For 10 years, Taras Ostapchuk worked at what many might consider a dream job, as the chief engineer for the Lady Anastasia, a luxurious 156-foot yacht that cruised mostly from one upscale port to another across the sparkling Mediterranean Sea.
But on February 26, with the ship docked on the Spanish island of Mallorca, in the Mediterranean, all that changed.
Ostapchuk saw media reports of a Russian missile strike on an apartment building in his home city of Kyiv. It was similar to the one he lived in with his wife, when he wasn’t aboard ship.
At that point, he said, “I think, my home can be next.” That’s when he decided to sink the yacht. “It was my first step for the war with Russia.”
In an interview with CNN from Ukraine, Ostapchuk, 55, said he connected the destruction in his home city straight to the man he calls the owner of the Lady Anastasia: Russian oligarch Alexander Mikheev. He’s the chief executive of Russian weapons company Rosoboronexport, which sells everything from helicopters, to tanks, to missile systems, to submarines.
His mission, Ostapchuk decided: To scuttle the Lady Anastasia.
The latest phase of Russia’s war on Ukraine had begun two days earlier, with forces attacking from Russia, Belarus and Russian-annexed Crimea. As the offensive unfolded, the US and the European Union responded with economic sanctions and the seizure of assets linked to oligarchs in Vladimir Putin’s circle.
And perhaps no assets so clearly symbolized how Putin’s enablers had thrived under his rule quite like oligarchs’ yachts, some of them nearly as long as the height of the Washington Monument, sporting helipads, swimming pools, and extravagantly opulent interiors.
Ostapchuk said he headed to the Lady Anastasia’s engine room, where he opened a valve connected to the ship’s hull. As water flooded in, he made his way to the crew quarters, where he opened another valve.
“There were three other crew members on board besides me. I announced to them that the boat was sinking, and they had to leave,” he said, in Russian.
Hide and seek
By most standards, the Lady Anastasia, with a crew of nine, is sumptuous: A master stateroom with a Carrara marble bath; cabins for 10 guests; a jacuzzi on the sun deck that’s stabilized against the ship’s movement, and so on.
Russian oligarchs own among the most lavish yachts in existence. The Dilbar, a 512-foot yacht, is owned by billionaire Alisher Usmanov, according to the Treasury Department, which on March 3 identified the Dilbar as “blocked property.” It has two helicopter pads and cabins for dozens of guests. Usmanov didn’t respond to CNN queries about the yacht.
Or take the Amore Vero, a yacht that French authorities seized March 2. They say it’s linked to Igor Sechin, a sanctioned Russian oil executive and associate of Putin. (The company that manages the vessel denies it’s owned by Sechin.) A former crew member of the yacht, who asked not to be named because he’d signed a non-disclosure agreement, said the Amore Vero includes a safe room on its lowest deck.
“It wasn’t even on the official drawings of the boat,” he said. “There was a secret door with a hidden camera. And you could pull the wall away and inside there were beds, emergency communications, a bathroom, and CCTV.”
Though officials in various countries have attributed ownership of yachts to Russian oligarchs, the paper trail between ship and owner is typically obscured, running through shell companies and complicated legal structures. Spain, for example, says it has “provisionally detained” yachts while it sorts out ownership.
Mikheev was sanctioned by the US State Department on March 15.
When CNN tried to contact Mikheev about ownership of the Lady Anastasia, a spokesman for Rosoboronexport responded via email that the company “never comments any information about the personal life of employees and their property, except in cases stipulated by the legislation of the Russian Federation.”
But Ostapchuk said he had no doubts. “Why, you know, if a creature looks like a dog, barks like a dog, bites like a dog, it is a dog. Therefore, if in the course of ten years, the yacht [was] used for vacations only [by] Mr. Mikheev and his family, then I think that he is definitely the real owner of this yacht.”
Amid a growing list of sanctions and seizures, yachts that have been reported to be owned by Russian oligarchs have sped to countries where sanctions are unlikely to be enforced, according to data from the website MarineTraffic.
Two yachts reportedly owned by Roman Abramovich, an oligarch and ally of Putin who has been sanctioned by the European Union and the United Kingdom, docked at ports in southwestern Turkey on Monday and Tuesday. One of the yachts, the Solaris, had been docked in Barcelona until early March, while the Eclipse – among the largest yachts in the world – departed the Caribbean around the same time and crossed the Atlantic.
Both vessels appeared to skirt EU waters on their way to Turkey, taking a circuitous route that went around several Greek islands. Turkey, though a NATO member, has made clear that it will not sanction Russia for its aggression against Ukraine.
A small group of protesters waving Ukrainian flags and chanting “no war in Ukraine” tried to block the Solaris from docking at a port in Bodrum, Turkey on Monday, as the massive yacht loomed over them. Some of the protesters were members of a Ukrainian junior sailing team who had left their country before the invasion to compete in a sailing competition in Turkey, the BBC reported.
Several other Russian-linked yachts appear to be headed to Middle Eastern or South Asian countries that also declined to impose sanctions on Russia. The Clio, a yacht reportedly owned by Putin ally and aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, and the Quantum Blue, reportedly owned by retail billionaire Sergey Galitsky, were both off the coast of Oman this week, the MarineTraffic data shows. The Clio listed its destination as Dubai before changing direction to Mumbai, while the Quantum Blue had been docked in Monaco before departing in early March. Deripaska has been sanctioned by the US and UK, while Galitsky has not.
Meanwhile, at least a half-dozen other yachts tied to Russian oligarchs have stopped transmitting location data altogether in recent weeks, according to MarineTraffic.
The Galactica Super Nova, a yacht reportedly owned by Russian oil executive Vagit Alekperov, was last recorded leaving the port of Tivat, Montenegro, and sailing into the Adriatic Sea early on March 2 – the day after the Montenegrin government announced it would join the EU in imposing sanctions on Russia. While Alekperov has not been sanctioned, he was included on a 2018 US Treasury Department list of Russian oligarchs.
Georgios Hatzimanolis, a spokesperson for MarineTraffic, said the likeliest explanation for the lack of location data is that the yachts have switched off AIS, an automatic tracking system. International maritime regulations generally require vessels as big as the oligarch-linked yachts to keep AIS on unless they are going through areas known for piracy, Hatzimanolis said. Turning off a transmitter could potentially increase the danger of a collision when vessels are traveling through busy waters.
“It is unusual,” Hatzimanolis said of the yachts going dark. “But these are unprecedented times for these yachts and their owners. They’re trying to keep out of the way and get to destinations where they won’t be sanctioned.”
‘You have to choose’
After he began flooding the compartments, Ostapchuk told the other three crew members on board what he’d done.
They, too, were Ukrainian, he said. But, fearful he’d just cost them their jobs, they yelled at him that he was crazy, according to a summary statement at his arraignment.
Then they called the port authorities and the police. Port workers brought a water pump and prevented the boat from sinking. Ostapchuk was arrested.
“I made a statement to the police that I tried to sink the boat as a political protest of Russian aggression,” he told CNN.
“You have to choose. Either you are with Ukraine or not. You have to choose, will there be a Ukraine, or will you have a job… I don’t need a job if I don’t have Ukraine.”
In some cases, those jobs may be in jeopardy anyway. On March 15, Spanish authorities provisionally detained the Lady Anastasia while they determine whether it falls under European sanctions and can be seized. It was one of three yachts linked to Russian oligarchs they detained that week. Others have been seized or detained in France, Germany, Italy and Gibraltar.
On March 7, the company managing the yacht Dilbar laid off all 96 crew members, saying that sanctions prevented normal operations of the ship, according to Forbes.
Sanctions on Russian oligarchs seem to have sparked challenges and confusion among some yacht crews. The seafarers union Nautilus International held a question-and-answer session with yacht professionals earlier this month and received questions such as, “Should we be resigning from all Russian yachts?” and “What am I owed if I’m dismissed/laid off due to sanctions on my vessel?” Union representatives counseled members to check the terms of their contracts.
‘They should be held responsible’
When CNN spoke with Ostapchuk from Ukraine on Wednesday, the conversation was immediately interrupted by an alert of an incoming Russian attack. Later, after Ostapchuk returned from a shelter, he said that as soon as Spanish authorities had released him on February 27 he’d gone back to Ukraine.
“Now I serve in the army, and I hope that my service will bring our victory closer,” he said.
He added that he hopes the oligarchs who backed Putin will feel the bite of sanctions.
“They should be held responsible, because it is they who, with their behavior, with their lifestyle, with their unquenchable greed, they precisely led to this … In order to distract the people from the real plunder of Russia by these rulers, that arrange diversionary wars with other countries, that are innocent.”
CNN’s Drew Griffin and Yahya Abou-Ghazala contributed to this report.