Abandon ship, literally: Putin's yacht crew disappears?

Abandon ship, literally: Putin's yacht crew disappears?

Your feel-good story of the day comes from Tuscany, or at least I think it’s a feel-good story. No one knows for sure that Vladimir Putin owns the yacht Scheherazade, but no one else has identified themselves as its owner despite its $700 million value. We do know that its Russian crew has suddenly disappeared from the town after more than a year of supervising the craft:

Russian crew members on a mysterious $700-million luxury yacht that U.S. officials say could be owned by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia abruptly left their jobs and the Tuscan coastal town where it is undergoing repairs a couple of weeks ago amid scrutiny of the vessel, local union leaders and workers say.

The crew members had been fixtures in the small port of Marina di Carrara since the fall of 2020, when the 459-foot-long yacht, Scheherazade, arrived at a dry dock less than four months after being built. No owner has been publicly identified.

What happened? Backers of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny did a deep dive on the Russian crew and claim to have connected enough dots to lead back to Putin himself. “Today, we offer you the best and most beautiful pastime in the world,” reads the English translation of this lengthy video released on Monday. “Today, we are going to take 700 million dollars away from Putin.”

Did they succeed?

This week, the research team of Aleksei A. Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, published a video in which it argued, based on a 2020 crew manifesto, that a dozen of the Russian crew members of the Scheherazade either worked for or had a connection with Russia’s Federal Protective Service. The team drew the conclusion that the yacht must belong to Mr. Putin or some of his closest aides.

There’s a lot more that the report covers, so it’s worth watching at length. If the Russians abandoned the yacht over this effort to avoid getting snatched, score one for Navalny.

As the New York Times reports, Italian investigators have been working for weeks to find out who owns the Scheherazade, but apparently still haven’t reached any conclusions. Its trail leads through multiple shell companies in a clear attempt to obfuscate the ownership of the yacht, although Italy has had more success in seizing equivalent assets from other Russian oligarchs. The complexity of the title’s cover suggests that the ownership is particularly well positioned and also has a greater need to hide the paper trail of the ship. Hence, it’s likely Putin himself or someone so close to him that he’s strategically almost as important … and it’s tough to see who else Putin would go to that much trouble to help hide.

The Russians have been replaced by another crew, the NYT reports, this one British. If the previous crew was FSB, perhaps the new crew might be MI-6, at least in part. If the vessel does indeed belong to Putin, it might have some very sensitive intel and communications systems on board that would interest Western agencies.

For that matter, the previous crew might have some intel to share as well, which prompts the question of where they’ve gone. No one’s flying into or out of Russian air space these days, at least not from anywhere in Europe. Did the FSB manage to exfiltrate them from Tuscany, or did a competing intel service talk them into walking away?

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