On Feb. 24, as Russian troops poured into Ukraine on Day 1 of the invasion, an employee for a yacht management company sent an email to the captain of the Amadea, a $325 million superyacht: “Importance: High.”
The family of a Russian oligarch under sanctions had spent much of January and February cruising from island to island in the Caribbean and had some questions and concerns. When would be a good time to visit New Zealand? Bali? Could the yacht get a special boat to pull water skiers? And would the staff of the Amadea please stop folding napkins in triangles? “Guests don’t like it,” wrote the employee, Victoria Pastukhova, a “client coordinator” for the company, Imperial Yachts.
At Imperial Yachts, no detail is too small to sweat. Based in Monaco, with a staff of about 100 — plus 1,200 to 1,500 crew members aboard yachts — the company caters to oligarchs whose fortunes turn on the decisions of President Vladimir V. Putin. Imperial Yachts and its Moscow-born founder, Evgeniy Kochman, have prospered by fulfilling their clients’ desires to own massive luxury ships.
For a Russian with hundreds of millions of dollars to spend, Mr. Kochman’s company takes care of everything: It oversees construction, hires the crew, manages the vessel’s day-to-day operation and can charter the ship or sell it, if need be. Another company also run by Mr. Kochman, BLD Management, performs a similar service for villas.
Imperial’s rise has lifted the fortunes of an array of businesses across Europe, including German shipbuilders, Italian carpenters, French interior design firms and Spanish marinas, which together employ thousands of people. Imperial Yachts is at the center of what is essentially an oligarch-industrial complex, overseeing the flow of billions of dollars from politically connected Russians to a network of European companies, according to interviews, court documents and intelligence reports.
Imperial Yachts and BLD are now under scrutiny by a U.S. government task force, called KleptoCapture, that is trying to disrupt the Russian war machine by going after the assets of oligarchs tied to Mr. Putin. After some high-profile raids and seizures, the Americans are focusing on the network of enablers working outside of Russia. Investigators from the F.B.I., the Treasury and several intelligence agencies are gathering evidence showing that businesses and individuals knowingly aided Russians under sanctions whose wealth came through corruption, making them vulnerable to U.S. charges.
Andrew Adams, a federal prosecutor leading the task force, said in an interview that “targeting people who make their living by providing a means for money laundering is a key priority.”
Documents obtained from the Amadea by U.S. officials show the role Imperial Yachts plays in managing the myriad requests of stunningly rich, seaborne Russians. The Amadea is now in Fiji, where American officials are fighting a court battle to take possession of the yacht. Mr. Adams said that Russian superyachts that don’t find a buyer may be sold to salvagers for their pricey fittings: gold-plated bathroom fixtures, marble, inlaid floors made of rare wood.
In pursuing the enablers, American and European investigators have confronted a deliberately confusing ownership structure involving daisy chains of shell companies stretching from the Marshall Islands to Switzerland. Along with the Amadea, Imperial Yachts oversaw the construction of the Scheherazade, a $700 million superyacht that U.S. officials say is linked to Mr. Putin, and the Crescent, which the Spanish police believe is owned by Igor Sechin, chairman of the state-owned oil giant Rosneft.
A secret U.S. intelligence assessment concluded that the money to build the ships came from a group of investors led by Gennady Timchenko, a confidant of Mr. Putin and one of Russia’s richest men, who, like Mr. Sechin, has been under U.S. sanctions since 2014. Mr. Timchenko and his partners designed the Scheherazade — seized in early May by the Italian police — as a gift for Mr. Putin’s use, according to the assessment. Together, the three vessels may have cost as much as $1.6 billion, enough to buy six new frigates for the Russian navy.
Simon Clark, a lawyer for Imperial Yachts, said that the company “is unaware of any connection between our business and Mr. Timchenko. However, we are in the yacht-building business; we are not involved in our clients’ financial affairs.” Mr. Clark added that the company has “never conducted business or provided services to any parties subject to international sanctions.”
But U.S. officials are not buying such explanations. Elizabeth Rosenberg, the assistant secretary for terrorist financing and financial crimes at the Treasury Department, said it was the responsibility of people in the yacht services industry to avoid doing business with people under sanctions.
“And if you do,” she said, “you yourself will be subject to sanctions.”
Coming Onto the Superyacht Scene
Mr. Kochman, 41, got his start in the yacht business in Russia in 2001, the year after Mr. Putin took power, selling Italian-made yachts. Russia had been through a decade of turmoil after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and many of today’s oligarchs had yet to amass their billions. But Mr. Kochman, then just 20 years old, had plenty of millionaires to court.
As some well-connected Russians joined the ranks of the world’s wealthiest people and began to buy up villas on the French and Italian Rivieras, Mr. Kochman moved to Monaco. Instead of selling mere yachts, often made on a production line, Mr. Kochman and his sister, Julia Stewart, now 46, entered into the world of superyachts, custom-made vessels of about 100 feet or longer. “We grow with our clients like parents with babies,” he said in 2016 in a rare interview.
Company records in Monaco show that Imperial Yachts was set up in 2008. The business also registered that year in the secrecy haven of Jersey in the English Channel.
But Mr. Kochman was still spending a lot of time in Moscow. That year he attended an exhibition for the ultrawealthy, with one of his British-built yachts on display. “We buy your yachts and you buy our gas,” Mr. Kochman told a Guardian reporter. Soon, his business took off.
Rich Russians and Persian Gulf royalty now dominate the ranks of owners of the world’s most extravagant superyachts, which can cost up to $75 million a year to operate. Since 2010, 17 superyachts 400 feet or longer have been delivered; all are owned by Russians or members of the Gulf monarchies.
In about 2014, Imperial Yachts landed its biggest project to date, a 349-foot superyacht to be constructed by Lürssen, a German shipbuilder: This would become the Amadea. Its Russian owner was sparing no expense, with hand-painted Michelangelo-style clouds above the dining table, a lobster tank, a fire pit and, at the bow, a five-ton stainless-steel Art Deco albatross figurehead. Nick Flashman, a former yacht captain who had joined Imperial, oversaw the project. Zuretti, a French firm, did the interior design.
Sébastien Gey, the director at Zuretti, said in an interview that the yacht’s owner — whom he declined to name because of nondisclosure agreements — was deeply involved in its design and construction, making frequent visits as the ship was built and outfitted. It was delivered in 2017.
But even before it was finished, the owner had Lürssen build another, larger superyacht, the Crescent, delivered in 2018, followed by the even bigger 459-foot Scheherazade, which went into service in 2020. Most of the planning and details for those two vessels were left to Mr. Kochman, recalled Mr. Gey.
Mr. Flashman said that was not unusual. “The client may be fully immersed in the project, he might not be,” he said in a phone interview. “I channel everything through Mr. Kochman.”
While Imperial Yachts oversees the projects, Lürssen, based in Bremen, receives payments directly from yacht owners, a company spokesman said. Lürssen is following “all sanctions and associated laws,” he added.
“We are not currently working with anyone on the sanctions list and we have shared all requested information with the authorities, with whom we continue to work,” the spokesman said in an email.
Mr. Gey, from the French design firm, said it does not work with people under sanctions.
The owner of all three vessels — at least on paper — was Eduard Khudainatov, a onetime pig breeder who is a protégé of Mr. Sechin, according to interviews with two people with direct knowledge of his role. Documents filed in a Fiji court show Mr. Khudainatov’s ownership of two of them. He was president of Rosneft when Mr. Sechin served as deputy prime minister. After stepping down from that post in 2013, he began buying up oil companies.
In 2020 Proekt, an independent Russian media outlet, citing an unnamed acquaintance, described him as a compliant and agreeable lieutenant: “Khudainatov knew how to give the impression of a simpleton, which is why he managed to please many bosses and make a career.”
Mr. Khudainatov, 61, had another appealing quality: Unlike Mr. Sechin or Mr. Timchenko, he was not under any sanctions.
But according to U.S. investigators, Imperial Yachts brokered the sale of the Amadea late last year to Suleiman Kerimov, a Russian government official and billionaire investor who has been on the U.S. sanctions list since 2018. He was among a group of seven oligarchs who the American officials said “benefit from the Putin regime and play a key role in advancing Russia’s malign activities.”
Showing that he was the new owner was key in what so far appears to be a successful effort by U.S. officials to persuade a Fijian court that the Amadea could be seized. The ship may leave this week. But in arguing its case, the U.S. investigators lacked official documents showing that Mr. Kerimov was the owner. Feizal Haniff, a lawyer in Fiji, disputed the U.S. claims, saying that Mr. Khudainatov remains the owner of the Amadea, controlling it through an offshore company.
In an affidavit, Timothy J. Bergen, special agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said that Mr. Khudainatov, who doesn’t appear on lists of Russia’s richest people, was a “clean, unsanctioned straw owner” of the Amadea and the Scheherazade. Mr. Bergen said that Imperial Yachts, referred to as “Company A” in his affidavit, “has a practice of concealing yacht ownership behind nested shell companies” and using stand-ins like Mr. Khudainatov “in order to conceal the true beneficial owner.”
Mr. Clark, the lawyer for Imperial Yachts, said the company “would never knowingly create structures to hide or conceal ownership, nor would we knowingly broker deals to sanctioned individuals.”
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
Military aid. The United States said it will send Ukraine advanced rockets as part of a new $700 million aid package, while Germany promised a modern air-defense system. The buttressing of Ukraine’s weaponry underscores Western resolve to hobble Russia’s war effort at a critical time.
Mr. Khudainatov, Mr. Timchenko and Mr. Kerimov didn’t return emails and phone calls seeking comment.
One thing is clear, according to the U.S. task force: Members of Mr. Kerimov’s family were on board the Amadea earlier this year, based on investigators’ interviews with crew members, reviews of emails between the ship and Imperial, and other documents from the superyacht including copies of passports.
On Jan. 21, Mr. Gey, the French designer, received an email from the captain of the Amadea. G2 — Imperial’s code name for Firuza Kerimova, Mr. Kerimov’s wife, according to the affidavit from the F.B.I. agent — was unhappy with the design of the electrical sockets in the guest bathrooms. They were in the cupboards, inconveniencing the family on their Caribbean tour.
The captain had been told of the request by Ms. Pastukhova, the Imperial client coordinator. Mr. Gey booked a flight and a hotel in St. Barts.
A few days later, Imperial Yachts signed off on another request. “Mr. Kochman has granted permission to sail to Antigua,” Ms. Pastukhova wrote to Ms. Kerimova. Mr. Kochman’s approval was also needed for a new onboard pizza oven.
“He wants to have an eye on everything, everything, everything,” Mr. Gey said.
An Italian Downton Abbey
With its colorful homes aging gracefully in the Mediterranean sun, and its harbor holding dinghies in neat rows, Portofino is the archetypal Italian seaside village. Strict conservation laws, in place since the rule of Benito Mussolini, are meant to ensure that it stays that way.
Portofino is a playground of the rich. Superyachts clutter the coast. Last month, Kourtney Kardashian was married there. And these days, a massive construction crane looms over the village, dominating the skyline.
Beneath the crane is Villa Altachiara, a 30-room mansion built in the late 19th century by a British earl. His son, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, sponsored the expedition that discovered the pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. Some locals believe the villa is cursed. In 2001, its owner, an Italian countess, fell to her death from the steep hill leading to the sea, her body washing up in France.
The name Altachiara is an Italian translation of Highclere, the palatial Carnarvon estate in Hampshire where “Downton Abbey” was filmed.
When the villa, complete with a helipad, a pool and an eight-acre park, was sold in 2015, everyone in Portofino soon knew who the new proprietor was. “Villa Altachiara will speak Russian,” read a headline in the Genoa newspaper. The owner, the paper reported, was Eduard Khudainatov.
The cast of characters restoring Villa Altachiara to its former glory is familiar. Mr. Kochman’s BLD Management is supervising the project. Mr. Gey is helping to oversee the local and international artisans restoring the interior of the mansion. Yachtline 1618, an Italian high-end carpentry company that has worked on Imperial Yachts projects, is also involved.
It has been seven years since the purchase, and construction was underway this winter, but the work stopped and the crews left at about the time of the Russian incursion into Ukraine, several local residents said. The towering crane remains, along with some green nets meant to help restore the erosion-preventing terracing.
Locals have never seen Mr. Khudainatov. Mariangela Canale, owner of the town’s 111-year-old bakery, said she was worried that Portofino would become a place where the homes were mere investments, owned by wealthy people who rarely visited, and the community would lose its soul. “Even the richest residents have always come for a chat or to buy my focaccia bread with their children, or have dinner in the piazza,” she said. “They live with us.”
Company records indicate that Mr. Kochman got into the villa business years after his yacht business was flourishing. BLD Management was set up in Jersey in 2016 through Fiduchi Group, the same offshore corporate services firm that registered Imperial Yachts. Mr. Kochman owns 5 percent of each company; the rest is hidden by a company called Fiduchi Trustees Limited. Both Mr. Kochman and Fiduchi declined to comment on the shareholding.
Much of BLD’s business is in Russia, especially around the Moscow area where it builds dachas for wealthy Russians, often with interior designs by Zuretti and carpentry by Yachtline 1618. BLD’s website lists a Moscow address and is in English and Russian.
But the idea is the same as with Imperial Yachts: work in total secrecy.
“Everything is under very strict nondisclosure agreements,” Mr. Gey said. “It’s a standard in the industry.”
He added, “It’s not like there is something to hide.”
Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting.