© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich (R) watches his team during their English Premier League soccer match against Arsenal at Stamford Bridge in London March 22, 2014. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh
By Michael Holden and William James
LONDON (Reuters) – Britain imposed sanctions on Chelsea soccer club owner Roman Abramovich and Igor Sechin, chief executive of Russian oil giant Rosneft, hitting them with asset freezes and travel bans because of their links to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The two billionaires plus Oleg Deripaska and four other Russian oligarchs are the most high-profile tycoons to be added to the British sanctions list since Russia invaded Ukraine. The move follows criticism that Britain has been acting too slowly.
The action puts on ice Abramovich’s plans to sell Premier League club Chelsea, effectively placing the current European champions under government control. The team can carry on playing but the government said it was open to selling the club so long as Abramovich himself did not benefit.
“There can be no safe havens for those who have supported Putin’s vicious assault on Ukraine,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said. “We will be ruthless in pursuing those who enable the killing of civilians, destruction of hospitals and illegal occupation of sovereign allies.”
There had been loud calls from British lawmakers for action to be taken against Abramovich and other Russian billionaires, with criticism that Johnson’s government was not moving fast enough compared to the European Union and the United States.
London has long been a top destination for Russian money, with wealthy Russians using it as a luxury playground and educating their children at fee-paying schools. It has earned the nickname Londongrad.
Sechin, who Britain described as Putin’s right-hand man, was already on the U.S. and EU sanctions lists and last week French authorities seized his yacht.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow describes as a “special military operation”, Britain has imposed sanctions on about 20 Russian-linked figures. The EU announced new sanctions on Wednesday against 14 more oligarchs, meaning its restrictions apply to 862 people and 53 entities.
15 BILLION POUNDS
The others added to the British list were Deripaska, who has stakes in En+ Group; Dmitri Lebedev, chairman of Bank Rossiya; Alexei Miller, chief executive of energy giant Gazprom (MCX:GAZP); and Nikolai Tokarev, president of the Russia state-owned pipeline company Transneft.
EN+ said the announcement would have no impact on the group or its subsidiaries, and that Deripaska had surrendered majority ownership and control of the group as part of an agreement with the U.S. authorities in 2019.
In total, Britain said the seven figures, who with the exception of Abramovich had previously been sanctioned by the United States or the EU, had a collective net worth of 15 billion pounds ($19.74 billion).
Thursday’s action means Abramovich, 55, is banned from carrying out transactions with any British individuals and businesses, and cannot enter or stay in Britain. His spokeswoman declined comment.
Abramovich, who has Israeli and Portuguese citizenship, became one of Russia’s most powerful businessmen by earning fabulous fortunes after the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union. Forbes has put his net worth at $13.3 billion.
He bought Chelsea in 2003 for a reported 140 million pounds and his investment contributed hugely to the most successful era in the team’s history as they won five Premier League titles, five FA Cups and the Champions League twice.
They beat Brazilian side Palmeiras in February to become FIFA Club World Cup champions for the first time, having defeated fellow English side Manchester City to become European champions last season.
Last week Abramovich announced he would sell Chelsea and donate money from the sale to help victims of the war in Ukraine. Johnson’s spokesman said the government was open to selling the club but it would require another licence.
“If the club is sold, Abramovich will not benefit,” sports minister Nadine Dorries told reporters.
The government has issued a special licence to allow Chelsea to play fixtures and pay staff, but will limit the sale of tickets and merchandise.
Anita Clifford, a lawyer who specialises in asset freezing and sanctions matters, said the measures temporarily deprived Abramovich of his assets but Chelsea could be sold with his and the government’s agreement. The money could potentially go to help Ukrainian war victims.
“The proceeds…would be frozen too and would not simply flow to the designated person unless there was a licence or agreement in place to either cover this, or cover the proceeds going to a nominated beneficiary which both parties considered appropriate,” she told Reuters.
Abramovich could apply to Britain’s foreign office for an internal review of the asset freeze, or apply to the High Court in London for a review of the decision, a process that could take 18 months or longer, Clifford said.
The entry on the British sanctions list described Abramovich as “a prominent Russian businessman and pro-Kremlin oligarch who had enjoyed “a close relationship for decades” with Putin.
This association had brought Abramovich financial or material benefit from either Putin directly or the Russian government, the entry said.
It said he was “involved in destabilising Ukraine” and undermining its sovereignty and independence via the London-listed Russian steelmaker Evraz in which he is the biggest shareholder.
Evraz has been involved in providing financial services, or funds, goods or technology that could damage Ukraine’s independence including providing steel that might be used to make Russian tanks, the British treasury said.
The company said it did not regard Abramovich as someone who exercised control over the business, and rejected the statement it had been involved in undermining Ukraine’s independence.
It said sanctions should not apply to the company, whose London-listed shares plummeted 16% after the measures were announced leading to Britain’s financial watchdog to temporarily suspend trading.
($1 = 0.7599 pounds)