LONDON — In the middle of the night, protesters on Monday broke into a white stucco mansion in central London belonging to the family of a Russian oligarch, unfurled a Ukrainian flag, and declared the property “liberated” and ready for refugees.
The mansion belongs to the family of Oleg Deripaska, an oil and metals tycoon who was added to the U.K. sanctions list last week alongside his former business partner Roman Abramovich and five others in the British government’s most aggressive crackdown yet on Russian elites it says have close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A spokeswoman for Deripaska, Larisa Belyaeva, said the house belongs to members of the Deripaska family rather than to him personally. She added that the family was “appalled at the negligence of Britain’s justice system.”
The occupation ended Monday evening when four protesters who remained on the balcony were arrested after an hours-long standoff with London’s Metropolitan police. But the seizure of the home along what the tabloids have dubbed “billionaire row” reflects an idea floated by British politicians in recent weeks to turn palatial properties owned by sanctioned Russian elites into effective refugee shelters.
“I want to explore an option which would allow us to use the homes and properties of sanctioned individuals for as long as they are sanctioned for humanitarian and other purposes,” housing minister Michael Gove told BBC News on Sunday.
But the government can’t just take away the house keys. Analysts say property seizure is different from applying sanctions and freezing assets. Sanctioned oligarchs are allowed to live in their homes. Gove conceded his proposal would be legally challenging, but he said it was something the U.K. government was investigating.
“We are saying, ‘you’re sanctioned, you’re supporting Putin, this home is here, you have no right to use or profit from it,’” he said. “If we can use it in order to help others, let’s do that.”
London Mayor Sadiq Khan echoed that idea Monday, telling ITV News that the “goldbricked” London homes of Russian oligarchs could be used to help with the refugee crisis. “For some time I’ve been complaining about the number of homes in our city owned by Russian oligarchs close to Putin that have stood empty gathering dust at a time when we have a housing crisis,” Khan said.
Finding ways to help support Ukrainian refugees might go over well with the British public, as more than three-fourths of surveyed Brits say they support the United Kingdom resettling some Ukrainian refugees. Britain has so far granted around 4,000 visas to Ukrainian refugees, a fraction of what other European countries are doing.
Until now, only those with family ties to the United Kingdom could apply for a visa. On Monday, the government launched a second route, called “Homes for Ukraine,” that will allow the British public to offer rooms to any Ukrainian refugee. More than 43,000 British residents signed up to take part in the first five hours of the website going live.
It would not be impossible for the British government to seize the properties of sanctioned oligarchs to help refugees, but there are legal hurdles.
“These assets have been frozen, they haven’t been confiscated. They still belong to the same people. They have just been frozen so they can’t be sold,” said Tom Keatinge, director of the center for financial crime and security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank based in London.
Oligarchs can be served with an “unexplained wealth order,” a power introduced in 2018 that allows the British courts to compel a target to reveal the sources of their riches. If the state can make a case that a property was purchased with the proceeds of corruption, then they can seize the property. This takes time, money, lawyers.
Sanctions don’t provide the due process needed to confiscate assets, Keatinge said. “We need to be very careful we don’t descend into the authoritarian thuggishness that inhabits countries where the rule of law doesn’t exist,” he said. “You can’t go around expropriating assets off of people where we claim they are connected with the Putin regime. That is not what you do in a democracy.”
Stacy Keen, a lawyer in Glasgow who specializes in financial sanctions, said people who are sanctioned aren’t “locked out” of using their property. “Their assets are frozen, so if it’s funds in a bank account, those are frozen. If it’s a property, then they can’t sell or mortgage the property unless there’s a special license in place that authorizes them to do so,” she said.
She added that while it wasn’t possible to seize properties of people who are on the sanctions list, there was “a lot of discussion around what’s potentially on the horizon and they way they may look to develop the sanctions regime and to bolster it.”
At the mansion in central London, the squatters weren’t left alone for long. They told reporters they arrived at 1 a.m. on Monday morning. Within hours, dozens of police officers were on the scene.
The home in Belgrave Square isn’t hard to find. It’s a highlight on “kleptocracy tours” in London given by anti-corruption campaigners. In addition to the Ukrainian flag, the protesters hung banners outside the home that read “power breeds parasites” and “this property has been liberated.” When a Washington Post reporter asked the protesters to describe their group, they referred to themselves as the “London Mahknovists,” a reference to Nestor Makhno, a Ukrainian anarchist revolutionary.
Asked what they thought should happen to the building, one protester, who was wearing black and had his face covered, shouted, “We want Ukrainian refugees to have this property.”