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September 1, 2022Houston, TX, United StatesCounter Proliferation Investigation Unit, National Security

US obtains warrant to seize $45M aircraft owned by Russian energy company following investigation by HSI Houston, federal partners

HOUSTON - The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas issued a warrant Aug. 31 for the U.S. to seize a $45 million aircraft owned by a Russian multinational oil and gas corporation following an investigation by Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Houston, FBI Houston, and the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security into alleged violations of sanctions imposed on Russia for invading Ukraine.

In authorizing the seizure of the Boeing 737-7EM owned by PJSC LUKOIL, the court found probable cause that the aircraft was subject to seizure based on violations of federal law.

Earlier this year, the Department of Commerce issued sanctions against Russia in response to their invasion of Ukraine. The sanctions impose export controls and license requirements to protect U.S. national security and foreign policy interests. The Russia sanctions expanded prohibitions on the export, reexport, or in-country transfer of U.S.-manufactured aircraft to, or within, Russia without a valid license or license exception, among other things.

According to court documents, LUKOIL owns the Boeing aircraft – bearing tail number VP-CLR and manufacturer serial number 34865 – which flew into and out of Russia in violation of the Department of Commerce’s Russia sanctions.

“By aggressively pursuing the seizure of these assets, we have sent a resounding message to sanctions violators and third-party facilitators around the globe that we are committed to targeting any individual or entity that seeks to blatantly skirt the sanctions, export controls and license requirements imposed by the United States in response to Russia’s unprovoked military invasion of Ukraine,” said Mark Dawson, special agent in charge of HSI Houston. “Using our broad investigative and enforcement authorities and global reach, HSI will continue to work alongside our federal partners to protect U.S. national security interests and inflict maximum disruptive effects against anyone who violates these sanctions in an effort to support the Russian government.”

“The FBI will remain focused and faithful to our responsibility to protect our U.S. national security and foreign policy interests,” said Special Agent in Charge James Smith of the FBI – Houston Field Office. “We’ll continue to go after individuals who insist on helping Russia advance its hostile and illegal activities, and we’ll continue to seize their valuable possessions, wherever they may be. We thank Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the Department of Commerce for their partnership in this case.”

“Once again, the United States, through its experts at the FBI and the Department of Commerce, has laid open a series of shell companies and sham corporations designed to conceal the ownership and illegal movements of controlled technology,” said Task Force KleptoCapture Director Andrew C. Adams. “The aircraft at the center of today’s affidavit was ultimately the property of Lukoil, though that ownership was obscured through a now-public series of holding companies. With today’s unsealed affidavit, aviation, insurance, and financial services companies are made aware of that nesting doll-structure and can proactively avoid the provision of services that might aid the movement of this tainted aircraft as the United States pursues its seizure.”

“Today’s actions to enforce the powerful export restrictions placed on Russia are our latest coordinated measures that let Vladimir Putin and his allies know they are isolated, and we are watching,” said Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Export Enforcement Matthew S. Axelrod. “The Commerce Department’s Office of Export Enforcement continues to vigorously enforce the export laws of the United States and stand with the people of Ukraine against Putin’s war of aggression.”

The Boeing last flew into the United States in March 2019 when the plane flew from overseas to Houston with LUKOIL officials, including a Russian oligarch – then LUKOIL president and CEO Vagit Alekperov – on board the aircraft. The Boeing is believed to be in Russia and worth approximately $45 million. Since September 2014, LUKOIL, which is headquartered in Moscow, Russia, and has ties to Houston, Texas, has been subject to sectoral sanctions imposed by the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

The seizure action is being coordinated through the Justice Department’s Task Force KleptoCapture, an interagency law enforcement task force dedicated to enforcing the sweeping sanctions, export controls and economic countermeasures that the United States, along with its foreign allies and partners, has imposed in response to Russia’s unprovoked military invasion of Ukraine. Announced by the Attorney General on March 2 and run out of the Office of the Deputy Attorney General, the task force will continue to leverage all the department’s tools and authorities to combat efforts to evade or undermine the collective actions taken by the U.S. government in response to Russian military aggression.

The investigation into the additional aircraft remains ongoing.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys John Pearson and Brandon L. Fyffe of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas and Trial Attorneys Lindsay M. Heck and Sinan Kalayoglu of the Criminal Division’s Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section are leading the seizure action. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, the FBI’s New York Field Office and the Federal Aviation Administration provided significant assistance.

For more news and information on HSI Houston’s efforts to investigate and enforce U.S. export control laws relating to military items, controlled dual-use goods, and sanctions violations follow us on Twitter @HSIHouston.