DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- The man considered to be the wealthiest oligarch in Russia, who has been photographed playing ice hockey with President Vladimir Putin, joins a growing list of those transferring — or, sailing — their prized assets to Dubai as the West tightens its massive sanctions program on Russia’s economy.
Vladimir Potanin, head of the world’s largest refined nickel and palladium producer, may not be sanctioned by the United States or Europe yet; such sanctions could roil metal markets and potentially disrupt supply chains, experts say. As the biggest shareholder in mining company Nornickel, Potanin had a personal fortune of $30.6 billion before the war on Ukraine, according to Forbes.
But like an increasing number of blacklisted Russian oligarchs, he has apparently taken the precaution of moving his $300 million superyacht to the safe haven of Dubai, in the U.S.-allied United Arab Emirates.
It is called the Nirvana, and the sleek 88-meter-long (289-foot-long) superyacht, equipped with a glass elevator, gym, hot tub, 3D cinema and two terrariums of exotic reptiles, stands out even in a port full of flashy, floating mansions.
The giant Dutch-built vessel with a navy blue hull was docked on Tuesday flying the flag of the Cayman Islands when Associated Press journalists observed the ship at Dubai’s Port Rashid — in the eyeshot of sanctioned Russian parliamentarian Andrei Skoch’s $156 million Madame Gu.
Representatives for Potanin did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The arrival of Russian-owned luxury vessels in Dubai has become an outsized symbol of the UAE’s reluctance to oppose Moscow’s war on Ukraine and enforce Western sanctions. One of a shrinking number of countries where Russians can still fly directly, the financial center has become a thriving hub for Russia's rich, in part because of its reputation for welcoming money from anywhere — both legitimate and shady.
“They haven't tried to hide the fact they're accepting oligarchs themselves and their yachts,” said Julia Friedlander, a former senior policy adviser for Europe in the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. “When it comes to taking sides in the conflict, it's not in their political interest to do so. They want to keep their access to money from around the world.”
The UAE Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Emirati stance has stoked tensions with the United States, which has sought to pressure its Gulf Arab ally to help combat Russian sanctions evasion. Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo, one of the main U.S. coordinators on the Russian sanctions strategy, visited the UAE last week to voice American concerns about Russian financial flows and demand increased vigilance.
Still, there's no indication that President Joe Biden will impose secondary sanctions, leaving Washington with few pressure points.
As Moscow’s war on Ukraine grinds on, Western economic sanctions have proliferated in an effort to pressure Putin to change course. The European Union has captured billions of dollars in art, yachts and property. Britain, Fiji, Italy, Spain and other countries have impounded oligarchs’ yachts. The U.S. has seized vessels and aircraft.
Some prominent oligarchs, however, have escaped the blacklist because of their strategic holdings. Although Potanin has been hit with Canadian and Australian sanctions for his close ties to the Kremlin, his reputation as the “King of Nickel” has so far spared him.
“We're reaching a critical metal shortage and we don't know where those supply chains are headed, so you have to ask, would sanctioning him make things worse?" Friedlander said. “Those are serious considerations.”