Italian authorities are looking for clues to a superyacht linked to Putin

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Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last month, Italian investigators and onlookers have had their eyes on a particularly notable superyacht moored in the bustling Tuscan resort of Marina di Carrara.

Scheherazade dwarfs all other ships moored at one of luxury yachting’s top workshops, the Italian Sea Group shipyard. The 140-meter vessel has six deck levels, two helipads, a swimming pool and – some speculate – possibly even an anti-drone defense system. Russian opposition groups claim it belongs to their country’s president, Vladimir Putin.

Italian authorities – who are set to apply EU sanctions imposed on Russia’s political and business elite following the invasion – confirm an investigation is underway but say they are missing until present conclusive proof of the identity of the owner.

“We’re talking about the city – it’s sensational,” said retired boat welder Walter Ciancianoni, 67, who worked for decades on luxury yachts, including that of ex-wife Ivana Trump of former US President Donald Trump. “Everyone who passes stops to look at it…everyone wonders what’s inside: maybe golden handles, or extra-luxurious rooms. Who knows what’s going to happen? pass: will it be confiscated or will it remain in circulation?

Italy’s financial police, the Guardia di Finanza, have actively enforced EU sanctions against prominent Russian oligarchs allied with Putin. Italy is a privileged playground for many multi-billionaires.

Assets frozen so far include luxury superyachts and sprawling beach properties. Some of Russia’s richest men, including Alexei Mordashov, the majority shareholder of steelmaker Severstal; Gennady Timchenko, a longtime friend of Putin, founder of the Volga Group investment vehicle; Petr Aven, partner of the financial and investment group Alfa; and financier Alisher Usmanov – had property seized.

Addressing the Italian parliament, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky named Scheherazade as he urged Italians to step up seizures of Russian assets © Roberto Monaldo/Pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Italian authorities believe they have so far frozen the assets of the oligarchs worth around 800 million euros. But the Scheherazade – one of the largest superyachts in the world, worth around $700 million – would eclipse any property still seized in Italy if it were to be confiscated.

Associates of imprisoned Russian anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny are publicly promoting the case that the mysterious superyacht is likely Putin’s. In a video this week, activists from Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation claimed that most of Scheherazade’s crew were Russians and that several were employed by the country’s Federal Protection Service, which is responsible for the Putin’s security.

The Italian Sea Group, which has maintained and repaired the boat since its arrival last September, has sought to quell speculation that it is owned by the Russian leader.

In a statement issued on March 10, the company, which is listed on the Euronext Milan index, said that “based on the documentation in our possession and following the checks carried out by the competent authorities, the property of Shéhérazade, which is currently at the shipyard for maintenance activities, is not attributable to Russian President Vladimir Putin”.

According to documents seen by the Financial Times, the yacht is in principle owned by Beilor Asset Limited, an entity based in the Marshall Islands. However, a Guardia di Finanza official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the FT it was difficult to establish Beilor’s true beneficiary.

“It is unclear whether the property belongs to Putin or any other Russian oligarch due to the complex corporate structure these individuals have put in place to protect their assets,” the official said.

However, the official said investigators had been in contact with Navalny’s team and confirmed that some crew members on the ship’s registry were Russian security guards.

“The Russian crew members lead us to believe that the legal owner or beneficiary is indeed a Russian billionaire,” the official said.

Addressing the Italian parliament this week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky named Scheherazade as he urged Italians to step up seizures of Russian assets. “Don’t be a resort for murderers,” he told them.

In recent weeks, several superyachts owned or associated with high-profile Russian oligarchs have left various European ports for safer waters to evade EU sanctions. Some fled to the Maldives, while tycoon Roman Abramovich sent his ships to Turkey.

The Graceful, an 81-meter luxury yacht frequently used by Putin and believed to belong to him, left Germany for the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad two weeks before the start of the Ukrainian conflict.

Russian oligarchs appear to have been happier with luxury yachts moored in Italy, where they have long had deep relationships with the business elite and where some members of the country’s national unity government – from the right-wing League and the Five Star Anti-Establishment Movement – have already expressed their shameless admiration for Putin.

“The Russians hoped – were convinced – that we were the weak link in the EU on issues of sanctions enforcement and asset freezing,” said Italian journalist Jacopo Iacoboni, author of the book. Oligarchs: how Putin’s friends are buying Italy.

But the oligarchs had been wrong, he said: Mario Draghi, the Italian prime minister, was deeply committed to the EU and its ideals and had been among the “toughest” on oligarch assets.

On Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the FT that Putin had “absolutely nothing to do” with the Graceful or Scheherazade. “None of that is true,” he said.

Amid the intense spotlight on the Scheherazade this week, the Russian crew has been replaced by British sailors, shipyard workers said.

Paolo Gozzani, an Italian union leader representing shipyard staff, expressed frustration with the lack of transparency and the uncertainty it poses for jobs. “It makes me very angry that the workers don’t really know who they’re working for – you feel like everything could change from one day to the next,” he said.

Gazing at the Scheherezade through a fence one recent afternoon, Cecilia Cazzato, a 51-year-old housewife, expressed her revulsion at the yacht and all it symbolized.

“What an ugly situation,” she said. “Even though the war is far away, we feel the pain of all those people who had to flee their homes, whose lives were destroyed. Quite a contrast to this super luxury yacht.

Additional reporting by Max Seddon in Riga

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