Exclusive: Spain, France have owners pay for yachts frozen under Russia sanctions

  • Some owners are paying for maintenance of frozen yachts
  • Law allows France, Spain to authorise payments despite sanctions
  • West made targeting luxury assets of Putin's allies a key aim

BARCELONA/PARIS, Oct 20 (Reuters) - Spain and France have authorized the owners of superyachts frozen under sanctions against Russian businessmen to pay for their upkeep, three sources told Reuters.

In Spain, six vessels were frozen following sanctions imposed after Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February. The "majority" of the owners are paying their maintenance, crew, docking and insurance fees, a source with knowledge of the matter said.

Individuals are normally restricted from making financial transactions in jurisdictions where they are sanctioned but the Spanish and French governments are authorising the payments under EU and national legislation, according to three sources.

Spain's Finance Ministry told Reuters that a 2014 law - adopted after Russia's annexation of Crimea that year - allows sanctioned individuals to make essential payments for the upkeep of assets. The ministry did not confirm whether payments have been authorized.

The payments come after pledges from some Western governments to make targeting the luxury assets of allies of Russia's President Vladimir Putin central to their efforts to punish Moscow.

In March, Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez vowed, when announcing the freezing of one yacht in Spain, to hit Putin's allies "decisively" and "hard".

So far, only one immobilised yacht has been sold: the Axioma was auctioned in Gibraltar in August at the behest of a bank owed money, JP Morgan, rather than a government. read more read more

Proposals by the United States and European Union to sell seized Russian assets and give the proceeds to Ukraine have stalled. read more read more

In France and Spain, the decision to freeze rather than seize luxury assets thought to be owned by sanctioned Russians means that their running costs remain the owner's responsibility, according to Spain's Finance Ministry, a French maritime lawyer and two representatives of frozen vessels in France.

James Jaffa, a lawyer for British firm Jaffa & Co specialized in yachts, including for Russian clients, said that the maintenance costs of such yachts was often "pocket change" for their owners, while the non-payment of fees could allow creditors like shipyards to request that courts authorize the seizure and sale of a yacht to liquidate debts.

"Sanctions do not seem to have the crippling effect that was intended," Jaffa said.

Port management company Ocibar said that the owners of two yachts frozen under the sanctions in Spain and moored at its facilities in Tarragona and Mallorca - the Crescent and the Lady Anastasia - were making payments, including for docking and utilities' fees and a skeleton crew.

Ocibar said it was following procedures established by authorities and declined to confirm the owners' identity or the costs involved.

Spanish authorities believe the Crescent is controlled by Eduard Khudainatov, a sanctioned former chief of Russian energy giant Rosneft, a government source told Reuters. Khudainatov, contacted via his company Independent Oil and Gas, did not respond to requests for comment.

The Lady Anastasia is registered by the public shipping database Equasis as owned by a company named Homeland Shipping Limited. Spanish authorities believe that firm is controlled by Alexander Mikheev, the sanctioned head of weaponry group Rosoboronexport, said a source with knowledge of the matter.

Mikheev, contacted through Rosoboronexport, did not respond to requests for comment. Homeland, contacted via a lawyer representing it, as well as the vessel's registered manager also did not respond to Reuters' questions.

In France, five yachts have been frozen. Alexey Kuzmichev, the sanctioned shareholder of Russia's Alfa Bank, has been paying for his two frozen vessels in Cannes and Antibes under a 2014 European Union law that allows payments for the maintenance of frozen property, his lawyer Philippe Blanchetier told Reuters.

Kuzmichev declined to comment, he added. A court in early October ordered the release of the yacht in Antibes due to procedural errors during its seizure. A decision on the second yacht is pending. read more

France's Finance Ministry confirmed that EU rules allow payments but declined to say whether requests had been authorised.

Reporting by Joan Faus in Barcelona and Layli Foroudi in Paris, additional reporting by Aislinn Laing, Jesús Aguado, Belén Carreño, Javier Alvarez, Jonathan Saul and Emilio Parodi, Writing by Joan Faus, Editing by Aislinn Laing and Daniel Flynn

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