For all the talk of sanctions on Russia and its elite, the status symbols of the billionaire class remain free to roam the skies and the seas.

Russia’s ultrarich are among the biggest owners of private jets and superyachts. So far, even as the U.S. and U.K. have ramped up sanctions on more than 100 Russian individuals and entities, these assets of the country’s elite — which can be worth hundreds of millions of dollars each — have avoided any direct hit. So too have their high-end real estate holdings.

Abramovich relinquishes control of Chelsea

One of the most high-profile status symbols in the U.K. is drawing attention lately: Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich’s ownership of the English football club Chelsea FC. It’s one of Europe’s most successful teams and is valued at $2.1 billion. Abramovich is not currently on the U.K.’s sanctions list.

As tensions in the region escalate, some U.K. lawmakers are pressing to widen the scope of those subject to harsh penalties for the invasion of Ukraine. 

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“Surely Mr. Abramovich should no longer be able to own a football club in this country,” Labour MP Chris Bryant said. “Surely we should be looking at seizing some of his assets, including his ($204 million) home.”

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Russia’s richest lost $39 billion on Thursday alone, according to the Bloomberg wealth index.

Aircraft activity

Aircraft controlled by Abramovich, as well as planes belonging to oligarchs Dmitry Mazepin and Alexey Mordashov, landed in Moscow on Thursday, according to flight data website ADS-B Exchange. Abramovich’s Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner took off from an airport near Monaco, while Mazepin’s Gulfstream G650 flew from the New York area. Mordashov’s Bombardier Global 6000 traveled from the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean.

President Vladimir Putin had invited Russia’s business elite to a meeting Thursday at the Kremlin. Mazepin was there, as was Mordashov. So was Vladimir Potanin, Russia’s wealthiest person with a $26.1 billion fortune. 

The aircraft owned by Mordashov, Russia’s second-richest person with a net worth of $23 billion, then flew back to the Seychelles, the flight data show. Mordashov’s yacht Nord, completed in 2020 at an estimated cost of $500 million, has been sailing in the island nation for days.

More about Russia’s war on Ukraine

Billionaire comforts

Assets like planes or yachts could be targeted by a round of sanctions, according to Andrew Lohsen, a fellow in the Europe, Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The challenge is they could be held through shell companies, complicating the ownership chain.

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Imposing sanctions on Russian’s ultrarich “is important, but I recognize that it is complex,” said Natalie Jaresko, Ukraine’s former finance minister. “It takes time, but you have to take away their comforts.”

The U.K. took the additional step late Friday of banning all private Russian aircraft from the nation’s airspace. However, most of the billionaires have registered their jets in other jurisdictions, raising questions about the measure’s effectiveness.

Meanwhile, public backlash is mounting against Abramovich due to his Chelsea FC ownership. Sports investors and private equity firms, including some from the U.S., have began to draw up potential takeover offers for the football club in case sanctions force the Russian billionaire to sell, people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg News.

One of Abramovich’s yachts, the Solaris, is in Barcelona, while the other, the Eclipse, is in Saint Martin in the Caribbean.

Russian billionaires crave the legitimacy afforded from places frequented by high-net-worth individuals, such as New York, London and Singapore, said Raj Bhala, a professor at the University of Kansas Law School who specializes in international trade.

“To then be denied that access or to be shunned from those sorts of places does hurt them,” he said. “I wouldn’t underestimate that.”

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Family risk

If the U.S. imposes sanctions on Russia’s ultrawealthy individuals, penalties could extend to family members as well, said Rachel Fiorill, a lawyer for Paul Weiss and former enforcement section chief at the Treasury Department.

A broadside against Russia’s billionaire class isn’t so simple for most countries. Neither is penalizing a head of state, though the U.S. plans to join the European Union and the U.K. in sanctioning Putin, people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg News on Friday, with the announcement of the symbolic step expected soon. 

Meanwhile, Putin is rolling out a domestic response to sanctions that will initially focus on assisting lenders hit with penalties, people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg News, which may soften any economic blow in the coming weeks.

Still, many of the Russian billionaires are enjoying global travels. At least four of their superyachts remained anchored in Barcelona. Two were last parked along the Florida coast, in Miami and Palm Beach.