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LONDON – For almost two decades Roman Abramovich has been Britain’s best known Russian oligarch, the billionaire owner of an elite soccer club who retained his wealth and influence no matter how much politicians in London and Moscow traded insults.
That ended on Thursday when Mr. Abramovich and six other oligarchs became the latest to have their assets frozen by a British government that has been criticized for being slow to target rich Russians.
The decision by Prime Minister Boris Johnson is striking because Mr. Abramovich is widely known to the British public through his ownership of Chelsea, a premier league soccer club, making him the most visible symbol of Russia’s influence in mainstream British life.
And this time Mr. Johnson is not playing catch up when targeting wealthy Russians, instead becoming the first western leader to put Mr. Abramovich on a sanctions list.
Perhaps anticipating a move by the government, Mr. Abramovich, 55, had been trying to sell Chelsea, but he has now lost control of the club and is unable to visit Britain. For ownership to change hands, special permission would be needed, and no proceeds would be allowed to flow back to its current owner, British officials say.
As a result of the sanctions, Mr. Abramovich, whose assets reportedly include a house in an exclusive street in west London bought in 2011 for £ 90 million, is now banned from even paying for electricity at properties in Britain, let alone renting them out or selling them.
Since he bought Chelsea in 2003, Mr. Abramovich has been a major figure in the world of English soccer, where he has been famously impatient for success and for replacing coaches who failed to win trophies.
His stature in Britain appeared unaffected by the country’s strained relations with Moscow following the poisoning in 2006 of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent and foe of the Kremlin.
The same was true in 2018 after the nerve agent attack in Britain on Sergei Skripal, a former Russian agent, which Britain claimed was the work of the Kremlin. He withdrew an application for an investor visa but, as a holder of both Portuguese and Israeli passports, was still able to visit London.
More recently there was speculation that he might emerge as a peace envoy in the Ukraine war, a suggestion that implied he had contacts to the Kremlin, even if Mr. Abramovich has denied having strong links to the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin.
In its sanctions statement on Thursday, the British government argued, bluntly, that this is untrue. It said Mr. Abramovich has had a “close relationship” with Mr. Putin for decades, adding: “This association has included obtaining a financial benefit or other material benefit from Putin and the Government of Russia.”
It added: “This included tax breaks received by companies linked to Abramovich, buying and selling shares from and to the state at favorable rates, and the contracts received in the run up to the FIFA 2018 World Cup.”
The statement also says that one company in which Mr. Abramovich is a stockholder, Evraz PLC, could be “potentially supplying steel to the Russian military which may have been used in the production of tanks.”
Also sanctioned on Thursday was Oleg Deripaska, who the government said has stakes in the Russian energy and aluminum company En + Group.
Others on the sanctions list were Igor Sechin, the chief executive of Rosneft; Andrey Kostin, chairman of VTB; Alexei Miller, chief executive of Gazprom; Nikolai Tokarev, president of Transneft; and Dmitri Lebedev, chairman of Bank Rossiya.
That brings Britain’s list of oligarchs who have been sanctioned since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to 18.
The move against high profile oligarchs is likely to defuse some of the criticism of Mr. Johnson who has been accused of moving too slowly to tackle Russian influence in London.
Since he became prime minister in 2019, Mr. Johnson’s Conservative Party, or its individual constituency associations, have received 1.93 million pounds ($ 2.5 million) from donors who are either Russian or who made money from Russia, according to calculations by the opposition Labor Party, based on disclosures to the Electoral Commission. Mr. Johnson has also been accused of ignoring the warnings of security officials when he nominated Evgeny Lebedev, a newspaper proprietor, to the House of Lords.