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The U.S. seized Russian oligarchs' superyachts. Now, American taxpayers pay the price

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

When the U.S. and its allies looked for ways to sanction the Russian elite, they zeroed in on their superyachts, filled with luxuries like heated pools and wine cellars. But as Stephanie Baker reports, the powerful symbolism of seizing a superyacht is followed by the expense of maintaining those pools and wine cellars and everything else aboard these floating palaces. Stephanie Baker is a senior writer at Bloomberg News, and she joins us now. Thanks for being with us.

STEPHANIE BAKER: Thanks for having me.

RASCOE: So you've written a series of articles on the West's seizure of these yachts from Russian oligarchs. What have you learned about what goes into maintaining these types of boats? Like, you can't just let them sit at the dock?

BAKER: No, it's not a case of turning off the lights, locking up the door and leaving them until the war in Ukraine is over. These things take an enormous amount of money to maintain. Even stuck in ports, they have to be staffed with a, you know, minimal crew to be on board in case of accidents, fires, fuel spills, the like. You know, for insurance purposes, insurance is another cost. They need to be washed so they don't entail a multimillion-dollar repaint job. And, you know, it's an incredibly costly process and complicated.

RASCOE: Is part of the issue they don't know what they're going to do with them?

BAKER: Well, in the case of the U.S., they have vowed to sell them eventually through a complicated process called forfeiture, where they have to go before a judge and prove that this superyacht has been bought with the proceeds of crime or involved in some kind of crime. And that is a lengthy, difficult process, especially in the case of Russian-linked superyachts because it's not always clear who the owner is. One forfeiture expert compared it to seizing the proceeds of a drug lord. A drug lord may not have his mansion in his own name. It would be in his girlfriend's name. So there's a long process to establish not who owns it on paper, but who's really controlling it, who's directing it, who's making decisions about it.

RASCOE: So when the U.S. or the EU seizes a yacht, the cost of maintaining that yacht - it actually goes to the taxpayers, right? Like, so how much money are we talking about that taxpayers are paying?

BAKER: It is U.S. taxpayers that are paying for it, at least until they do sell it and then can recoup the costs. Typically, it costs 10% of a superyacht's value to maintain it. But when it's frozen in port, the cost will obviously be less. It's not eating as much fuel by cruising at sea. I did a lot of reporting to try to establish, what are the real costs of keeping these things in port. And I came to a pretty conservative estimate of something like 3%. Now, in the case of one superyacht, the one that the U.S. government seized and sailed from Fiji to San Diego, I established that the annual costs of keeping that in port are about 10 million a year.

RASCOE: So 10 million a year. That's for one yacht?

BAKER: That's for one yacht.

RASCOE: For one yacht.

BAKER: And that's a conservative estimate.

RASCOE: OK. And so all together, do you have any sense of how much that might be?

BAKER: Well, globally, including the EU and the U.K. - they've seized more than 15 superyachts. And we're talking tens of millions. But if you're a sanctioned Russian oligarch with your asset frozen in a port, how long are you really going to pay? So we're looking at potentially years of litigation over these vessels about who's paying, you know, the maintenance. And they're essentially going to be in sort of legal purgatory for many years.

RASCOE: And so, I mean, most of us will never step foot on a superyacht. So it's hard for us to imagine. What is the most outrageous luxury that you've come across or one that, you know, really stood out to you?

BAKER: Right. So I went to the Monaco Yacht Show at the end of September and got on board one of the most luxurious, expensive superyachts. It was just the most incredible floating mansion. It had hand-painted bathrooms, handmade curved bar, a pool, elaborate bedrooms, you know, very high ceilings, multiple decks. They are the most extravagant status symbol, really, amongst the billionaire class.

RASCOE: That's Stephanie Baker, senior writer at Bloomberg News. Thank you so much.

BAKER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.