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Here’s how the U.S. could nab Russian oligarchs’ superyachts at sea—and why it probably won’t

April 12, 2022, 8:00 AM UTC

On March 12, the superyacht Eclipse set off a frenzy on Twitter. The 533-foot boat was approaching the Strait of Gibraltar, heading from the Atlantic Ocean into the Mediterranean.

Normally, a superyacht transiting the Gibraltar would be a nonevent. But the Eclipse is one of several yachts owned by Roman Abramovich, the Russian billionaire who has been sanctioned by the European Union and U.K. for his close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Eclipse was broadcasting its position, as large vessels are required to do, allowing people around the world to track its progress.

“This is it UK. Roman Abramovich’s Eclipse is going through the Strait of Gibraltar. Right now. Last chance. #YachtWatch,” tweeted Alex Finley, a former CIA officer who now writes spy novels and who has emerged as a leading amateur sleuth in tracking oligarchs’ superyachts.

Finley was among those calling on either the U.K. or Spain, who control the waters around Gibraltar, to seize the yacht in transit. A few people tweeted back that doing so would violate international law and could be considered piracy.

The fate of Russian oligarchs’ superyachts has become an important subtheme in coverage of the invasion of Ukraine. Many of these oligarchs have, like Abramovich, been sanctioned for their close relationships with Putin, and some are even thought to have helped Putin hide his personal wealth, possibly by buying and holding expensive assets—including yachts—on his behalf. In many cases, those sanctions explicitly authorize the freezing or confiscation of assets. Nabbing the oligarchs’ superyachts has become a symbolic gauge of how well those sanctions are working, and both the U.S. and U.K. governments have said explicitly that they are coming for those boats. A number of amateurs, like Finley, have launched efforts to track the location of these yachts around the globe, posting their reported positions and details of their ownership online.

But Twitter replies to Finley, maritime law experts say, are mostly correct. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) prohibits countries from interfering with ships on the high seas (defined as international waters farther than 200 nautical miles from shore, where no government has jurisdiction over any activity). It also bars countries from preventing ships from accessing vital passages that lie within their territorial waters (those waters that are within 12 nautical miles of the shore), as is the case with the Strait of Gibraltar. The U.K. and Spain have both signed and ratified UNCLOS.

The U.S., however, might have more leeway to stop and seize oligarchs’ vessels or Russian export cargoes than other allied countries, experts in maritime law say. That’s because it has never ratified UNCLOS and so is not bound by its provisions. But, these same experts caution, U.S. courts have usually viewed the provisions of UNCLOS that deal with freedom of navigation as part of American “customary law.” So a federal judge might rule against any government seizure of ships in international waters.  

If the U.S. or other NATO countries want to get more aggressive about impounding Russian billionaires’ yachts or blocking Russian cargoes, there may creative ways to do so without transgressing international law, legal scholars say. Still, these experts warn, a more aggressive approach is not without significant legal and political risks.

Constrained by the law of the sea

Under the international law of the sea, only the country under whose flag a ship is registered has the right to stop and search that vessel in international waters, unless that ship is suspected of being engaged in piracy, the slave trade, or illegal broadcasting. Ships also have an absolute right to transit certain key straits and passages that lie within a state’s territorial waters in peacetime—and since none of the countries looking to seize the oligarchs’ yachts is a direct party to the conflict in Ukraine, this rule would apply.

The U.S. signed and ratified the 1958 version of UNCLOS and also signed the updated 1982 version—but, crucially, the U.S. Senate never ratified the 1982 convention. So it is not U.S. statutory law. That means that, in theory, the U.S. could simply seize and impound ships in international waters, says Brian Zupruk, an international governance expert researching maritime seizures at George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C. And, in fact, U.S. courts have allowed the U.S. to seize vessels outside U.S. territorial waters when they were suspected of breaking or intending to violate U.S. law.

But these cases involved boats suspected of drug running. Most of the seizures have taken place in the territorial waters of Caribbean states, many of which have so-called shiprider agreements with the U.S., allowing the U.S. to conduct drug interdiction within their maritime borders. When seizing a suspected drug trafficking ship in international waters, one could argue that the seizure is in keeping with a provision of UNCLOS that says “all states shall cooperate in the suppression of illicit traffic in narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances engaged in by ships on the high seas contrary to international conventions.”

There have also been cases where the U.S. has asked other nations to seize vessels in their own territorial waters that Washington suspected of being used to violate United Nations sanctions. This includes a number of vessels believed to be linked to North Korea that the rogue state was using to export and import vital commodities. A tanker dubbed the Wise Honest was seized by the Indonesian government at the behest of the U.S. in 2018, for example, because Washington suspected it was being used to violate sanctions against North Korea. The next year, the oil tanker Grace 1 was seized by British Royal Marines while transiting Gibraltar. Here the rationale was that the tanker was carrying oil to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions. In 2020, the U.S. seized the cargo from four Liberian-flagged oil tankers that it believed were transporting oil on behalf of Iran to Venezuela, in violation of U.S. sanctions on Iran.

But the current sanctions against Russia are trickier, legal experts say, because they were not enacted by the UN. The restrictions are instead a patchwork enacted by individual countries—with different capitals having imposed restrictions of varying severity. A number of countries have declined either to impose any sanctions of their own or go along with those the U.S. and its allies have created. For instance, while the U.S. has imposed sanctions on a number of Russian oligarchs close to Putin, it has so far not sanctioned Abramovich—reportedly at the behest of the Ukrainian government, which sees the Israeli-Russian businessman as an important potential mediator in peace talks between Moscow and Kyiv.

Photo of Roman Abromavich's superyacht Eclipse docked in Turkey.
The Eclipse, one of a fleet of superyachts owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, photographed while docked in Turkey in late March. Turkey, despite being a NATO member, is currently not enforcing sanctions against Russia’s oligarchs, making its ports a popular destination for the superyachts of oligarchs who have been fleeing seizures elsewhere.
Sabri Kesen—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

This state of affairs makes it more difficult for the U.S. to secure the cooperation of other countries to help seize either oligarchs’ yachts or Russian export cargoes, especially if doing so involves stopping vessels already at sea. Vessels transiting through territorial waters enjoy what is known as a “right of innocent passage.” A government can only interdict them if their activities are “prejudicial to the peace, good order, or security of the coastal State.”

It is possible for the U.S. to pressure a vessel’s flag state—the country where the ship is officially registered—to authorize the U.S. Navy to carry out an inspection of a ship at sea on its behalf, Zupruk says. But that country would still need a rationale to authorize the interdiction: that the vessel is violating either its own laws or agreed international law, or presents a safety hazard owing to poor maintenance or operation.

Most nations that operate popular “flags of convenience” make money from having a reputation for not asking too many difficult questions of ship owners. As a result, they might have little incentive to help the U.S. seize oligarchs’ yachts or stop Russian cargoes—although Washington might be able to cajole them into doing so, Zupruk says.

There is a precedent for this: In the case of the Grace 1, Panama’s government booted the vessel off its ship register mid-voyage, a fact that made it easier for Britain to seize it. Overall, Panama removed 59 tankers linked to Iran and Syria from its registries in 2019, partly in response to U.S. pressure, according to an analysis by Reuters. Sierra Leone and Togo also stripped Iranian-linked tankers of their flags. The same could be done for Russian-linked vessels.

Alexandros Ntovas, the director of the Institute of Maritime Law at the University of Southampton, says a legally less-fraught way to seize an oligarch’s superyacht is to impound it when it is docked in the port of a country where the owner is sanctioned, or which will honor a U.S. court order owing to various enforcement treaties. “There are precedents for doing this,” he says. “It is much easier than trying to stop and seize a vessel on the high seas.”

This is, in fact, what has happened so far. Spain, France, Italy, the U.K., the Netherlands, and Germany have all impounded oligarchs’ yachts for violating either European Union or national sanctions—between about a dozen and two dozen (depending on whether you count the 12 ships the Dutch have impounded while still under construction in shipyards). But all of these have been seized while they were in port.

A yacht seizure in Spain sends a signal

The first sign of Washington getting other nations to seize vessels to enforce U.S. sanctions policy came on April 4, when Spain confiscated a $90 million superyacht belonging to Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, a metals and energy tycoon who is believed to be a member of Putin’s inner circle. The 254-foot luxury yacht, called the Tango, was in port in Mallorca. The U.S. Justice Department obtained a court order from a federal judge in Washington, D.C., allowing it to seize the Tango, and then requested Spain’s assistance under bilateral treaties in enforcing that order.

The U.S. government alleges that Vekselberg, who has been subject to U.S. sanctions since 2018 and whom the U.S. also accuses of fraud and money laundering, owns the yacht through several shell companies, which he had used to avoid U.S. banking regulations. Washington touted the Tango’s seizure as the first significant action for a new U.S.-EU transatlantic task force on enforcement of sanctions against individuals linked to the Russian regime. “It will not be the last,” Merrick Garland, the U.S. attorney general, said of the seizure.

Another option, according to legal experts, is that insurance companies can in some cases use the sanctions as a reason to revoke the insurance on these yachts, which would mean that in many cases they could not be moved from port or used for enjoyment. But that is not quite the same as forcing the oligarchs to forfeit them.

A U.S. Navy search and seizure team during a training exercise in the East China Sea in 2012.
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Not only is grabbing Russian yachts or cargo ships in port less legally and logistically tricky than trying to seize them while they are at sea, it carries less risk of political blowback. For instance, after the U.K. boarded and impounded the Grace 1 while it was transiting Gibraltar, Iran retaliated by boarding and capturing the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero as it was steaming through the Strait of Hormuz. The Iranians said, without evidence, that the tanker had collided with a fishing vessel—giving Tehran a legal fig leaf for its actions, since protection of vessels from collision is one exception that allows a state to interfere with “innocent passage” through its waters. (The ship was released after two months following the U.K.’s decision—over U.S. objections—to also release the Grace 1.)

That’s one of the main reasons to refrain from nabbing yachts on the high seas: It undermines the very principle of freedom of navigation for which the U.S. and other allied nations have both been leading proponents and beneficiaries, Ntovas says.

If the U.S. started seizing ships in international waters whenever it suited its foreign policy, there’s a good chance other nations might start doing so too, jeopardizing U.S. shipping and global trade. The U.S. has largely abided by the UNCLOS despite never having ratified it—for good reason, Zupruk says. As a leading maritime power and a country whose economy is heavily dependent on both imports and exports that travel by sea, the U.S. has always been a strong proponent of freedom of navigation. “The U.S. is largely seen as a model of how to enforce and abide by international laws and especially the international law of the sea,” he says.

Whether ships are impounded in ports or seized in territorial or international waters, governments can expect a legal fight on their hands if they hope to actually deprive oligarchs of their toys, or Russian businesses of their cargoes. Countries generally need to be able to prove that a vessel or its cargo is linked to an underlying criminal offense in order to secure legal title, lawyers say. And the oligarchs can, of course, contest both the seizure and any forfeiture in court, with the cases often dragging on for years. Meanwhile the government needs to pay for the yacht’s upkeep and maintenance, since if the owner is successful in challenging the seizure, he has a right to have the yacht returned in the same condition it was in when it was taken. Those costs, for a superyacht, can be extensive.

Given all of these complications, Zupruk says, it’s no wonder that prosecutors are sometimes less eager to go after these sort of pricey, illiquid assets than one might assume. “They make for good headlines, which prosecutors like,” he says. “But they can sometimes be more trouble than they are worth.”

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