Sanctioned Russian Oligarch’s Wife Had U.S. Passport

When Russian billionaire Boris Rotenberg was sanctioned by the U.S., his wife Karina was left in an awkward position. Leaked records show his blacklisting led to complications, including banks blocking their joint accounts.

Key Findings

  • Leaked documents show that Karina Rotenberg used a U.S. passport to travel to Florida from France in 2013.
  • Banks were nervous about allowing a U.S. citizen to send and receive funds from a person sanctioned by Washington, even though they were married, and froze some of their accounts.
  • Karina herself was eventually sanctioned by the U.S. in 2022.

In 2014, shortly after Russia annexed Crimea, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned oligarch Boris Rotenberg for his close ties to his childhood friend Vladimir Putin. It turned Rotenberg into a global financial pariah: No U.S. citizen or company was allowed to do any business with him — not even so much as to buy him a cup of coffee.

Rotenberg’s glamorous Russian-born wife Karina, a socialite who has a passion for horseback riding and a large social media following, wasn’t blacklisted at the same time as her husband. This allowed the family to hold some of its valuable assets in her name.

But leaked records indicate she was a U.S. citizen, so being married to a sanctioned person left her the crosshairs of enforcement authorities. Properties, companies, and even joint bank accounts she owned with her husband now became a liability — any sharing or swapping of money or assets could lead to charges of violating U.S. sanctions.

The evidence for this is found in a new leaked archive of emails from a Russian management company belonging to lawyer Maxim Viktorov, a Moscow-based businessman who coordinated a team of fixers that came to the Rotenberg family’s aid after the sanctions were imposed.

Boris and Karina Rotenberg did not respond to requests for comment.

The leaked archive, dubbed the Rotenberg Files, consists of over 50,000 documents and emails sent between 2013 and 2020, and was obtained by IStories and OCCRP and shared with 15 other media outlets.

🔗About The Rotenberg Files

The Rotenberg Files is an investigative project based on a leak of over 50,000 records, including nearly 30,000 emails and some 12,000 documents, that shed light on how Russia’s most infamous oligarchs, the Rotenberg brothers, dealt with being sanctioned by the West.

Boris and Arkady Rotenberg were childhood friends of Russian President Vladimir Putin, became billionaires under his rule, and are widely considered to be among his closest allies. So it was little surprise that they were sanctioned by the United States in 2014, and later by the European Union, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea.

The question of how much those sanctions affected them, and what they and their families did to minimize their impact, is a difficult one — but the leaked emails, provided to IStories and OCCRP by a source who asked not to be named to protect their safety, provide unprecedented insights.

The emails, which cover the period between 2013 and 2020, come from Moscow-based Evocorp, an asset management company belonging to Maxim Viktorov, a Russian businessman. Viktorov turns out to be a key figure in the Rotenbergs’ maintenance of their assets and businesses around the world after they were sanctioned.

Over 60 journalists from 17 outlets spent three months analyzing the documents and conducting further reporting. They found a number of complex strategies, coordinated by Viktorov and his team and executed by a range of Western enablers — including lawyers, business consultants, bankers, and corporate service providers — that helped the Rotenbergs try to disguise their ownership of assets, move money, and relocate businesses to friendly jurisdictions.

With no end in sight to Russia’s brutal assault on Ukraine, the world’s attention will continue to be focused on Moscow. As the Rotenberg Files show, no less scrutiny is deserved by the army of Western specialists they employ — and enrich — to escape the consequences of their Kremlin alliances.

Boris and his brother Arkady grew up with Putin in what was then called Leningrad, and became billionaires thanks in part to lucrative state contracts. Both of them were sanctioned by the U.S. in the wake of Russian attacks on eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea.

It is not clear when Karina obtained U.S. citizenship, but a French customs document found in the emails shows that she had an American passport as early as 2013.

Though she usually traveled using her Russian passport, on December 17, 2013, en route to the Florida city of Palm Beach, she and her two children presented U.S. passports as they left France. The French document also shows Karina’s mother Liubov Gapchuk traveling under Russian and U.S. passports.

Among the other documents in the leak is Karina’s W-9, a U.S. tax form that gives her name, address and Social Security Number, showing she had the right to live and work in the United States. This document was for the 2014 tax year, and it appears in several email threads where European lawyers discuss her citizenship status.

Karina eventually joined her husband on the U.S. sanctions list in March 2022, just after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The Treasury Department did not answer questions about blacklisting Karina.

MVP: Most Valuable Passport?

The emails show that, at times, Karina’s U.S. passport offered a way around some of the more difficult conditions imposed by the sanctioning of her husband. But it also made it difficult for her to receive money from her husband.

In early 2015, with Boris’s funds in Switzerland and the EU frozen by banks, the couple appeared to have voiced concerns about being able to support their children.

Viktorov’s office got advice from U.S. law firm Kostelanetz & Fink — which bills itself as “the law firm of choice for clients facing high-stakes controversies” — but it provided little comfort. The law firm said Karina could apply for a special license from the U.S. to receive funds from her sanctioned husband, but “very few such licenses are ever granted” and the application itself could “bring [her] specifically to the attention” of the U.S. Treasury, leading to her being sanctioned as well. Kostelanetz & Fink did not respond to requests for comment.

It’s not clear if they applied for a license. Nevertheless, Boris Rotenberg appears to have found ways to transfer funds to Karina. A draft deposit agreement among the leaked documents indicates that, in November 2015, two million euros ($2.1 million) would be deposited in the Cyprus account of a British Virgin Islands (BVI) company, Gremarana Projects Limited. The bank — a Cypriot branch of Russia’s Promsvyazbank — would then make a loan for the same amount to Karina, using the Gremarana funds as collateral, according to a draft “letter of comfort,” apparently sent to the bank by Boris and Arkady, and found among the leaked documents.

It’s unclear whether the loan arrangement was executed.

Although not explicitly stated in the emails, it appears the two million euros would come from Boris Rotenberg. The Rotenberg brothers’ “letter of comfort” to Promsvyazbank said neither of them owned Gremarana, and that they would indemnify the bank against any actions that may result if this is not the case.

Rather, they said, Gremarana’s sole beneficiary was Aleksandr Kozlov — a man who has worked as Boris Rotenberg’s bodyguard and, according to communications and corporate documents found in the email leak, often served as his proxy. Other leaked files show that a company owned by Boris Rotenberg, Culloden Properties, regularly loaned millions of dollars to Gremarana. Viktorov gave his approval for these loans, as well as personally taking a six million euro ($6.3 million) loan from the company, according to the emails and documents, including bank transfer records.

Viktorov said neither he nor any of his companies had ever violated any laws, “in particular, the U.S. and EU sanctions legislation.” He described reporters’ findings as “erroneous.” Kozlov did not respond to questions.

As well as receiving funds from her husband, Karina sometimes put herself forward as the couple’s representative. The leaked emails show that when a Monaco-based lawyer, Donald Manasse, acted for the Rotenbergs in a dispute with French customs in 2014 and 2015, he billed Karina directly for the services provided.

In late 2014, a BVI company called Belnet was initially put forward as the buyer of a Spanish villa for the Rotenbergs, although finally it was replaced by a Maltese company. The emails indicate Belnet was co-owned by Karina and her husband. ILS Legal Services, an advisory company often used by Viktorov, said it would “be declaring Karina Rotenberg as the [beneficial owner]” in order to avoid any “issue.”

Karina was also the client when the Rotenbergs sought advice on dealing with Boris’s sanctions from top-flight law firms in London and the U.S., the leak shows.

Sanctioning Your Own Citizens

Karina’s glamorous lifestyle and passion for fitness and horseback riding have won her the high-society treatment in Russian media.

“There is still a lot of American in Karina” wrote the Russian edition of the British gossip magazine Tatler, whose 2016 feature on her was accompanied by photos in gowns, equestrian gear, and horses. It referenced her “Cheshire Cat” smile and “inner freedom.”

🔗Banking Gets Complicated

It is unusual, although not unheard of, that a person sanctioned by the United States has a close family member who is a U.S. citizen. Financial sanctions prevent individuals and companies in the United States from doing business with the designated national, and in this case the designated national was sharing a bedroom with a U.S. citizen spouse.

This troubled the Russia desk at Société Générale’s Monaco branch. The head of the desk sent an October 2015 email, which she forwarded to Viktorov, asking what analysis had been done on the Rotenbergs’ situation.

“Have you considered the nationality of [the] client in terms of restrictions imposed by U.S. regulations…that [forbid] an American to [interact] with a person under embargo,” the email read. “Have you done a legal analysis on the co-ownership of accounts between [husband and wife]?”

The French bank temporarily stopped servicing the Rotenbergs, citing sanctions. Société Générale said it could not comment on specifics due to banking secrecy rules, but added that it “strictly complies” with all laws and regulations and “diligently implements…international sanctions.”

The existence of a U.S. national as a spouse makes it “significantly more complicated whenever a U.S. citizen gets involved in that sort of thing,” says Collin Hunt, a former intelligence analyst for Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which administers sanctions.

Now a compliance consultant, Hunt said a U.S. citizen is afforded more rights to contest sanctions and that “a whole host of procedural issues, legal issues, discovery” work in favor of a U.S. citizen.

In the Tatler interview, Karina described how she moved to the United States with her parents as a teenager in 1993, just a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. She lived in both Atlanta and in South Florida.

Karina married Rotenberg in 2009, having divorced her millionaire American husband Benjamin Fox that same year. Fox declined to comment for this story, but it’s clear that her path to citizenship predated their marriage and the divorce settlement that left her with an Atlanta mansion.

Karina won a measure of notoriety in January 2007 when she sued the Bush Administration in a Florida courtroom, complaining in a federal civil suit that her naturalization request dating to 2003 was being unfairly delayed. In the complaint, she said her family received asylum on December 1, 1996.

That status made her a permanent resident and put her on a path to citizenship. Karina withdrew the complaint in September 2007.

Karina still has a legacy Facebook page in the United States that features a profile picture of her under the name Karina Roten Berg, and shows a photo of her competing in an equestrian event. The page has had no new postings since February 2016.

Karina's last public update
Credit: Screenshot from Karina’s last public update on her Facebook page.

There is a single post of her on horseback and she provides no personal information other than that she is married. That sole post has four comments, one of them a fellow equine enthusiast from Wellington, a South Florida town that attracts horseback enthusiasts from across the globe and where Karina kept a horse.

“You wouldn’t even think that she was Russian. I mean … if anything, [she] might have more of a southern twang than a Russian accent,” recalled Nadine Peacock, the Wellington commenter on the Facebook page.

In an interview, Peacock recalled the Rotenbergs fondly, especially Karina.

“She wasn’t pretentious. I mean, she always dressed beautifully and only got the best. But, I think it’s to be expected,” said Peacock.

Fact-checking was provided by the OCCRP Fact-Checking Desk.

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