After weeks of investigation, Italian authorities announced late Friday evening that they had impounded a nearly $700 million superyacht, saying that its owner had “significant economic and business links” to “prominent elements of the Russian government.” According to U.S. officials, the prominent element is none other than Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin.
In recent days, the Scheherazade, as the enormous luxury ship is named, showed signs of readying to set sail, apparently aiming to leave before the Italian government could seize it. But late Friday, Italian police boarded the yacht — which is 459 feet long, with two helicopter decks, a gym and a swimming pool convertible into a dance floor — and told the crew that the ship was not going anywhere. The Italian finance ministry announced that an investigation had established that the ship’s owner, whom it did not name, was an individual that “threatened peace and international security” and that the individual’s actions amounted to the “undermining or threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine.”
The ministry also specified the urgency to implement the restrictions as the reason to freeze the floating, and extremely expensive, asset.
The Italian authorities, who have actively impounded villas and yachts belonging to sanctioned Russian oligarchs, said in a statement that it had impounded the ship, which is in the dry dock of the port of Marina di Carrara, on the northern coast of Tuscany, even though the person they had identified as its technical owner did not currently appear on a European sanctions list. They added that they could not name the individual until the European Council published the name, and the Italian government committee tasked with protecting the country’s financial security called for the person’s name to be added to the list.
Italian media outlets have for weeks reported that Eduard Khudainatov, a Russian oil tycoon who is currently not under sanctions, owns the yacht. Mr. Khudainatov is considered close to Igor Sechin, a powerful oligarch and close friend of Mr. Putin’s who is currently under sanctions. Italian financial police officials reached on Friday night declined to say who they believed owned the ship.
The captain and the chairman of the Marina di Carrara shipyard, where the Scheherazade underwent refitting and has wintered for two consecutive years, have denied assertions made by U.S. intelligence service, construction workers, crew members and locals in the small port that the vessel unofficially belongs to, and is for the use of, Mr. Putin. They have argued that, on paper, it belonged to a Russian individual who hasn’t been sanctioned by international authorities.
The ship’s captain, Guy Bennett-Pearce, told The New York Times recently that its owner was not on the sanctions list, but also denied to have seen or met Mr. Putin on the yacht.
Yet a former Scheherazade crew member told The New York Times that he had never heard of Mr. Khudainatov and confirmed that crew members always believed and discussed the real owner to be Mr. Putin.