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.