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    Russians tied to Putin or military sidestep sanctions and draw protest

    LONDON — Despite heavy sanctions intended to isolate Russia over the war in Ukraine, dozens of Russians connected to President Vladimir Putin or the Russian military are still welcome in European Union countries, drawing criticism from politicians and antiwar activists.

    The critics include leaders of Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation who are pressing for more action by drawing attention to cases that seem to defy the goal of Western sanctions, which have been used to deny travel visas and to seize yachts, real estate and other property.

    Yelena Isinbayeva, an Olympic gold medal-winning Russian pole vaulter with close ties to Putin, and who also holds the honorary rank of major in the Russian army, is living quietly in a luxurious residence worth millions in Spain’s Canary Islands.

    A daughter and son-in-law of Boris Obnosov, head of the Russian-owned Tactical Missiles Corporation, which produces missiles and aerial bombs that have been destroying Ukrainian cities and infrastructure for more than a year, continue to live in Prague, where the family owns numerous properties and luxury vehicles.

    And Maria Kitayeva, a former adviser to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and an honorary major general, who is now reportedly in a relationship with Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov — has made repeated trips to Hungary and Italy for shopping sprees over the past year.

    Last month, 15 members of the European Parliament urged the European Commission to impose sanctions on Obnosov’s close family members. His daughter Olga and son-in-law Rostislav Zorikov have lived since 2020 in the Czech capital, where they and other family members reportedly own real estate worth more than $8 million.

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    Last month, Spain’s El Digital Sur news outlet reported that Isinbayeva — a well-known supporter of Putin — had moved with her family to Tenerife, where they now spend time between luxury villas. According to a new investigation by the Anti-Corruption Foundation, Isinbayeva bought two villas and a penthouse there worth roughly $3.2 million, which allowed her to receive a Spanish residency permit, just two weeks after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

    As Putin has ramped up his anti-Western rhetoric, casting the invasion as an existential battle with the West to ensure Russia’s future survival, Isinbayeva and other supporters of the Russian president and his war appear to have ignored this message, continuing to frequent their homes in Europe or making shopping trips to European cities.

    In response to the outrage over her move to Europe, Isinbayeva highlighted her career and achievements as an athlete over her links to the government, describing the coverage of the scandal as “fake.”

    In a July post on her VKontakte page, Isinbayeva wrote: “I live where I work, eat what I love, communicate with those whom I value and respect. … Remember: Envy is a destructive feeling. … I am a person of the world; I have always been and will remain so!”

    Western nations, led by the United States and the E.U., have imposed a string of far-reaching sanctions against top Russian politicians, military officials and wealthy business executives with ties to Putin. In some cases, their relatives were also put under sanctions.

    Some Russians have argued that individual citizens, even the wealthiest, should not be punished for Putin’s decision to go to war. Others insist that all of those whose wealth and success can be traced back to the Kremlin should be held responsible.

    In 2020, Isinbayeva participated in a working group on constitutional amendments that enabled Putin to potentially remain in power until 2036. She has not been targeted by any sanctions.

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    Kitayeva has been placed under sanctions by Canada and Ukraine over her support for the war and her career as a Russian propagandist — but not by the E.U.

    Ivanov, who is under E.U. and U.S. sanctions, is the top official in charge of construction for the Russian military and is overseeing the reconstruction of the occupied Ukrainian city of Mariupol.

    The Anti-Corruption Foundation also found that Ivanov’s ex-wife, Svetlana Maniovich, continued to travel to Europe last year, including to Paris for luxury spending sprees.

    Similarly, sanctions have not been levied against the brother, daughter and other relatives of Mkrtich Okroyan, the chief designer for Soyuz, a company that manufactures engines for many of the missiles being fired at Ukraine, including one that hit a shopping mall in Kremenchuk last year, killing at least 20. Okroyan’s relatives own huge luxury properties in Britain. The Anti-Corruption Foundation has called for Okroyan and his relatives to be included on E.U. and U.S. sanctions lists.

    Representatives of Okroyan, Kitayeva and the Russian Defense Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

    Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an exiled Russian businessman and Putin critic based in London, said that a year and a half after the start of the invasion, an “unsystematic” and “substandard” sanctions policy remains in place.

    “Representatives of the antiwar opposition, who are persecuted in Russia, have difficulty getting the opportunity to move to the West,” Khodorkovsky said. “While representatives of Putin’s elite, even relatives of war criminals who have acquired European residence permits in advance, live well in the West and spend money stolen in Russia there.”

    “Enough time has passed to develop a policy that would exclude these risks but would not discriminate against all citizens of Russia,” Khodorkovsky added.

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    Georgy Alburov, an investigator with the Anti-Corruption Foundation, said that after the invasion, many in the Russian elite were forced to recognize that they had built entire lives in the West and that sanctions would cut them off from their alternative existence “away from life under Vladimir Putin.”

    Many of these elites, including some officials, had sent their children to live abroad and maintained offshore bank accounts and holiday homes — all in countries now deemed by Putin as the enemy.

    Alburov said Western sanctions should be redesigned to “take into account Russian realities.”

    Russian officials rarely register properties in their own names and instead use the names of their lawyers or relatives. Usually, their sons and daughters continue to live in the West, where they continue to use their properties and spend and invest their assets.

    “Sanctions should be extended automatically and imposed on immediate family members, spouses, children and lawyers, in whose names all the property is registered,” Alburov said.

    Like Khodorkovsky, Alburov drew a clear distinction between rich Russian elites and ordinary Russians, some of whom had previously protested the government or the war and who are now struggling to obtain visas and employment, access financial services or obtain the software needed for their businesses.

    “The problem is that this only concerns people who don’t have money,” he said. “If you are a rich official or some kind of crook or thief, it is very easy. You can just get on a private plane and fly away. You can buy citizenship, you can buy a residence permit, or foreign property, which will give you a visa.”

    He added: “This is a big disappointment for all people who fight corruption in Russia.”

    Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.



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