How Russian oligarchs are sailing their yachts from Europe to Turkey to avoid sanctions

Online investigators have been using open source data to track the location of yachts belonging to Russian oligarchs who are currently under sanction by the European Union and the United States. This is a photo taken by Yörük Işık of the yacht My Solaris in Bodrum, Turkey.
Online investigators have been using open source data to track the location of yachts belonging to Russian oligarchs who are currently under sanction by the European Union and the United States. This is a photo taken by Yörük Işık of the yacht My Solaris in Bodrum, Turkey. © Yörük Işık

When a number of uber-wealthy Russian businessmen and politicians were slapped with sanctions by the European Union and the United States after the invasion of Ukraine, many of them did what they could to spirit away the assets. In some cases, those assets included yachts, some the size of whales. In recent weeks, online investigators have been using public source data to track their locations. They say that a number of yachts managed to leave European waters, bound for Turkey or Russia. 

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Yalikavak Bay, in Turkey, April 24: Dutch tourists posed and took a selfie in front of a superyacht called My Solaris. The boat, which, at 140 metres long dwarfs its environs, belongs to Roman Abramovich, a Russian oligarch and former owner of the Chelsea football club who has been under European sanctions since March 15. 

These photos showing the yacht My Solaris were published on Twitter on April 24, 2022.

When yachts move around, they use AIS (Automatic Identification System) transponders to signal their GPS location, as well as to help to avoid collisions.

Websites like MarineTraffic or VesselFinder publish the AIS details of ships moving around the world. If you look at one of these sites, you can see that My Solaris left Barcelona on March 8. The yacht then popped up in Yalikavak Bay on April 23, where it was still located on May 5, according to MarineTraffic.

This screengrab of the ship tracking website MarineTraffic taken on May 5 shows that the My Solaris yacht is located in Yalikavak Port in Turkey.
This screengrab of the ship tracking website MarineTraffic taken on May 5 shows that the My Solaris yacht is located in Yalikavak Port in Turkey. © MarineTraffic

'I thought that keeping an eye on the oligarchs and their movements might bring some useful information'

Twitter user @PutinIsAVirus uses online tools to track the locations of dozens of yachts belonging to Russian oligarchs. A software developer by trade, he documents the movements of these yachts on an interactive map. The user, who wanted to remain anonymous for professional reasons, explained his process to the FRANCE 24 Observers team: 

In 2016, I started to become active in open source intelligence investigations. It started as a hobby, and still is. When the Ukraine crisis started, I tried to increase the scale of my work to attempt to help and do something because it was hard to sit still and do nothing. I thought that keeping an eye on the oligarchs and their movements, especially sanctioned ones, might bring some useful information.

First, it took a while for them to react. This was good, because it allowed many of them to be seized in European ports. It's not easy to quickly find a crew for a boat which was not scheduled to leave. These oligarchs also had their European bank accounts frozen, and their Russian accounts were not usable. So for a boat that takes 200,000 dollars in gasoline, it might be a bit of a problem to get access to this amount of money if you don't have access to your bank account and your credit card doesn't work. 

We can see some hubs where sanctioned vessels were able to run to: this is essentially the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.

Yörük Işık took these photos of yachts suspected of belonging to Russian oligarchs docked in ports in Turkey.

Several yachts owned by oligarchs haven’t been emitting an AIS signal for a few weeks, making it impossible to find their location on MarineTraffic or VesselFinder. In theory, you have to turn on your transponder when you navigate but it’s pretty common for owners to ignore this rule to hide their whereabouts. However, very often they can be found from satellite images and amateur images. 

Some yachts go through Turkey to get to Russia 

From his base in Turkey, Yörük Işık watches out for the vessels crossing the Bosphorus Strait, which links the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. An analyst who specialises in tracking ships and the founder of the Bosphorus Observer, he managed to take photos of several yachts thought to be owned by Russian oligarchs over the past few weeks. 

I am in a great ship-spotting location, so I just catch them. So far, I saw approximately ten of them. 

Most of them come to Turkey because Turkey has very advanced maritime services, because these yachts have to constantly be maintained. I think they are all running to Sochi. After some time in Turkey, so far the pattern is that they are crossing the Bosphorus and going to Sochi [Editor's note: On the Russian coast of the Black Sea]. There are still several of them in Turkey, in ports where they can get maritime services, a few of them are also in the coastal towns.

Yörük Işık took this picture of a yacht called Universe in Ataköy Port in Istanbul on March 28, 2022. The vessel, which is thought to belong to former Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, left Imperia Port in Italy on March 2. On April 22, it was photographed by an amateur ship watcher in Sochi, Russia.

These photos were published on Twitter by Yörük Işık on March 28, 2022.
This screen grab by the website Marine Traffic shows the Universe yacht in Sochi, Russia on April 23.
This screen grab by the website Marine Traffic shows the Universe yacht in Sochi, Russia on April 23. © MarineTraffic

While European and Turkish ports are equipped with the infrastructure and services needed for yachts, that is less common in Russian ports, says the person who runs the account @PutinIsAVirus:

Russia and the Black Sea are not equipped for so many and such big vessels. They have some nice touristic harbours in the Black Sea, but they might host only one or two of these yachts. Abramovich's vessels are over 150 metres long – few ports are equipped for something like that. These vessels were never intended to go back to Russia – they were meant to stay in the Mediterranean, in the Caribbean or the Indian Ocean.

Owners hidden behind shell companies 

Alex Finley, a former CIA officer and novelist, keeps her eye on yachts belonging to Russian oligarchs from her home in Barcelona. She says that one of the hardest parts is figuring out, for certain, who owns each yacht:

You can say that we suspect this person is the ultimate beneficial owner, but now the authorities have to prove it. That means pulling back all the different shell companies to figure out really in the end who the owner is. And that's very difficult because the ownership structure is set up to provide precisely that kind of privacy. 

On May 5, a yacht belonging to a Russian oligarch under sanctions was seized in Fiji at the request of the United States. The boat in question was the Amadea, which is estimated to be worth 300 million dollars and is thought to belong to oligarch Suleiman Kerimov.

“This yacht seizure should tell every corrupt Russian oligarch that they cannot hide, not even in the remotest part of the world. We will use every means of enforcing the sanctions imposed in response to Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified war in Ukraine,” wrote US Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco in a statement

European sanctions have, in effect, frozen the assets of around a hundred people who are thought to support the Russian government or benefit from it in some way. Several yachts have already been seized in France, Spain and Italy. Some countries, however, are now saddled with the cost of maintaining these yachts, which can reach 150 to 200,000 euros per month.