It has always been tricky for a new sport to establish itself with universal approval. But the latest invention has it all: it’s fun, adrenaline-fuelled, requires very little exertion, brings people together, and all you need is an internet connection. It’s called “oligarch hunting”. At the moment, the best place to play is on the high seas, and you might as well join in.
When the much-botoxed Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, for oligarch hunters it was open season. “Tonight, I say to the Russian oligarchs and the corrupt leaders who bilked billions of dollars off this violent regime: no more,” President Biden said in his State of the Union address last week. “We’re joining with European allies to find and seize their yachts, their luxury apartments, their private jets. We are coming for your ill-begotten gains.”
At the end of his speech, Biden added an unscripted "Go get him." Perhaps, for oligarch hunters, it might have been better expressed as "Go get them."
And they surely are! Some mapped their properties. Within days, a Twitter account called Russian Oligarch Jets (twitter.com/ruoligarchjets) was set up by Floridian teenager Jack Sweeney, who monitors flight trackers to make sure no oligarch gets airborne without social media knowing about it.
But best of all is #YachtWatch, a hashtag around which a community of Twitter users gather to keep abreast of precisely where the gargantuan motor yachts owned by those on sanctions lists are currently anchored. Oligarchs like luxury yachts as much as the next reclusive mega-rich business mogul with potentially murderous friends, and as major assets, those vessels could be seized by authorities looking to freeze assets.
Indeed, oligarch hunting is already resulting in some of their floating palaces being seized - so they won't be moving anywhere for a while. German authorities have reportedly seized a $600m (£448m) yacht belonging to Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov. The 156-metre yacht Dilbar, the world's largest by gross tonnage (with a crew of 96), was seized by authorities in a Hamburg shipyard, says The Telegraph.
Meanwhile, France has impounded a yacht belonging to Igor Sechin, the Rosneft chief, amid an escalating crackdown on oligarchs. “Every time a Russian Oligarch’s yacht is seized, an angel gets its wings,” one #yachtwatcher posted online.
Further east, Italian police have just seized a yacht owned by Alexei Mordashov, the richest man in Russia (excluding, according to Forbes, Putin). The 65-metre (215-ft) “Lady M” was impounded in the northern Italian port of Imperia. A second yacht owned by Gennady Timchenko, another billionaire who has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, is also blocked in Imperia and will be sequestered shortly.
Much is still unknown about how #YachtWatch will end. If a vessel is seized, for instance, what then? How the EU deals with its first catches may set the standard. Until that plays out, the sanctioned oligarchs’ superyachts will either stay where they are, or, before being impounded by the authorities, escape to the open seas. But they’ll need fuel and maintenance before long, in ports that can support them, and every vessel sails under a flag (often from a tax haven, such as the Cayman Islands or Bermuda), under whose laws it must comply. Laws can change.
One notable megayacht, whose owner is definitely under scrutiny, is Graceful. It is allegedly owned by Putin himself - quite remarkable you may think for a man on the meagre state salary of $12,000 per month. However, courtesy of Putin's obvious advance knowledge of what was about to unfold in Ukraine, it's one of the few vessels of its kind to have high-tailed straight to the safest place for a paranoid Russian at the moment: Russia. Currently, it’s snug in Kaliningrad, its westernmost port. Damn!
Today's OGN Sunday Magazine articles
Stonehenge: To understand the world when it was built 4,500 years ago, the British Museum has hundreds of artifacts to showcase the full panoply of Bronze Age Europe in a new exhibition. OGN picks the best.