Roman Abramovich was one of seven Russians hit with a full asset freeze and travel ban by the UK on Thursday, in the government’s most aggressive crackdown on oligarchs since Russia invaded Ukraine.
Abramovich, who shot to prominence in the UK after buying Premier League club Chelsea in 2003, is accused by the government of having benefited financially and otherwise for decades from close links to Russian president Vladimir Putin.
The government, which has been criticised for not moving quickly enough to sanction oligarchs, also unveiled measures against Oleg Deripaska, the founder of London-listed metals group EN+, and Igor Sechin, chief executive of Rosneft and one of Putin’s closest confidants.
“Today’s sanctions show once again that oligarchs and kleptocrats have no place in our economy or society,” said UK foreign secretary Liz Truss. “With their close links to Putin, they are complicit in his aggression.”
The move plunged Chelsea, whose success Abramovich has bankrolled over the past two decades, into chaos and imperils his ability to sell the club. Facing the threat of sanctions, the Russian-Israeli billionaire put Chelsea up for sale last week, drawing interest from tycoons around the world.
Alongside Abramovich and Deripaska, the UK Treasury’s Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation (OFSI) also targeted Andrei Kostin, chair of VTB Bank, Alexei Miller, chief executive of energy company Gazprom, Nikolai Tokarev, president of the Russian state-owned pipeline company Transneft, and Dmitri Lebedev, chair of Bank Rossiya.
Abramovich, who made his fortune after the tumultuous collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s as Russia privatised its oil industry, has in recent weeks put properties in Kensington and Chelsea up for sale. The UK estimated his wealth to be £9.4bn.
UK officials said the freeze of Abramovich’s assets meant the sale of Chelsea cannot go forward as planned, but added that the government could consider granting a new licence that would permit a disposal if Abramovich was able to demonstrate that he would not receive any of the proceeds.
Under the sanctions imposed, Chelsea will be allowed to make payments “essential to the continuation of the operation of the club”, can continue to receive broadcast income and prize money, but cannot sell new tickets.
Fordstam, the holding company through which Abramovich owns Chelsea, owes the billionaire £1.5bn. A spokesperson for Abramovich, who also holds Israeli and Portuguese citizenship, declined to comment.
In its most significant intervention against oligarchs, the UK also accused Abramovich of being involved in destabilising and threatening Ukraine via Evraz, the London-listed steel group in which he is the largest shareholder.
Evraz “has been involved in providing financial services, or making available funds, economic resources, goods or technology that could contribute to destabilising Ukraine”, the OFSI said, adding that this included “potentially supplying steel to the Russian military which may have been used in the production of tanks”.
Shares in Evraz, which have continued to trade since Putin ordered troops into Ukraine two weeks ago, were suspended on Thursday. In a statement, Evraz denied the accusations, saying it only supplies steel to the infrastructure and construction sectors.
The UK government’s measures follow criticism that it has been slow to take aim at oligarchs despite London being a magnet for Russian money. Britain has sanctioned 18 Russian oligarchs since Putin invaded Ukraine — fewer than the EU or the US.
Parliament is expected to fast-track a long-awaited economic crime bill on Monday, which Prime Minister Boris Johnson has insisted will make it easier for the government to go “harder and faster” in placing individuals linked to Putin under sanctions.
A spokesperson for Deripaska did not respond to a request for comment. Gazprom, Transneft and Rosneft did not respond to requests for comment. VTB Bank declined to comment.