The Roman Abramovich spotted in the departure lounge of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport this week was a very different creature from the billionaire of yore.
Gone was the modest smile, unseasonal tan and impeccably tailored wardrobe. Instead he looked gray, tired and thin as he pretended to scroll through his phone to avoid catching the eye of his fellow travelers unashamedly taking photographs and filming him on their own devices.
And who can blame him? In the three weeks since Vladimir Putin’s tanks rolled into Ukraine, the 55-year-old oligarch’s world has been turned upside down.
He has gone from being a much-loved proprietor of Chelsea FC, one of the world’s top football clubs, to a global pariah, who seems to find himself persona non grata in more and more jurisdictions with each passing day.
First, the UK added him to its sanctions hit list due to his links with the regime in Moscow, freezing his assets and imposing a travel ban. At a stroke of the pen, this put the kibosh on his plans to sell Chelsea for $3.9 billion and dispose of a $653 million portfolio of no fewer than 63 properties in London’s most exclusive boroughs.
These include a $222 million mansion in Kensington Palace Gardens and a $39 million penthouse in Chelsea Harbour.
Aware the EU would probably be the next body to sanction him, Abramovich made moves to put his two megayachts beyond the reach of their enforcement officers.
On March 3, the $431 million Eclipse, a 530ft behemoth which boasts the obligatory helipad, slipped its moorings at Saint Martin in the Caribbean – near where Abramovich has a 70-acre estate on St Barts – and headed east across the Atlantic.
Given that Saint Martin is an island split between France and the Netherlands, the fear may have been that any boat left there would be subject to EU sanctions.
He has gone from being a much-loved proprietor of Chelsea FC, one of the world’s top football clubs, to a global pariah.
Eclipse was last seen in the Mediterranean, sailing south of Sardinia, heading who knows where.
Next to weigh anchor was the $562 million Solaris, an even more spectacular craft, with eight decks and an onboard ‘beach club’.
It has spent the past few weeks in Barcelona, where it had put in for repairs, but last week the scaffolding was hurriedly removed and its skipper set a course for Tivat in Montenegro, a popular stop-off for gas-guzzling superyachts because it offers tax-free fuel.
But it was forced to flee the exclusive Porto Montenegro marina at 5.30pm on Monday after the Balkan nation promised to mirror EU sanctions. Meanwhile, Abramovich’s other mobile assets, his private jets, have also been on the move. At the beginning of this month, his Boeing 787 Dreamliner, with a list price of $261 million, the world’s most expensive jet, flew from Dubai to the safety of Moscow.
Since then, he has had to content himself with flitting around the world in his $64 million Gulfstream 650ER. It was this plane that took him to Tel Aviv earlier this month.
Given that Israel prides itself on being a safe haven for any Jew, and the fact that he is an Israeli citizen to boot, Abramovich might have assumed he would be welcome there. After all, he is the owner of two sumptuous properties – a $67 million estate in the upmarket Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya and a $22 million beachfront hotel – as well as being a generous contributor to local charities.
But the news that at least 14 private jets from Russia had landed in Tel Aviv in the space of just ten days appears to have alerted the Americans to its role as an unofficial oligarchs’ bolt-hole.
At the weekend, the US undersecretary of state for political affairs, Victoria Nuland, called on Israel to join the countries that have sanctioned Russia, adding: ‘You don’t want to become the last haven for dirty money that’s fueling Putin’s wars.’
Abramovich got the message. He headed for the airport – where those pictures of him where taken – and flew to Russia via Istanbul, landing at 6am Moscow time Monday.
If the sense is of a harried tycoon desperately trying to find somewhere to settle with any permanency, at least he isn’t short of somewhere to live in the Russian capital. Abramovich’s holding company, Millhouse Capital, owns more than $993 million of assets in his homeland, including Four Winds Plaza, an office and residential block in Moscow, and the recently acquired Kristall hotel in the Black Sea resort of Gelendzhik.
And this is the one environment where being sanctioned is something of a badge of honor.
In 2014, when the West drew up sanctions following Putin’s invasion of Crimea, the chairman of a Russian bank who failed to make the hit list was so put out by the supposed snub, he grumbled about it to friends. Not only was he worried his absence on the sanctions list implied he wasn’t enough of a big shot to warrant being targeted, he was concerned that the Russian president might distrust him as a result.
Abramovich should get used to doing without the attractions of the decadent West.
Even if a peace deal is reached in Ukraine and the new Cold War starts to thaw, he will find it difficult to find houseroom because his reputation has been irredeemably damaged by revelations about his closeness to the Kremlin.
An investigation by the BBC’s respected Panorama program broadcast on Monday night claimed his wealth was gained via a series of increasingly high-stakes acts of criminality.
Its most serious allegation related to Abramovich’s acquisition of Sibneft, the oil company that formed the cornerstone of his fortune.
According to a five-page document smuggled out of Russia – its claims confirmed by people with knowledge of the transaction – the government was cheated out of $2.7 billion over the deal. Panorama claimed that $130 million of state money was paid into the bank that subsequently lent Abramovich the funds to buy Sibneft for a reported $251 million.
Abramovich’s holding company, Millhouse Capital, owns more than $993 million of assets in his homeland.
It added that police wanted to charge Abramovich with ‘fraud by an organised criminal group’ but the charges were dropped due to his closeness to then Russian president Boris Yeltsin.
What is certainly true is that a company the oligarch acquired for $251 million was sold back to the state ten years later for $13 billion – around 50 times the buying price.
Even more shocking, however, are the circumstances of his takeover of another oil company, Slavneft.
When it was put up for auction in 2002, the only serious rival bidder to emerge was a Chinese company called CNPC, which was prepared to pay up to double Abramovich’s price.
But, according to an investigation by a Spanish law enforcement agency, its negotiator was kidnapped the moment he disembarked at Moscow airport and it was made clear that he would be released only when CNPC withdrew its bid.
And that is exactly what happened. As Panorama observed: ‘There is no suggestion that Roman Abramovich knew about it but he bought Slavneft for a knockdown price.’
Yet another revelation to emerge from the program is that Abramovich was considered to be ‘the manager of Vladimir Putin’s private economic interests’.
If that is indeed the case, then he should prepare himself for a severe finger-wagging from the man at the top. At its peak, Abramovich’s personal fortune was put at $23.5 billion, but in recent weeks it has been decimated amid a global crash in the value of Russian assets and is now put at $6.9 billion.
One of the oligarch’s biggest investments is a 28.6 percent shareholding in the global steelmaker Evraz.
It reported ‘outstanding financial results’ for 2021 after steel prices soared as the global economy emerged from the pandemic but its share price has plummeted since.
Its reputation has not been helped by the British Government’s accusation that it has ‘blood on its hands’ if it sold any steel to the Russian military.
To make matters worse, much of the rest of Abramovich’s portfolio is beyond his reach.
While yachts and planes can be moved around the world to escape the clutches of asset-freezing authorities, most investments are stuck in the jurisdictions in which they were bought.
Take the jewel in his crown, Chelsea FC. The moment Putin launched his invasion, Abramovich realized the writing was on the wall for him and his fellow UK-based oligarchs.
In his desperation to sell the Premier League club, it was put up for sale with a price tag of $3.9 billion.
Prospective buyers soon emerged but Abramovich found all his assets frozen before they could complete due diligence and make an approach.
Now he can only watch as the club in which he invested $1.9 billion to win 21 trophies withers on the vine.
As Abramovich sits in Moscow contemplating his downfall, he cannot even look forward to summers on the Algarve.
While he was granted Portuguese citizenship in 2021, that award is now subject to a police investigation. The rabbi who assessed his application was detained amid suspicions of money laundering, corruption, fraud and falsification of documents.
With setbacks on so many fronts in the space of a single month, the beleaguered Chelsea boss must be wondering whether his cup of woe can get any fuller.
Dominic Midgley is a London-based journalist and the executive features editor at the Daily Mail