Image by Annette Fischer

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, more than 1,400 Russians have been sanctioned in the European Union and around 1,600 in the United Kingdom. They include oligarchs, politicians, military officers and influencers with close ties to the Kremlin’s war machine — or to Russian President Vladimir Putin himself.

These individuals face “freezing orders”, which aim to prevent the use or transfer of any asset known to belong to a sanctioned individual. Altogether, wealth worth €21.5 billion has been frozen in the EU since Russian tanks rolled over the Ukraine border last year. In the UK, the figure is also close to €21 billion.

But how effectively are those sanctions being enforced?

This investigation, led by the Civil Forum for Asset Recovery (CiFAR) in partnership with Mediapart, infoLibre, The Times and Domani, seeks to answer that question. The project was supported by the European Investigative Collaborations media network and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and received funding from IJ4EU.

Lack of transparency

A lack of transparency on European frozen assets doesn’t help the task. There is no searchable online database or any centralised source to gain a comprehensive overview through information requests.

Journalists and civil society actors instead have to rely on piecemeal information from national treasury departments or transnational “task forces” in charge of implementing the freezing orders. But when it comes to tracking assets ranging from bank accounts to luxury real estate and yachts, the level of detail shared varies from country to country.

While France provides a partial list of frozen companies and real estate addresses, the UK doesn’t make such information available due to GDPR legislation, according to information shared by the UK Treasury to The Times.

Billions in Spain and Italy

Despite the absence of publicly available documents, infoLibre and Domani were able to obtain exclusive data for Spain and Italy, respectively, through confidential government sources.

In Spain, infoLibre revealed that more than €1 billion in Russian assets had been frozen so far.

It obtained a detailed list of the targeted assets, such as five confiscated yachts worth €855 million. These vessels include the 47-metre Lady Anastasia, owned by Alexander Mikheev, CEO of the state arms export agency Rosoboronexport, and the 85-metre Valerie, owned by Sergei Chemezov, head of Rostec, the main Russian military industry consortium. 

Meanwhile, Spanish authorities have confiscated 54 properties ranging from grand villas in some of the most luxurious spots on the Mediterranean coast to rustic plots and parking spaces, altogether worth more than €66.1 million euros.

Domani has taken a detailed snapshot of €2 billion of Russian assets subject to individual sanctions in Italy. These include properties belonging to Boris Rotenberg, one of Putin’s childhood friends, and a luxury holiday resort in Sardinia owned by Musa Bazhaev, ranked 139th among the top 200 richest Russian individuals in 2020, according to Forbes magazine. 

Family ties in France

Mediapart’s review of Russian assets in France shows that several oligarchs have kept control over real estate by putting it in the name of family members not on the sanctions list.

Indeed, the recent unlisting of certain relatives of sanctioned individuals by the European Court of Justice — including the mother of Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin — has sent a contradictory message.

Group of Seven wealthy nations and EU member states work together on the Russian Elites, Proxies, and Oligarchs Task Force, better known as REPO. In May 2023, they released a joint statement detailing different ways to evade sanctions.

The document cites “the use of family members and close associates to ensure continued access and control” and calls on REPO members to “impose sanctions on the family members and close associates” whenever suspicion of evasion arises. 

Despite attempts since then to harmonise the way countries tackle sanctions evasion, none of the nations in the crosshairs of this investigation has taken steps to allow civil society and media scrutiny of the actual state of frozen assets in Western countries. 

For the European Union, the lack of transparency poses a problem of accountability when it comes to verifying the accuracy of figures given by member states, the investigation reveals. 

“Our joint investigation has shown that European governments, despite their commitment to ending the war, have undermined the effectiveness of their own sanction regimes,” Jackson Oldfield, policy director at CiFAR, said. “What is shocking, if unexpected, are that these weaknesses are ones that civil society has raised for years with respect to other sanction regimes.”

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