WASHINGTON — U.S. officials are examining the ownership of a $700 million superyacht currently in dry dock in an Italian coastal city and believe it may be associated with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, according to multiple people briefed on the information. .
US intelligence agencies have not drawn any definitive conclusions about the ownership of the superyacht – called Scheherazade – but US officials said they found initial indications that it was linked to Mr Putin. The information from US officials came after the New York Times reported on Tuesday that Italian authorities were investigating the ownership of the 459-foot-long vessel and a former crew member said he was at the use of Mr Putin.
Those briefed on the intelligence would not describe the information they had that indicated the superyacht is associated with Mr Putin. If US officials knew if or how often Mr. Putin uses the yacht, those briefed on the information would not share it.
US officials have said Mr Putin keeps a small part of his fortune in his own name. Instead, he uses homes and boats nominally owned by Russian oligarchs. Yet it is possible that through various front companies, Mr. Putin may have more direct control over Scheherazade.
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Mr Putin has also spent a lot of time in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, US officials have said. The Scheherazade made trips to Sochi in the summers of 2020 and 2021.
The Treasury Department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis and the Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence are investigating ownership of superyachts associated with Russian oligarchs. A Navy spokeswoman and a Treasury spokeswoman both declined to comment.
The Ministry of Justice has set up a task force to search for the assets of the sanctioned Russian oligarchs. In a chat with reporters on Friday, a Justice Department official said the task force would investigate people who help sanctioned Russian officials or oligarchs hide their assets. These individuals could face charges related to sanctions violations or international money laundering charges.
In addition, under recently released Commerce Department rule changes, if more than 25% of an airplane or yacht is made of U.S.-made aircraft or marine parts, it cannot go to Russia.
If a yacht is in a foreign country and meets the definition of US-origin or US-made, it would need a license to travel to Russia. To actually seize a yacht, the United States would have to coordinate with a cooperative foreign government – Italy, in the case of Scheherazade – to prevent the ship from moving into Russian waters.
Some superyachts left European waters at the start of the invasion of Ukraine and the West began to impose sanctions allowing the seizure of assets. The Scheherazade is being repaired in Marina di Carrara, a port in Tuscany, and at the start of this week was in dry dock, unable to start.
Guy Bennett-Pearce, the captain of the Scheherazade, said earlier this week that Mr Putin did not own the superyacht and that the Russian president had not set foot on it.
He declined to name the owner, saying only Monday that no one faced penalties. Captain Bennett-Pearce did not answer his phone on Friday or respond to a text message.
Last week, Italian authorities boarded the Scheherazade and reviewed certification documents, seeking to learn more about the vessel’s ownership. Captain Bennett-Pearce said earlier this week he would provide Italian police with documents disclosing the owner of the yacht.
Italian authorities have said they are examining the Scheherazade in depth. In a process that can take up to a few weeks, the Italian financial police will gather evidence and present it to a government committee, which will then decide whether the ownership or use of the ship is linked to a person listed on the list of sanctions.
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This link could be outright ownership of a significant part of the vessel, or evidence that a friend, subordinate or associate lent their name to conceal the sanctioned person’s ownership, or that the funds used to purchase the ship came from illegal profits. If the committee finds that the evidence meets the threshold, the financial police can seize Scheherazade.
The Italian Sea Group, owner of the shipyard where the Scheherazade is in drydock, said in a statement on Thursday that based on the documents in its possession and the “verifications carried out by the competent authorities”, the Scheherazade “is not not attributable to the ownership of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
US officials have stepped up their scrutiny of Russian oligarchs’ superyachts, especially as the US and Europe have imposed more sanctions on wealthy families who support Mr Putin.
The German-built Scheherazade has been in service since June 2020. The SuperYachtFan website estimated that it cost $700 million. The ship has a full-size gym, two helicopter decks, and gold-plated facilities in the restrooms.
As US intelligence officials mulled over Scheherazade, scrutiny intensified after the previous Times article appeared.
The Scheherazade appears to have a sister ship, the Crescent, built by the same German builder and commissioned in 2018. The project name of the Crescent when under construction was “Thunder”. Scheherazade’s was “Lightning.”
Like the Scheherazade, there is no public information identifying the owner of the vessel, other than an offshore shell company. The Crescent last broadcast its location on November 2, when it appeared to be approaching Barcelona, Spain. Satellite images show that on March 4 it was moored at a nearby superyacht marina. Both vessels are registered in the Cayman Islands and share the same designer.
Katie Benner has contributed reporting from Washington, Christoph Koettl of New York, and Gaia Pianigiani from Siena, Italy.