Biden vows to seize Russian oligarchs' yachts, cash and more – but how?

Roman Abramovich's Super Yacht Solaris is seen moored at Barcelona Port on March 01, 2022 in Barcelona, Spain.
Roman Abramovich's Super Yacht Solaris is seen moored at Barcelona Port on March 01, 2022 in Barcelona, Spain. The U.S. and the European Union continue to impose heavy sanctions on Russia after invading Ukraine. Photo credit Getty Images

A transatlantic task force of world leaders is forming to target some of Russia's wealthiest residents in an attempt to further isolate the country from global markets and stop the continued invasion of Ukraine.

The White House said the objective of the task force is to uncover and freeze the foreign assets of Russian officials and politically connected elites close to President Vladimir Putin.

President Joe Biden mentioned the task force during his State of the Union address Tuesday night while issuing a warning to Russian oligarchs: "We are coming for your ill-begotten gains."

"The United States Department of Justice is assembling a dedicated task force to go after the crimes of the Russian oligarchs," Biden said. "We are joining with European allies to find and seize their yachts, their luxury apartments, their private jets.

"I say to the Russian oligarchs and the corrupt leaders who built billions off this violent regime — no more," Biden added.

In addition to the U.S., the task force includes leaders of the European Commission, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and Canada.

The so-called warning shot seemed to have an immediate effect, as growing number of superyachts belonging to Russian tycoons are now sailing the Indian Ocean in an attempt to avoid being seized, according to Bloomberg News. Other rumored associates of Putin's who are concerned about sanctions are offloading properties and other assets.

"It would be heartwarming to see seized mega-yachts, mansions and artworks auctioned off to support the Ukrainian people," Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island said in a statement to The Washington Post.

So, how do the sanctions work? Each country has a different process but in the U.S., it starts with adding the names of individuals, groups or businesses to a list of "specially designated nationals" maintained and published by the Treasury Department, according to The Washington Post. Anyone on that list will have their U.S. assets frozen.

The move is made legal by the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act, which allows one's assets to be forfeited to the federal government in connection with a long list of federal or foreign crimes, NBC News reported.

When it comes to real estate, federal authorities make sure the property has been vacated, the doors are padlocked and then the property -- be it a shopping center, luxury apartment or office building -- is off-limits, John Smith, former director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control, told Slate. Yachts and other assets like luxury vehicles and private jets work the same way, Smith said.

"If it's a yacht, it's locked," he added. "You have to make sure it doesn't sink."

Freezing assets -- meaning they can't be sold or transferred -- is relatively easy, a matter of paperwork and hunting down the property, Smith told Slate. But seizing assets and taking titles, which would give U.S. ownership of that asset, involves "some kind of process," he said.

The U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday officially launched a special unit to help with that process. Known as "Task Force KleptoCapture," the unit will enforce the sweeping sanctions, export restrictions and economic countermeasures that the U.S. and other allies have imposed in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"We will leave no stone unturned in our efforts to investigate, arrest, and prosecute those whose criminal acts enable the Russian government to continue this unjust war," Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement.

The DOJ said Task Force KleptoCapture will complement the work of the transatlantic task force announced by the president.

"Oligarchs be warned," said Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco. "We will use every tool to freeze and seize your criminal proceeds."

Featured Image Photo Credit: Getty Images