• Sat. Jun 10th, 2023


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American Officials Believe They Have Located Putin’s Yacht

WASHINGTON — American officials are examining the ownership of a $700 million superyacht currently in a dry dock at an Italian seacoast town, and believe it could be associated with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, according to multiple people briefed on the information.

United States intelligence agencies have made no final conclusions about the ownership of the superyacht — called the Scheherazade — but American officials said they had found initial indications that it was linked to Mr. Putin. The information from the U.S. officials came after The New York Times reported on Tuesday that Italian authorities were looking into the 459-foot long vessel’s ownership and that a former crew member said it was for the use of Mr. Putin.

People briefed on the intelligence would not describe what information they had that indicated the superyacht is associated with Mr. Putin. If American officials know whether or how often Mr. Putin uses the yacht, the people briefed on the information would not share it.

American officials said Mr. Putin kept little of his wealth in his own name. Instead he uses homes and boats nominally owned by Russian oligarchs. Still, it is possible that through various shell companies, Mr. Putin could have more direct control of the Scheherazade.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic Mr. Putin has also spent large amounts of time in the Russian resort city of Sochi on the Black Sea, U.S. officials said. The Scheherazade made trips to Sochi in the summers of 2020 and 2021.

Both the Treasury Department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis and the Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence are investigating the ownership of superyachts associated with Russian oligarchs. A spokesman for the Navy and a spokeswoman for the Treasury both declined to comment.

The Justice Department has set up a task force to go after the assets of sanctioned Russian oligarchs. In a discussion with reporters on Friday, a Justice Department official said the task force would be investigating individuals who help sanctioned Russian officials or oligarchs hide their assets. Those individuals could face charges related to sanctions violations or international money laundering charges.

In addition, under recently published Commerce Department rule changes, if more than 25 percent of a plane or a yacht is made of U.S.-manufactured airplane or marine parts, it cannot go to Russia.

If a yacht is in a foreign country and meets the definition of a U.S.-origin or U.S.-made product, it would need a license to go to Russia. To actually seize a yacht, the United States would need to coordinate with a cooperative foreign government — Italy, in the case of the Scheherazade — to prevent the ship from moving to Russian waters.

Some superyachts moved out of European waters as the invasion of Ukraine began and the West began imposing sanctions allowing asset seizures. The Scheherazade is undergoing repairs in Marina di Carrara, a port in Tuscany, and as of earlier this week was in dry dock, unable to get underway.

Guy Bennett-Pearce, the Scheherazade’s captain, said earlier this week that Mr. Putin was not the owner of the superyacht and that the Russian president had not set foot on it.

He declined to give the name of the owner, saying on Monday only that it was not anyone facing sanctions. Captain Bennett-Pearce did not answer his phone on Friday or respond to a text message.

Last week, Italian authorities boarded the Scheherazade and examined certification documents, seeking to learn more about the vessel’s ownership. Captain Bennett-Pearce said earlier this week that he would provide the Italian police with documents that divulged the yacht’s owner.

Italian authorities said they were taking a deep look at the Scheherazade. Under a process that may take as long as a couple of weeks, Italy’s financial police will gather evidence and present it to a government committee, which will then decide whether ownership or use of the ship is connected to someone on the sanctions list.

That connection could be outright ownership of a significant portion of the ship, or evidence that a friend, underling or associate lent his or her name to hide the sanctioned person’s ownership, or that funds used to buy the ship came from illegal profits. If the committee finds that the evidence meets the threshold, the financial police can impound the Scheherazade.

The Italian Sea Group, which owns the shipyard where the Scheherazade is dry-docked, said in a statement on Thursday that based on documents it had and “checks carried out by the relevant authorities,” the Scheherazade “is not attributable to the property of Russian President Vladimir Putin.”

American officials have been stepping up their examination of the superyachts of Russian oligarchs, particularly as the United States and Europe have imposed more sanctions against the wealthy families that support Mr. Putin.

The German-built Scheherazade has been in service since June 2020. The website SuperYachtFan estimated that it cost $700 million. The ship has a full-size gym, two helicopter decks and gold-plated fixtures in the washrooms.

While American intelligence officials have been looking at the Scheherazade, the scrutiny has increased after the publication of the earlier article in The Times.

The Scheherazade appears to have a sister ship, the Crescent, built by the same German manufacturer and put into service in 2018. The Crescent’s project name when it was under construction was “Thunder.” The Scheherazade’s was “Lightning.”

Like the Scheherazade, there is no public information identifying the ship’s owner, other than an offshore shell company. The Crescent last broadcast its position on Nov. 2, when it appeared to be approaching Barcelona, Spain. Satellite images show that as of March 4 it was moored at a marina catering to superyachts near there. Both vessels are registered in the Cayman Islands and both share the same designer.

Katie Benner contributed reporting from Washington, Christoph Koettl from New York, and Gaia Pianigiani from Siena, Italy.