On February 24, as Russian troops arrived in Ukraine on Day 1 of the invasion, an employee of a yacht management company sent an email to the captain of the Amadea, a $325 million superyacht:
The family of a Russian oligarch under sanctions had spent much of January and February sailing from island to island in the Caribbean and had some questions and concerns.
When would be a good time to visit New Zealand? bali?
Could the yacht get a special boat to pull the water skiers?
And would the Amadea staff please stop folding the napkins into triangles?
“Guests don’t like it,” wrote the employee, Victoria Pastukhova, a “client coordinator” of the Imperial Yachts company.
Nostra, Villa Altachiara, owned by Eduard Khudainatov, undergoing restoration that was halted when Russia invaded Ukraine in Portofino, Italy. Italia Nostra via The New York Times.
At Imperial Yachts, no detail is too small to ignore.
Headquartered in Monaco, with a staff of about 100 people, plus between 1,200 and 1,500 crew members aboard yachts, the company caters to oligarchs whose fortunes depend on the decisions of the president Vladimir Putin.
Imperial Yachts and its Moscow-born founder, Evgeniy Kochman, have prospered by fulfilling their clients’ wishes to own huge luxury ships.
For a Russian with hundreds of millions of dollars to spend, Kochman’s company takes care of everything:
He supervises the construction, hires the crew, manages the day-to-day operation of the ship, and can rent or sell it, if necessary.
Another company also run by Kochman, BLD Management, performs a similar service for villas.
Imperial’s rise has elevated the fortunes of a variety of companies across Europe, including German shipbuilders, Italian carpenters, French interior design firms and Spanish marinas, which collectively employ thousands of people.
Imperial Yachts is at the center of what is essentially an oligarchic industrial complex, overseeing the flow of billions of dollars from politically connected Russians to a network of European companies, according to interviews, court documents and intelligence reports.
Imperial Yachts and BLD are now under the scrutiny of a US government task force, called KleptoCapturewhich is trying to disrupt the Russian war machine by going after the assets of Putin-linked oligarchs.
After some high-profile raids and seizures, Americans are turning their focus to facilitators network who work outside of Russia.
Investigators from the FBI, Treasury and various intelligence agencies are gathering evidence showing that companies and individuals knowingly helped Russians under sanctions whose wealth stemmed from corruption, making them vulnerable to US charges.
Andrew Adams, a federal prosecutor who leads the task force, said in an interview that “targeting people who make a living providing a means of money laundering it is a key priority.”
Documents obtained from the Amadea by US officials show the role that Imperial Yachts plays in managing the myriad maritime claims of incredibly wealthy Russians.
The Amadea is now in Fiji, where US officials are waging a court battle to take possession of the yacht.
Adams said that Russian superyachts that do not find a buyer can be sold to scrap dealers for their expensive accessories:
gold plated bathroom fixtures, marble, rare wood inlaid floors.
In the search for the enablers, US and European investigators have come up against a deliberately confusing ownership structure involving chains of shell companies stretching from the Marshall Islands to Switzerland.
Along with the Amadea, Imperial Yachts oversaw the construction of the Scheherazadea $700 million superyacht that US officials say is linked to Putin, and the Crescentwhich Spanish police believe is owned by Igor Sechin, chairman of state oil giant Rosneft.
A secret US intelligence assessment concluded that the money to build the ships came from a group of investors headed by Gennady Timchenko, Putin’s henchman and one of the richest men in Russia, who, like Sechin, has been under US sanctions since 2014.
Timchenko and his associates designed the Scheherazade, seized in early May by Italian police, as a gift for Putin’s use, according to the assessment. Together, the three ships may have cost up to $1.6 billionenough to buy six new frigates for the Russian navy.
Simon Clark, a lawyer for Imperial Yachts, said the company “is not aware of any connection between our business and Mr. Timchenko.
However, we are in the yacht building business; We are not involved in the financial affairs of our clients.”
Clark added that the company “has never done business or provided services to any party subject to international sanctions.”
But US officials do not believe such explanations.
Elizabeth Rosenberg, assistant secretary for terrorist financing and financial crimes at the Treasury Department, said it was responsibility of people in the yacht service industry for avoid doing business with people under sanctions.
“And if you do,” he said, “you will be subject to sanctions yourself.”
Kochman, 41, got into the yachting business in Russia in 2001, a year after Putin came to power, selling Italian-made yachts.
Russia had been through a decade of turmoil after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and many of today’s oligarchs had yet to amass their billions.
But Kochman, then only 20, had plenty of millionaires to court.
When some well-connected Russians joined the ranks of the world’s richest people and began buying up villas on the French and Italian Rivieras, Kochman moved to Monaco.
Instead of merely selling yachts, often built on a production line, Kochman and his sister, Julia Stewart, now 46, entered the world of superyachts, custom made boats of about 30 meters or more.
“We grow with our clients as parents with babies,” he said in 2016 in a rare interview.
Rich Russians and Persian Gulf royalty now dominate the ranks of owners of the world’s most extravagant superyachts, which can cost up to 75 million dollars a year.
Since 2010, 17 superyachts of 121 meters or more have been delivered; all are owned by Russians or members of the Gulf monarchies.
Around 2014, Imperial Yachts landed its largest project to date, a 106+ meter superyacht to be built by Lürssen, a German shipyard:
it would become the Amadea.
Its Russian owner spared no expense, with hand-painted clouds at the michelangelo style on the dining table, a lobster tank, a fire pit and, on the bow, a stainless steel art deco albatross figurehead from five tons.
Nick Flashman, a former yachtsman who had joined Imperial, oversaw the project.
Zuretti, a French firm, did the interior design.
Sébastien Gey, director of Zuretti, said in an interview that the yacht’s owner, whom he declined to name due to confidentiality agreements, was deeply involved in its design and construction, and carried out frequent visits while the ship was being built and outfitted.
It was delivered in 2017.
But even before it was finished, the owner had Lürssen build another bigger superyachtthe Crescent, delivered in 2018, followed by the even larger 140-meter Scheherazade, which entered service in 2020.
Most of the planning and details for those two ships were left to Kochman, Gey recalled.
Flashman said that was not unusual.
“The client may be fully immersed in the project, they may not be,” he said in a phone interview.
“I channel everything through Mr. Kochman.”
The owner of all three ships, at least on paper, was Eduard Khudainatov, a former pig farmer who is a protégé of Sechin, according to interviews with two people with direct knowledge of his role.
Documents filed in a Fijian court show that Khudainatov owns two of them.
It was chairman of Rosneft when Sechin served as deputy prime minister.
After leaving that role in 2013, he began buying oil companies.
In 2020, Proekt, an independent Russian media outlet, citing an unnamed acquaintance, described him as a pleasant and accommodating lieutenant:
“Khudainatov knew how to give the impression of a fool, so he managed to please many bosses and make a career for himself. ”
Khudainatov, 61, had another attractive quality: Unlike Sechin or Timchenko, he was not under any sanction.
But according to US investigators, Imperial Yachts brokered the sale of the Amadea late last year to Suleiman Kerimov, a Russian government official and billionaire investor who has been on the US sanctions list since 2018.
I was among a group of seven oligarchs that the American officials said “benefit from the Putin regime and play a key role in advancing Russia’s malign activities.”
Proving that he was the new owner was key in what so far appears to be a successful effort by US officials to persuade a Fijian court that Amadea could be seized.
The ship may leave this week.
But in arguing their case, US investigators lacked official documents showing Kerimov was the owner. Feizal Haniff, a lawyer in Fiji, disputed the US claims, saying Khudainatov still owns Amadea and controls it through an offshore company.
Clark, the attorney for Imperial Yachts, said the company “would never knowingly create structures to conceal or conceal ownership, nor would it knowingly negotiate deals with sanctioned individuals.”
Khudainatov, Timchenko and Kerimov they did not respond emails or phone calls seeking comment.
One thing is clear, according to the US task force:
Kerimov’s family members were aboard the Amadea earlier this year, according to investigators’ interviews with crew members, reviews of emails between the ship and Imperial, and other superyacht documents. including copies of passports.
On January 21, Gey, the French designer, received an email from the captain of the Amadea. G2:
the Imperial code name for Firuza Kerimova, Kerimov’s wife, according to the FBI agent’s affidavit:
I was unhappy with him design of electrical outlets in the guest bathrooms.
They were in the closets, bothering the family on their Caribbean tour.
Pastukhova, the imperial client coordinator, had informed the captain about the request.
Gey booked a flight and a hotel in St. Barts.
A few days later, Imperial Yachts signed another application.
“Mr. Kochman has granted permission to sail to Antigua,” Pastukhova wrote to Kerimova.
Kochman’s approval was also needed for a new onboard pizza oven.
“He wants to keep an eye on everything, everything, everything,” Gey said.
Ivan Nechepurenko contributed to this report.
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