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Ukraine’s Disgraced President Might Have Smuggled a Boatload of Cash to Russia

Viktor Yanukovych has been accused of stealing $32 billion as he fled Ukraine, and he might have transported the money on a luxury yacht.

by Alice Speri
Apr 29 2014, 7:45pm

Photo via AP

Ukraine’s ousted president has been accused of stealing a yacht-load of cash.

Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia overnight when the Euromaidan protests against his government turned sour in February — but he may have still found a way to carry billions of the country’s money with him.

That, at least, is the accusation made by Oleh Makhnitskyi, Ukraine’s interim prosecutor general, who told the Financial Times that the former president and his entourage smuggled at least $32 billion out of the country and used it to finance "provocateurs" who attacked anti-government protesters.

To put that in perspective, Ukraine’s state budget for 2014 is reportedly $31.5 billion, and the country is desperate for financial aid.

The next President of Ukraine is going to have a lot of stuff to deal with. Read more here.

Makhnitskyi said he believes Yanukovych is using at least some of that money to fund the separatist movement that has engulfed eastern Ukraine in recent weeks. The investigation implicated more than 50 companies, including 17 banks, and dozens of individuals, Makhnitski said, organized in an "octopus" structure.

“According to our investigations, it is known today that a gang structure, an organized criminal group, was acting in Ukraine,” Makhnitskyi told the Financial Times. “This criminal structure was very much affiliated to power, and this structure was headed by former president Yanukovych."

So $32 billion wouldn't fit in a helicopter. It maybe could, however, fit onto a yacht.

He also slammed Russian authorities — who have welcomed the fleeing president and claimed that he remains Ukraine’s sole legitimate head — for their refusal to extradite Yanukovych.

“Today the Russian Federation is officially harboring criminals, such as Yanukovych, Pshonka, Zakharchenko, and does not recognize them as guilty,” Makhnitskyi said, according to the Kiev Post, referring to the former prosecutor general and the former interior minister, in addition to the ousted president.

In the video below, Yanukovych speaks at a March 11 press conference in Russia, in which he says he is still “alive” and still the “legitimate president of Ukraine.” He has consistently denied all allegations of corruption.

And what about the $32 billion Yanukovych allegedly took to Russia?

The Kiev Post reported that the money was taken out of the country "in cash."

In $100 notes, assuming the money was in US currency, $32 billion would hardly fit in a helicopter, which is how Yanukovych was last seen fleeing Kiev.

The video below, captured by security cameras, apparently shows Yanukovych leaving the capital on the night of February 21.

If you don’t have access to $1 billion or $1 trillion in cash but are curious to know whether either might fit in your apartment, here’s a nice visualization (and the answer is, probably not.)

So $32 billion wouldn't fit in a helicopter — or even two — in the case of Yanukovych’s escape. It maybe could, however, fit onto a yacht or two.

After Yanukovych vanished into thin air, and before he resurfaced in Russia, rumors and speculation about his whereabouts captured the world's imagination, with some suggesting that the ousted president might have left the country by sea — fleeing Crimea (at that point still in Ukraine) on one of his son’s yachts — the 88-feet Bandido or the 95-feet Centurion. And you can surely load a huge amount of cash onto a luxury boat.

A visualization of money up to the national US debt, in physical $100 bills.

In addition to possibly fueling the unrest in eastern Ukraine, this money might also be helping Yanukovych — who is well known for his penchant for luxury — keep up an extravagant lifestyle in exile.

After he fled Ukraine, Euromaidan protesters seized his opulent mansion outside Kiev — a gold-leafed, golf course-equipped estate rumored to be “half the size of Monaco” — and opened it up to the public as a local sort of a post-revolutionary Disneyland.

“The average monthly salary in Ukraine is around 300 euro ($415),” VICE News correspondent Henry Langston said, while touring the estate. “A lot of protesters are very unhappy that Yanuokovych had such a place to live, given that living standards in this country is so low.”

Below, the VICE News dispatch from Yanukovych’s estate.

Meanwhile, 35 governments got together in London today to discuss ways to help Ukraine’s new authorities recover the billions of dollars Yanukovych might have stored away around the world.

At the two-day event — known as the Ukraine Forum on Asset Recovery — the UK and US pledged they would help the Ukrainian people get back any stolen money. Speaking at the event, Makhnitskyi said his office would investigate Yanukovych’s tenure, during which he said a corrupt "Mafioso-style scheme" operated at various levels of government and official institutions, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The UK Serious Fraud Office also said on Monday that it had frozen $23 million of assets as parts of a money laundering investigation with ties to Ukraine.

And US Attorney General Eric Holder paraphrased boxer Joe Louis in referring to those responsible for stealing Ukraine’s money, declaring: “You can run, but you can't hide.”

“Repatriation of those amounts of money would go a long way to dealing with the issues that are presently confronting the Ukrainian people,” Holder said at a press conference today. “There should be no mistake, we are determined in our effort to be successful, we are determined to hold accountable those who were responsible for the theft of these Ukrainian assets, and we are also determined to make sure these assets are returned to the Ukrainian people.”

But that, he warned, could take years.

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi