing death and destruction to Ukraine

Roman Abramovich now ‘exercises effective control’ of Evraz, a steelmaker which ‘potentially supplies steel’ for Russian tanks, according to the UK Government. His stake is worth £420million.

He moved his large shareholding in a Russian steelmaking firm eight days before Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine.

The Chelsea owner transferred his shares in Evraz, the Russian steelmaking giant, directly to himself from an offshore company on February 16, just over a week before Vladimir Putin ordered the Ukraine invasion.

Analysts have said that the transfer of the 28.64 per cent shareholding, from Virgin Islands-registered Greenleas International Holdings Ltd, could make it less vulnerable to the sanctions which have followed the invasion. It could also make the shareholding easier to sell. The value of the shares have plummeted since Putin’s forces attacked Ukraine.

Grzegorz Kuczynski, director of the Eurasia Program at the Warsaw Institute, told Sportsmail: ‘There was a risk that this offshore company would become a subject of sanctions.’

Mr Kuczynski also said that the steel company’s material was used to make tanks and was a significant part of Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine.

He said: ‘Evraz steel is used to build tanks, amongst other things. The company is important for the Russian arms industry, in this sense. It is important for Russia’s war plans, including with regard to Ukraine.’

But a spokesperson for Abramovich insisted that Evraz steel manufactured in Russia was not used for military. The spokesperson said the Russian produced steel was only used for ‘rail and construction.’

Eclipse was last seen in the Mediterranean, sailing south of Sardinia, heading who knows where.

Next to weigh anchor was the £430million Solaris, an even more spectacular craft, with eight decks and an onboard ‘beach club’.

It has spent the past few weeks in Barcelona, where it had put in for repairs, but last week the scaffolding was hurriedly removed and its skipper set a course for Tivat in Montenegro, a popular stop-off for gas-guzzling superyachts because it offers tax-free fuel.

But it was forced to flee the exclusive Porto Montenegro marina at 5.30pm on Monday after the Balkan nation promised to mirror EU sanctions. Meanwhile, Abramovich’s other mobile assets, his private jets, have also been on the move. At the beginning of this month, his Boeing 787 Dreamliner, with a list price of £200million, the world’s most expensive jet, flew from Dubai to the safety of Moscow.

Since then, he has had to content himself with flitting around the world in his £49million Gulfstream 650ER. It was this plane that took him to Tel Aviv earlier this month.

Given that Israel prides itself on being a safe haven for any Jew, and the fact that he is an Israeli citizen to boot, Abramovich might have assumed he would be welcome there. After all, he is the owner of two sumptuous properties – a £52million estate in the upmarket Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya and a £17million beachfront hotel – as well as being a generous contributor to local charities.

But the news that at least 14 private jets from Russia had landed in Tel Aviv in the space of just ten days appears to have alerted the Americans to its role as an unofficial oligarchs’ bolthole.

At the weekend, the US undersecretary of state for political affairs, Victoria Nuland, called on Israel to join the countries that have sanctioned Russia, adding: ‘You don’t want to become the last haven for dirty money that’s fueling Putin’s wars.’

Abramovich got the message. He headed for the airport – where those pictures of him where taken – and flew to Russia via Istanbul, landing at 6am Moscow time yesterday.

If the sense is of a harried tycoon desperately trying to find somewhere to settle with any permanency, at least he isn’t short of somewhere to live in the Russian capital. Abramovich’s holding company, Millhouse Capital, owns more than £760million of assets in his homeland, including Four Winds Plaza, an office and residential block in Moscow, and the recently acquired Kristall hotel in the Black Sea resort of Gelendzhik.

And this is the one environment where being sanctioned is something of a badge of honour.

In 2014, when the West drew up sanctions following Putin’s invasion of Crimea, the chairman of a Russian bank who failed to make the hitlist was so put out by the supposed snub, he grumbled about it to friends. Not only was he worried his absence on the sanctions list implied he wasn’t enough of a big shot to warrant being targeted, he was concerned that the Russian president might distrust him as a result.

Abramovich’s lawyers said there is no basis for alleging he amassed wealth through criminality

Abramovich should get used to doing without the attractions of the decadent West.

Even if a peace deal is reached in Ukraine and the new Cold War starts to thaw, he will find it difficult to find house-room because his reputation has been irredeemably damaged by revelations about his closeness to the Kremlin. 

An investigation by the BBC’s respected Panorama programme broadcast on Monday night claimed his wealth was gained via a series of increasingly high-stakes acts of criminality.

Its most serious allegation related to Abramovich’s acquisition of Sibneft, the oil company that formed the cornerstone of his fortune.

According to a five-page document smuggled out of Russia – its claims confirmed by people with knowledge of the transaction – the government was cheated out of £2.1billion over the deal. Panorama claimed that £100million of state money was paid into the bank that subsequently lent Abramovich the funds to buy Sibneft for a reported £192million.

It added that police wanted to charge Abramovich with ‘fraud by an organised criminal group’ but the charges were dropped due to his closeness to then Russian president Boris Yeltsin.

What is certainly true is that a company the oligarch acquired for £192million was sold back to the state ten years later for £10billion – around 50 times the buying price.

Roman Abramovich is selling his Kensington property in London (pictured), and a Swiss billionaire said he’s been approached about buying the Russian’s Chelsea Football Club

Football supporters arrive at Stamford bridge for the premier league match between Chelsea FC and Newcastle United as the club’s future becomes clouded after its owner was sanctioned

Even more shocking, however, are the circumstances of his takeover of another oil company, Slavneft.

When it was put up for auction in 2002, the only serious rival bidder to emerge was a Chinese company called CNPC, which was prepared to pay up to double Abramovich’s price.

UK govt tells Chelsea fans: stop chanting Abramovich’s name 

Blues supporters again expressed their backing for Abramovich during Sunday’s home victory against Newcastle, after he was sanctioned by the British government last week as part of its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Abramovich’s assets were frozen, with Chelsea placed under a special license which allows them to operate but unable to generate new revenue.

The billionaire, described by the UK government as part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, has brought unprecedented success to Chelsea since he bought the club in 2003.

But Johnson’s spokesman said it was time for the chanting to stop.

‘We recognize the strength of feeling around people’s clubs but that does not excuse behavior which is completely inappropriate at this time,’ he said.

‘I think people can show passion and support for their club without resorting to that sort of stuff.’

Abramovich put the Premier League club up for sale on March 2 and a number of interested parties are understood to remain in the frame despite the imposition of sanctions.

These include British billionaire Nick Candy, a consortium featuring Los Angeles Dodgers part-owner Todd Boehly and Swiss billionaire Hansjoerg Wyss, plus interest from former Liverpool chairman Martin Broughton.

The government has said it is still ‘open’ to Chelsea being sold but that a new application would be needed to enable a sale.

So far, the prime minister’s spokesman said, the club had not applied for a variation to its strict special license.

The government will oversee the sale process to ensure there is no benefit to Abramovich, with New York merchant bank the Raine Group handling the process.

But, according to an investigation by a Spanish law enforcement agency, its negotiator was kidnapped the moment he disembarked at Moscow airport and it was made clear that he would be released only when CNPC withdrew its bid.

And that is exactly what happened. As Panorama observed: ‘There is no suggestion that Roman Abramovich knew about it but he bought Slavneft for a knockdown price.’

Yet another revelation to emerge from the programme is that Abramovich was considered to be ‘the manager of Vladimir Putin’s private economic interests’.

If that is indeed the case, then he should prepare himself for a severe finger-wagging from the man at the top. At its peak, Abramovich’s personal fortune was put at £18billion, but in recent weeks it has been decimated amid a global crash in the value of Russian assets and is now put at £5.3billion. 

One of the oligarch’s biggest investments is a 28.6 per cent shareholding in the global steelmaker Evraz.

It reported ‘outstanding financial results’ for 2021 after steel prices soared as the global economy emerged from the pandemic but its share price has plummeted since. 

Its reputation has not been helped by the British Government’s accusation that it has ‘blood on its hands’ if it sold any steel to the Russian military.

To make matters worse, much of the rest of Abramovich’s portfolio is beyond his reach. 

While yachts and planes can be moved around the world to escape the clutches of asset-freezing authorities, most investments are stuck in the jurisdictions in which they were bought.

Take the jewel in his crown, Chelsea FC. The moment Putin launched his invasion, Abramovich realised the writing was on the wall for him and his fellow UK-based oligarchs.

In his desperation to sell the Premier League club, it was put up for sale with a price tag of £3billion.

Prospective buyers soon emerged but Abramovich found all his assets frozen before they could complete due diligence and make an approach.

Now he can only watch as the club in which he invested £1.5billion to win 21 trophies withers on the vine.

As Abramovich sits in Moscow contemplating his downfall, he cannot even look forward to summers on the Algarve. 

While he was granted Portuguese citizenship in 2021, that award is now subject to a police investigation. The rabbi who assessed his application was detained amid suspicions of money laundering, corruption, fraud and falsification of documents.

With setbacks on so many fronts in the space of a single month, the beleaguered Chelsea boss must be wondering whether his cup of woe can get any fuller.

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