The British government Thursday became the first Western country to impose sanctions against Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich as it seeks to ratchet up pressure on Kremlin-linked business people.
The U.K. government said Thursday the Russian tycoon’s assets would now be frozen and a travel ban imposed. Mr. Abramovich has already said he is in the process of trying to sell his British soccer club Chelsea FC, and a person familiar with his business said he has put his London properties on the market. The U.K. government said that it would provide a special license that would allow Chelsea to continue to operate despite the sanctions.
Mr. Abramovich has a net worth estimated at 9.4 billion pounds, equivalent to $12.4 billion, the British government said. A spokeswoman for Mr. Abramovich didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The U.K. also announced a swath of sanctions against several other high-profile Russian oligarchs, including tycoon Oleg Deripaska and Igor Sechin, the chief executive of Rosneft, Andrey Kostin, chairman of VTB bank, and Alexei Miller, chief executive Russian energy giant Gazprom. The announcement marks the U.K.’s most high-profile sanctions sweep to date. Representatives for these individuals weren’t immediately available to comment.
Across the West, Russian oligarchs are facing an unprecedented coordinated assault on businesses they built up in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Anger at the invasion in Ukraine—and hope that sanctions can pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin to change tack—has triggered an unprecedented hunt for these oligarchs’ assets by U.S., British and European governments. London has become an epicenter of scrutiny.
From the mid-1990s, it was a welcome recipient of Russian investment. But in the wake of the invasion, Britain’s Parliament is voting through emergency law to make it easier to freeze the assets of those with ties to the Kremlin. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said this would enable the country to sanction hundreds of individuals by March 15.
The British government had recently been criticized for failing to sanction enough oligarchs, giving them space, critics said, to sell assets or transfer them to associates. The sanctioning of Mr. Abramovich is now being touted as a trophy by the U.K. government as it continues to try to pile pressure on Mr. Putin and those who are alleged to be connected to him. "There can be no safe havens for those who have supported Putin’s vicious assault on Ukraine," said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
British officials had previously held off sanctioning Messrs. Abramovich and Deripaska, in part cautious about protracted legal battles, officials say.
When Roman Abramovich first landed in London in the early 2000s, few people here knew who he was. The bearded Russian toured London visiting soccer clubs to scope them out. When he settled on purchasing Chelsea, a down-on-its-heels soccer team in West London, the then owners had to first Google him, according to people present. He bought the club in 2003.
The acquisition by the oil tycoon was the start of wider splurge on London property that saw the softly spoken executive propelled in the British imagination into the oligarch’s oligarch. Mr. Abramovich purchased several luxury properties, including a 15-bed mansion on a street in London dubbed "millionaire’s row." He has also bought numerous pieces of art and the world’s second-largest yacht, which can house multiple helicopters. Forbes estimates his wealth at around $12 billion.
In the space of a few days, that London foray went into reverse. His London house, valued at an estimated 100 million pounds, or about $132 million, is for sale, according to a person familiar with the matter. So is Chelsea Football Club. Mr. Abramovich, who has both Israeli and Portuguese citizenship, is rarely seen in London these days.