A Russian billionaire sanctioned by the UK says he no longer owns many former properties, potentially putting them beyond the reach of the law.
Ex-Arsenal shareholder Alisher Usmanov’s £82m London home and Surrey mansion were put into trusts linked to the oligarch.
This raises questions over the effectiveness of sanctions imposed since the invasion of Ukraine began.
The UK government says Mr Usmanov “cannot access his assets”.
On 3 March, seven days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Alisher Usmanov was added to the list of sanctioned Russian businessmen.
His assets were frozen, he was banned from visiting the UK, and British citizens and businesses were banned from dealing with him.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said “We will hit oligarchs and individuals closely associated with the Putin regime and his barbarous war.”
The government said sanctions would cut him off from “significant UK interests including mansions worth tens of millions”.
But this is now in doubt because Mr Usmanov’s spokesman says he is no longer the legal owner of many of those assets.
Born in Uzbekistan in the Soviet Union, Alisher Usmanov, 68, owns USM Holdings, a huge conglomerate involved in mining and telecoms, including Russia’s second biggest mobile network MegaFon.
His wealth has been estimated at $18.4bn, (£14bn) including “Beechwood House in Highgate… and the 16th Century Sutton Place estate in Surrey”, the UK government said.
BBC research estimates that Beechwood House could now be worth about £82m.
But a spokesman for Mr Usmanov said that most of the billionaire’s UK property, as well as his yacht, had already been “transferred into irrevocable trusts”.
Those are trusts which cannot usually be amended, modified, or revoked after they’re created.
When the assets were transferred, Mr Usmanov no longer owned them, his spokesman said. “Nor was he able to manage them or deal with their sale, but could only use them on a rental basis.”
“Mr Usmanov withdrew from the beneficiaries of the trusts, donating his beneficial rights to his family”, he said.
The spokesman was answering questions about Mr Usmanov’s wealth put to him as part of an investigation into the assets of 35 oligarchs close to Putin.
The Russian Asset Tracker is a global partnership involving 27 media organisations including the Guardian, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and BBC Panorama.
The project identified $3.4bn (£2.6bn) worth of specific assets which it says belong to Mr Usmanov.
But if Mr Usmanov is not the beneficial owner of much of this property, it could be beyond the reach of UK sanctions. And the same could be true for other oligarchs.
According to lawyer and sanctions expert Michael O’Kane, “it’s very common for high net worth individuals… to structure both their commercial enterprises and their personal wealth in a way that gives them maximum tax efficiency. Quite often that results in structures whereby they release ownership and control in return for more tax efficiency.”
“In order for an entity to be designated under sanctions it needs to be owned or controlled by a sanctioned person. The more opaque and complex the structures of ownership the more difficult that is to establish.”