US Indictment Details Russian Oligarch’s Sanctions-Busting Scheme 

washington — On Facebook, Vadim Wolfson makes his political position clear. His profile picture shows him in a baseball cap emblazoned with the words “Puck Futin,” while his banner image features a Russian anti-war flag.

In words and memes, Wolfson criticizes Russian President Vladimir Putin, top Russian officials and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

But Wolfson — who formerly went by the last name Belyaev and founded the Otkritie financial group, once Russia’s largest private bank — is now accused of crimes that would appear to contradict these political views.

U.S. federal prosecutors say that in 2018 and 2019, the Austin, Texas, resident helped Andrei Kostin, an oligarch and head of Russia’s state VTB Bank, to own and manage an elite mansion in Colorado. That would have violated U.S. sanctions against the banker.

Wolfson was detained in Austin on February 22 but was soon released on his own recognizance. He is charged with violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which forms the foundation of the sanctions regime, and with conspiracy to violate it. Each charge could carry up to 20 years in prison.

Kostin is charged with sanctions violations, conspiracy to violate sanctions and conspiracy to commit money laundering. Each count is also punishable by up to 20 years behind bars. He remains at large, likely in Russia.

The charges, announced in a U.S. Justice Department press release last week, shed light on the alleged holdings of Kostin, whose bank is sometimes called “Putin’s piggy bank,” and his alleged efforts to evade sanctions.

Kostin has called these accusations “baseless.”

“I have never violated any legislation, including American legislation, I have never circumvented any sanctions, and I urge all my partners not to look for or invent any ways to circumvent them, but to build a different world, independent of the pressure of the political elite and the U.S. military lobby,” he said in a comment published by Russia’s state Tass news agency.

In a message, Wolfson declined to comment on the lawsuit or answer questions from VOA. Regarding his political views, he said the following: “Since you read my FB, draw your own conclusions.”

Home in the Rocky Mountains

According to the indictment, Kostin purchased a luxury home in Aspen, Colorado, for $13.5 million in 2010. The formal owner of the house was the Colorado company 40 North Star LLC, and Kostin controlled it through a series of offshore companies, prosecutors say.

Two years later, he purchased three artworks for the house for $1 million. According to the indictment, they are the paintings “Combing the Ridges” by William Robinson Leigh and “Long in the Saddle” and “Arapaho Attack” by Wilhelm Heinrich Detlev Koerner. Both artists are famous for depicting the people and landscapes of the American West.

Prosecutors say that from 2010 to 2017, Kostin and his family spent around two weeks at the Aspen home every year, usually during the winter holidays.

Wolfson and his family also spent time there.

Using the parcel map for Pitkin County, where Aspen is located, Voice of America was able to identify the mansion.

It is located to the southeast of downtown Aspen. According to real estate website Zillow, the 1,027-square-meter (11,054-square-foot) home includes seven bedrooms and 10 bathrooms and features a swimming pool, sauna, whirlpool spa, home cinema and billiard room.

Today, the house rents for $600,000 per month, according to Zillow. It is currently owned by a company that appears to have no connection to Kostin or Wolfson.

Voice of America also found an image of the painting “Combing the Ridges” by Leigh.

The situation became complicated in 2014, after Russia illegally annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea. The United States and European countries began imposing sanctions on Russia and prominent Russian politicians and businesspeople.

Soon, the Aspen mansion’s ownership structure changed.

According to prosecutors, in 2014, Altamonte Holding Limited, a company recently registered in the British Virgin Islands, purchased 40 North Star LLC for $10 million.

A database of offshore leaks maintained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists indicates that the beneficial owner of a BVI company with a nearly identical name — Altamonte Holdings Limited — is Vadim Belyaev (aka Wolfson).

A company ultimately owned by Kostin, Capital Business Finance, provided financing for the purchase, the indictment states.

In April 2018, the United States imposed sanctions on Kostin. The following year, Wolfson bought 40 North Star for $12 million through two financial transactions with a subsidiary of Capital Business Finance controlled by Kostin. The deal violated the sanctions, prosecutors state in the indictment.

In 2018-20, it was Wolfson who primarily used the Aspen home. According to the parcel register, in 2020 the home was sold to another company for $12.5 million. The current owner appears not to be connected to Kostin or Wolfson.

WATCH: Video of a 3-D illustration of Andrei Kostin’s former mansion in Aspen, Colorado. (Google Earth)

Out at sea

The indictment does not end with real estate and art. Prosecutors also contend Kostin controlled two yachts through offshore companies: Sea Rhapsody and Sea & Us.

According to the document, Kostin mainly used the former yacht with his wife and family, while he primarily spent time on the latter with his mistress.

That latter yacht appeared in a 2019 investigation by the late Russian opposition activist Alexey Navalny, which dealt with the relationship between Kostin and Nailya Asker-zade, a presenter on the state TV channel Rossiya.

Prosecutors say Kostin bought the 66-meter (217-foot) Sea Rhapsody for $65 million between 2008 and 2012. It was built according to his order. It features six luxury cabins, an infinity pool, a whirlpool spa and a cinema.

Sea & Us is 62 meters (203 feet) long and was custom built for the banker in 2016-18. He paid at least $70 million for it.

According to prosecutors, in 2018-22, Kostin and unnamed accomplices carried out a scheme to provide financing, goods and services to operate, maintain and improve the yachts.

The indictment states they engaged in money laundering by transporting monetary instruments and funds in and out of the United States but does not provide further details of these activities.

According to maritime analytics site, Sea Rhapsody is now moored in Victoria, the capital of the Seychelles.

Sea & Us was renamed Serenity and Unity. According to the tracker, it is currently off the coast of Turkey.

Prosecutors are seeking the forfeiture of property and funds that they say Kostin, Wolfson and others obtained by committing the crimes listed in the indictment.

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