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Russian Billionaire Roman Abramovich, Owner of Chelsea Soccer Club, Is Sanctioned by UK -
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Russian Billionaire Roman Abramovich, Owner of Chelsea Soccer Club, Is Sanctioned by UK

Russian Billionaire Roman Abramovich, Owner of Chelsea Soccer Club, Is Sanctioned by UK

LONDON—The British government ratcheted up pressure on Kremlin-linked businesspeople, sanctioning a handful of Russian oligarchs, including Roman Abramovich, the billionaire owner of British soccer club Chelsea FC.

It was the first time any Western government has moved on Mr. Abramovich. His trophy assets, including Chelsea, high-end property in London and mega yachts, have helped turn him into one of the highest-profile oligarchs now facing scrutiny from officials in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The US, UK and European Union have led global efforts to punish and pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin for the invasion through a raft of sanctions on banks and the country’s central bank, as well as through restrictions on oil purchases in some cases and by targeting the assets of Putin associates, Russian government officials and business people viewed as close to Moscow.

The UK government said Thursday that it was sanctioning Mr. Abramovich due to his “preferential treatment and concessions from Putin” and said that a UK-listed steel company he partly owns is supplying steel to the Russian military. A spokeswoman for Mr. Abramovich didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Abramovich has a net worth estimated at 9.4 billion pounds, equivalent to $12.4 billion, the British government said. His UK assets will now be frozen, and he will be barred from traveling to Britain, the government said. Mr. Abramovich has already said he is in the process of trying to sell Chelsea, and a person familiar with the matter said he has put his London properties on the market.

The government said that it would provide a special license to allow Chelsea to continue to operate, despite the sanctions. The sales of the club and Mr. Abramovich’s houses are now blocked. The UK Treasury must grant a license to allow any sale to proceed. Mr. Abramovich won’t be permitted to receive any proceeds of the sale, according to the government.

The sanctions effectively exile Mr. Abramovich: He can’t pay for electricity to his properties or buy a cup of coffee in the UK, officials said.

The UK also announced a swath of sanctions against several other Russian oligarchs including tycoon Oleg Deripaska; Igor Sechin, the chief executive of Rosneft; Andrey Kostin, chairman of VTB Bank; and Alexei Miller, chief executive of Russian energy giant Gazprom.

The announcement marks the UK’s most high-profile sanctions sweep to date. Representatives for these individuals were not immediately available to comment.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine at the end of February, the US and allied countries have imposed heavy sanctions on Russia. WSJ’s Shelby Holliday dives into how these sanctions are affecting everyone from President Vladimir Putin to everyday Russian citizens. Photo: Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press

UK agencies, like those of other governments including the US, have powers to temporarily freeze assets of individuals or entities in their jurisdiction, without proving criminality. Owners are typically barred from selling or benefiting from them until sanctions are lifted or successfully contested. Governments typically can’t move to take ownership of the assets, though, except after often-lengthy legal proceedings that would require proof of lawbreaking. The UK government, however, is considering laws that would give itself the powers to sixteen sanctioned assets.

Across the West, Russian oligarchs are facing an unprecedented coordinated assault on businesses they built up in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Anger at the invasion of Ukraine—and hope that sanctions can pressure Mr. Putin to change tack—has triggered a hunt for these oligarchs’ assets by US, British and European governments. London has become an epicenter of scrutiny.

From the mid-1990s, it was a welcome recipient of Russian investment. But in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, Britain’s Parliament is voting through an emergency law to make it easier to freeze the assets of those with ties to the Kremlin. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said this would enable the country to sanction hundreds of individuals by March 15.

“There can be no safe havens for those who have supported Putin’s vicious assault on Ukraine,” said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The British government had recently been criticized for failing to sanction enough oligarchs, giving them space, critics said, to sell assets or transfer them to associates. British officials had previously held off sanctioning Messrs. Abramovich and Deripaska, in part over cautiousness about protracted legal battles, officials said. New laws due to come into effect next week will limit the amount of damages the government is liable to pay if people sue over being sanctioned.

Representatives for Mr. Deripaska and for United Co. Rusal PLC, the aluminum giant that he partly owns, weren’t immediately available for comment. Mr. Deripaska hasn’t been in London for over two years, a person familiar with the matter said. Mr. Abramovich once maintained a relatively high profile in London, attending Chelsea games, for instance. He has rarely been seen here though in recent years.

Underlining the difficulties that authorities may have going after oligarchs’ property, many are owned by family or through a complex system of offshore companies. The house that Mr. Deripaska used in London’s exclusive Belgravia is owned by a family member, according to the person familiar with the matter.

Oligarch Alexey Mordashov, sanctioned in the European Union but not in the UK, moved control of his majority stake in British-registered mining company Nord Gold PLC to his wife, according to company filings, days after Mr. Putin ordered troops into Ukraine. North Gold declined to comment.

Mr. Mordashov, in a statement, said he has “absolutely nothing to do with the emergence of the current geopolitical tension, and I do not understand why the EU has imposed sanctions on me.” A spokeswoman declined to comment further.

Mr. Abramovich has sold out of many of his early business interests, which used to include an energy giant now owned by natural-gas company Gazprom. Mr. Abramovich, though, still owns around 2% of MMC Norilsk Nickel PJSC, one of the world’s largest producers of critical minerals, and 29% of Evraz PLC, a London-listed steel and mining company with operations in Russia, the US and elsewhere. The UK said Thursday Evraz provided steel to the Russian military. Mr. Abramovich has also invested in a number of startup companies, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The UK’s Financial Conduct Authority said that it has temporarily suspended Evraz from trading pending clarification of the impact of the UK sanctions. Later Thursday afternoon, Evraz said that he doesn’t think the sanctions on Mr. Abramovich apply to the company. It said over the last five years, two directors have been appointed by Mr. Abramovich, and that it therefore doesn’t consider him as a person exercising effective control of the company. Evraz said it supplies steel to the infrastructure and construction sectors only.

Mr. Abramovich’s acquisition of Chelsea in 2003 was the start of a wider splurge in London. He purchased several luxury properties, including a 15-bedroom mansion on a street in London dubbed “millionaire’s row.” He has also bought numerous pieces of art and one of the world’s largest yachts.

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That 553-foot yacht, called Eclipse, is currently near Philipsburg, in the Dutch Antilles, in the Caribbean, according to ship tracking sites FleetMon and MarineTraffic. Another of his yachts, My Solaris, 460-feet long, set sail earlier this week from Barcelona, ​​where it had been berthed for three months, according to the tracking sites. As of Thursday, the vessel was sailing south of the Sicilian port of Ragusa.

Mr. Abramovich, a college dropout who was orphaned at a young age, made his money in the oil business. He combined forces with Boris Berezovsky, a mathematician turned entrepreneur with tight ties to form President Boris Yeltsin. The two merged their oil interests to create OAO Sibneft, which was later privatized.

The deal turned Mr. Abramovich into a multibillionaire. After creating Sibneft,

he went on to help found Rusal, the world’s second-biggest aluminum group.

The UK government said Mr. Abramovich and Mr. Putin had a close relationship for decades and that the tycoon benefited financially from this relationship. That included tax breaks received by companies linked to him, buying and selling shares from and to the Russian state at favorable rates and contracts his companies received in the run-up to the FIFA 2018 World Cup, the government said.

Corrections & Amplifications
Roman Abramovich acquired Chelsea in 2003. An earlier version of this article misspelled the soccer club’s name as Chelsea. (Corrected on March 10)

Write to Max Colchester at max.colchester@wsj.com

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