Rybolovlev's Rules A Russian Billionaire's Monaco Fiefdom

In 2011, a Russian billionaire set out to rescue the ailing AS Monaco football club. He invested in top players and invited government, police and justice officials to matches. He handed out both gifts and jobs. Last week, however, Dmitry Rybolovlev was charged with corruption. By DER SPIEGEL Staff

Dmitry Rybolovlev of Russia, President of AS Monaco Football Club
REUTERS/ Benedikt Rugar/ DER SPIEGEL

Dmitry Rybolovlev of Russia, President of AS Monaco Football Club


Her Royal Highness' feet must have felt great. Princess Charlène, wife of Prince Albert II of Monaco, had her private secretary address a note to "Dear Mr. Rybolovlev," thanking him "for the wonderful running shoes, the sports bag and the clothes," he had sent her. She wrote that she had been "very touched" by his gesture and attention, and that she would "wear these presents with great pleasure."

Even though business in the principality isn't currently flourishing the way it was 20 years ago, it's still good enough for the court of the Grimaldis to be able to afford their own jogging shoes. Who, then, would even consider the idea of sending athletic shoes to the palace? And why would the princess express the kind of exuberant gratitude one might expect if someone had placed a tiara in a velvet box at her bedside?

To put the gift and those lines in the thank-you card into perspective, it helps to take a closer look at Mr. Rybolovlev. When he isn't spending the night in police custody as he did last week, the Russian resides in the penthouse at La Belle Époque, a residence worth 300 million euros that offers views of the port and the palace. He became a friend of the royal family in 2011 after purchasing the football club AS Monaco, one of the prince's favorite playthings, for a symbolic euro, before going on to invest more than 300 million euros, much of it in players, in the years to come and returning the team to the international stage.

Solely because of his passion for football? Probably not.

Born in the city of Perm near the Ural Mountains, the 51-year-old Rybolovlev is an oligarch. One of the oligarchs who became so obscenely rich from natural resources that he eventually grew to fear his own government -- and, like so many others, moved to the West, where he used his money to gain access to high society. Many oligarchs are suspected of continuing to maintain close ties with patronage networks back in Russia, sometimes leading right up to the government in Moscow.

Dmitry Rybolovlev's is a figure who could come straight from the pages of a John le Carré novel. His is a story of power, intrigue, betrayal and seemingly immeasurable sums of money.

The son of two medical doctors, Rybolovlev also studied medicine himself and completed his training as a cardiologist. He knew very little about football when he acquired AS Monaco and he even hired his own coach to teach him the basics of the sport. Thousands of confidential documents provide hints as to his motives for trying to breathe life into a team that had become the prince's problem child. These include emails, contracts and files, all part of the trove of data the whistleblower platform Football Leaks made available to DER SPIEGEL, documents the newsmagazine then shared with the journalism network European Investigative Collaborations (EIC). Files relating to investigations conducted by judicial officials in Monaco have also been viewed by journalists from the French news site Mediapart.

The papers make it clear why public prosecutors filed corruption charges against Rybolovlev in early November. Rybolovlev, it seems, bought far more than just a sports team -- he also appears to have the principality's officials under his thumb. Using AS Monaco, he was apparently able to build up a tight network with close contacts to ministers, members of parliament and police officials who helped him with his business interests, provided him with confidential information and formulated draft laws reflecting his needs. That network entailed the exchange of information, favors and gifts both small and large -- the kinds of things that can be used to establish or maintain friendships.

Rybolovlev is a master at calculated generosity. In retracing his history, one stumbles across two killers, an energetic investigating judge, Donald Trump, a wife in prison, a painting by Leonardo da Vinci and the job hunt of Princess Stéphanie's son.

Part I: TWO KILLERS AND A BILLION-DOLLAR DEAL

The 1990s were a wild time. Anything seemed possible during the Soviet Union's collapse. The shackles of communism had been broken and anybody with decent contacts, a nose for business and sufficient chutzpah had the potential to become extremely wealthy. In Perm, a city with a population of one million on the border between Europe and Asia about 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) east of Moscow, Rybolovlev recognized the opportunities posed by this era of transition. He abandoned his career as a doctor, tried his hand at being a financial services provider and became so successful that he bought stakes in various companies. Even back then, he was able to afford a retreat for himself and his family on Lake Geneva.

It was also a tough time: Corruption blossomed while former KGB intelligence agents interfered in many aspects of business. Human lives mattered little and the line between organized crime and legal deals blurred.

Sustained success was only possible to those who could protect their newly acquired economic interests from competitors and political capriciousness. And to those who knew people who could help to quickly solve problems. Western intelligence agencies called these informal groupings "clans" or Organized Crime Groups (OCG). They're generally comprised of entrepreneurs, local politicians, former KGB agents and members of the military -- all of them usually from the same town. "Russians think in networks -- and they think long term," says one Russian expert with a German security agency. "Old friendships are what count."

Rybolovlev's protector in Perm was a clique led by Yury Trutnev. During the 1990s, he traded in foodstuffs from the West and became mayor of Perm in 1996. By just over seven years later, he had worked his way up to the position of natural resources minister in Moscow, where he is deputy prime minister today.

In 1995, Rybolovlev experienced his first career setback when a business partner was shot to death in his hallway. Investigators initially had few leads -- until a prison inmate claimed that he had hired two killers to carry out the hit and that Rybolovlev had supplied the pair with the weapons.

The police arrested Rybolovlev and he was held in jail for 11 months. But prosecutors had nothing to go on other than the inmate's testimony. Rybolovlev was ultimately released due to lack of evidence, though it surely didn't hurt that the widow of the murdered business partner lauded her late husband's relationship with Rybolovlev.

This cleared the path for Rybolovlev's continued ascent to the premier league of oligarchs. He invested in Uralkali, a potash company that is active globally. By 2005, he had allegedly amassed his first billion in fertilizer manufacturing.

But on Oct. 17, 2006, he was struck by "the worst ecological disaster in the former Soviet Union since Chernobyl," as Moscow newspapers would describe it. That day, water seeped into the shafts of the potash mine beneath the city of Berezniki, dissolving the salt and causing the ground around it to collapse, creating a 170-by-90-meter (558-by-295-foot) sinkhole. It damaged homes, railroad tracks and roads. A power plant and a train line, the main arteries for the entire region's industry, were also impaired.

At first, it appeared Rybolovlev had escaped the worst. A government commission led by his friend Trutnev, who, as natural resources minister, was responsible for the investigation at the time, exonerated Rybolovlev of any culpability in the disaster, instead blaming the sinkhole on a geological anomaly.

A little less than two years later, though, it became clear to Rybolovlev that his clan structure was weakening as calls grew within the Kremlin for the state to be strengthened. President Vladimir Putin wanted key industries that had been privatized during the 1990s under President Boris Yeltsin -- including oil, natural gas and other resources -- to be put back into the hands of owners with links to the Kremlin. And because potash is a key ingredient in fertilizer production, it was one of those resources, important both for domestic agriculture and as an export. Given that Russia is the only large-scale producer of potash other than the United States, the country wanted to flex its muscles on the global market. "Putin sent out the messages that the oligarchs were no longer to just be collecting money for themselves and their friends, but that they were also to serve the country's foreign policy interests," says the Russia expert.

The man tasked with reining in the oligarchs was Igor Sechin, Russia's deputy prime minister at the time and also an old friend of Putin's from their years together in St. Petersburg. In fall 2008, Sechin ordered a fresh investigation into the Berezniki mining disaster. Shares in the potash company plunged dramatically and it suddenly found itself facing off against a Kremlin demanding between $1.5 billion and $50 billion in damages. Kremlin officials wanted Rybolovlev to pay for the fact that no potash could be mined in Berezniki in the months following the accident.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow also followed the events closely. In a classified cable, the diplomats noted that "powerful elements within the government would use greater state control over the economy" to further their own interests. The threatened fines raised the suspicion that "someone in the government planned to seize the company."

Rybolovlev began fearing he might be stripped of his life's achievements -- until he suddenly reached an agreement with the Kremlin in early 2009. Uralkali paid $218 million for, among other things, a new train line and the Kremlin's demand for billions was apparently history. Was Rybolovlev's old friend Trutnev to thank for his rescue? Or had he agreed to an expensive deal with the Kremlin?

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Rumors still circulate in Western intelligence circles today that Rybolovlev bought his way out from under the multibillion-dollar cloud hanging over him. In December 2008, only a few weeks before reaching an agreement with the Russian government, he sold 25 percent of his shares to Keralt Global, a company in Panama. Documents provided to DER SPIEGEL by the Süddeutsche Zeitung and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) show that majority ownership in the firm is held by a man named Maxim Markevitch.

The man, an owner of what appears to be a multibillion-dollar fortune, is virtually unknown. With the exception of a deserted apartment in Moscow and an apartment in the surroundings of Zurich, there are no traces of him. Western intelligence services believe Markevitch merely acts as a strawman for a big name in the Kremlin. Markevitch could not be reached for comment.

Russia experts recognize a familiar pattern in Rybolovlev's background that is typical of the Putin era. At the turn of the new century, many oligarchs were forced to sell their shares in Russian companies and go into exile. Those who resisted threatened to wind up like Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The former head of the energy company Yukos dared to challenge the Kremlin and was arrested in 2003. The Kremlin broke up and nationalized his company.

Rybolovlev chose a smoother path. In mid-2010, he sold a 53.2 percent stake in Uralkali for $6.5 billion to three entrepreneurs with close connections to the Kremlin.

That was more than enough money to start a new life in the West. But where to start it? He did own the property on Lake Geneva, but his ex-wife, with whom he was going through an expensive and contentious divorce, was living there.

He had already established an opaque network of companies in Cyprus at the beginning of the 2000s, and in 2010, acquired a 10 percent stake in the troubled Bank of Cyprus. The Mediterranean island is famous for offering citizenship to foreigners if they invest a sufficient amount of money. And a passport from a European Union country would also allow Rybolovlev to travel freely in the world of the rich and the beautiful.

Part II: HELPING THOSE YOU KNOW

Some famous players have worn AS Monaco's red and white jersey in the past: France's Thierry Henry, Germany's Jürgen Klinsmann and England's Glenn Hoddle among them. And the crowds in the stands at Louis II Stadium have celebrated some magnificent victories, including being crowned champions of France's Ligue 1 seven different times. But during the autumn of 2011, the pride of the Grimaldis had hit rock bottom: The team had been relegated and it was broke.

Prince Albert II, the football club's owner, wasn't in a position to ask many questions -- and he could make even fewer demands. The man who suddenly presented himself as the club's savior undoubtedly had one thing: enough money to make AS Monaco a contender once again by acquiring players who could deliver the team back to the top league.

In December, Rybolovlev took on a 66.67 percent stake in the club and became the club's president. The move changed his status almost overnight, transforming him from being just one of many nouveau riche Russians into a cultural force in Monaco. Astonishment over the investor turned into admiration with the club's resurgence in 2013: Right at the beginning, Rybolovlev had spent well over 100 million euros on top players to get the team back to shipshape.

At the same time, he also invested in good neighborly relations. Over the years, the number of civil servants he delighted at Christmas -- "with very good wine for the gentlemen and Champagne and chocolate for the ladies" -- continued to grow. The presents made an excellent impression: "I am touched and embarrassed at the same time," one member of the prince's entourage wrote by way of thanks, noting he would be happy to help out AS Monaco.

Benedikt Rugar/ DER SPIEGEL

In 2014, Rybolovlev further expanded his Christmas list. He asked Vadim Vasilyev, his deputy at AS Monaco, to create a list of important people the club should send a gift basket to during the holiday season. Vasilyev, a former diplomat who is highly affable and speaks perfect French, created a list of 52 names that were divided into the "categories A, B and C." At the very top was "Son Altesse Sérénissime le Prince ALBERT II," who received a special ration of 200 grams of Beluga Caviar. Beneath that, neatly categorized, was anyone of importance in the principality, anyone with power and influence -- from city hall to the police to the judiciary. Everyone from the general secretary of the Yacht Club de Monaco ("A") to the president of Automobile Club de Monaco ("B"), which organizes the Monaco Grand Prix, to the commander of the Carabiniers du Prince ("C").

That year, the favors distributed among the authorities and local offices had begun to make their presence felt. Monaco's police chief, Régis Asso, for example, apparently saw nothing wrong with approaching Rybolovlev in July to ask if the son of his Russian teacher could do an internship in the "family office" of the billionaire. Allowing an IT student into the most sensitive part of his corporate network seemed a bit foolhardy, but Vasilyev thought giving the young man "a contract for two or three months" at AS Monaco might be a good investment.

At almost the exact same time, the club vice president received an inquiry from a 21-year-old who had just finished his sports management degree in the U.S. and wanted to become a player agent. He claimed to be well-connected with the prince. And it wasn't a bluff. The young man was Louis Ducruet, the son of Princess Stéphanie, seventh in line to the throne in the Grimaldi family at the time.

Ducruet received an internship at AS Monaco, was later given an annual contract as a scout with a salary of 3,000 euros per month and was then made responsible for the club's expansion to Asia.

Owning an attractive football team means you don't have to reserve your gift-giving for the Christmas season. You can hand out presents every week if you like, at every match. In July 2013, with the team just having made its return to the first league, a senior team employee drew up a team lineup of a rather unique sort: A list of around 100 people who were to be given season tickets to future matches. Most of them were for the Ministry of State (66 seats) while many others went to the palace (26 seats). AS Monaco matches were becoming a rendezvous for civil servants.

In January 2015, though, the team's head of marketing began questioning the culture of beneficence. It wasn't that he was worried about compliance issues. His primary concern was money. He had taken a closer look at the number of free tickets that had been handed out for a sold-out Champions League match against the London club FC Arsenal and was, he said, "shocked" by how much money AS Monaco was losing out on. Club Vice President Vasilyev, he wrote in a brusque missive, absolutely needed to know how many tickets had been given away to "the police, government, mayor, etc."

Pursuant to that letter, team management revised the practice, moving immediately to a system of allocating tickets on a game-by-game basis. That meant more administrative work, but it limited the number of seats that went unused and made the tickets more desirable. And Vasilyev himself kept an eye on the ticket distribution. The AS Monaco vice president would even offer a premium package on occasion. In May 2016, Serge Telle, Monaco's new head of government, flew to an away match in Lyon onboard a jet belonging to Fedcom, AC Monaco's jersey sponsor. And his 13-year-old son got to come along as well.

Part III: THE BOUVIER AFFAIR

Dmitry Rybolovlev is a rather shy individual. That could be a consequence of his inability to speak French or English. More likely, though, he just isn't a fan of being around people. When he threw a 46th birthday party for himself at his place in Hawaii in 2012, he left the festivities at 9 p.m. At the Cannes Film Festival in May, the two sides of the Russian were on full display. On the one hand, he sponsored the gala of the AIDS foundation amfAR. On the other, during the unavoidable traverse of the red carpet, he hid his eyes behind dark glasses and walked wordlessly past the photographers.

As such, Rybolovlev is a tragic figure. He is among the 250 richest people in the world and owns an Airbus, two mega-yachts and numerous homes, including the most expensive apartment in Manhattan ($88 million). But he is constantly running away. People in his orbit describe him as a control freak who spends his days strictly adhering to the schedule set up by his personal assistant. Life in Russia has taught him to be paranoid: He only drinks water out of freshly opened bottles and his closest employees are like family and are expected to join him for the midday meal. The man who has half of Monaco in his pocket is actually isolated and lonely, without real friends who have no interest in his money.

Even long before his Côte d'Azur days, back when he was moving back and forth between Geneva, Cyprus and the Urals, Rybolovlev discovered art as a capital investment. The fact that art provides opportunities for hiding and laundering money may have played a role, but there is currently no proof of such shenanigans in his case.

In 2003, the billionaire entrusted himself to an expert in the field, Yves Bouvier of Switzerland. Bouvier had excellent contacts and was well-versed in the tricks of the trade. Through Bouvier, Rybolovlev acquired works from old and new masters worth $2 billion -- until the two business partners began arguing about the purchase price of a Leonardo da Vinci painting.

In March 2013, the 16th century work of art was transported in strict secrecy to Rybolovlev's New York penthouse. The painting, called "Salvator Mundi," depicts Christ as the world's savior and originated in da Vinci's workshop -- and was likely painted by the master himself.

Officially, Bouvier charged a commission of 2 percent per painting. Secretly, though, he acted as a buyer and seller. He paid the former owners of the artwork $80 million and then turned around and charged Rybolovlev $127.5 million.

The Russian collector only realized how Bouvier' business model truly worked almost two years later when it became apparent that the Swiss art expert had charged him $118 million instead of $93.5 million for an Amedeo Modigliani painting. In January 2015, Rybolovlev filed a lawsuit against the art dealer and a few weeks later, the police in Monaco took Bouvier into custody.

The fact that Monaco authorities made a strong effort to defend Rybolovlev's interests constitutes the core of the current corruption investigations against the Russian. Numerous documents indicate not only that he was liberal with his handouts, but also that people in his network in politics, the judiciary and public administration were happy to return the favor. The documents show how Rybolovlev ruthlessly leveraged his contacts to work against his adversaries.

Benedikt Rugar/ DER SPIEGEL

He enjoyed a particularly close relationship with Philippe Narmino, Monaco's justice minister. In February 2015, Narmino spent two days at Rybolovlev's chalet in Gstaad, Switzerland. That alone might be seen as far short of kosher. But it looks even more fishy when one considers that the art dealer Bouvier was arrested just a few days later as a consequence of the investigation sparked by his dispute with the Russian. Narmino doesn't deny having been in Gstaad, but says he was not there at the invitation of Rybolovlev.

And Narmino is only the most prominent person among those apparently willing to do the Russian's bidding. Two high-ranking police officials, Frédéric Fusari and Christophe Haget, both had extensive text message exchanges with lawyer Tetiana Bersheda, Rybolovlev's right-hand woman. Rybolovlev even had Fusari informed that he would like to be personally apprised about the progress that had been made and proposed a conference call "for example, around 5:15 or 5:30 pm?" Fusari agreed: "Around 5:30 pm."

Rybolovlev, it now became apparent, saw himself as the Godfather of Monaco, a man whose every wish must be fulfilled. But what other conclusion was the Russian supposed to arrive at when even the top-man in the microstate succumbed to his siren song? When, for example, Prince Albert II allowed Rybolovlev to arrange luxurious lodgings for him in Rio for the 2014 World Cup -- or invited him aboard his yacht anchored off Corsica in August 2016, complete with helicopter service to Porto Vecchio?

Of those matters, Prince Albert says: "I have never spent several days in succession with Mr. Rybolovlev." The meetings, he insists, were always brief. Neither Narmino, Fusari nor Haget responded to a request for comment from DER SPIEGEL.

Part IV: THE CYPRUS PLOT

Dmitry Rybolovlev met his future wife Elena when he was a student at the medical faculty in Perm and the couple went on to have two daughters, Anna and Katia. In 2008, Elena filed for divorce, accusing her husband of spending too much of his time consorting with much younger women. A multi-year battle followed, as a part of which the billionaire arranged for his ex-wife to be placed under arrest in 2014.

How it got to that point and the fact that there were apparently agencies who weren't prepared to deny Rybolovlev even this request, reveals striking parallels to the Bouvier affair.

After he sold his potash mine in 2010 and left Russia for good, he commuted between two worlds: his home on Lake Geneva and Cyprus, the center of his business activities. One of his closest partners in the Mediterranean island nation was the former Cypriot lawmaker Andreas Neocleous, whose law firm had specialized in the establishment of offshore companies. The lawyer managed two of Rybolovlev's many trusts -- Aries and Virgo -- in which the Russian had parked his multibillion-dollar fortune. Neocleous also managed Zeus Trust, which controls Monaco Sport Invest, the company that owns the majority stake in AS Monaco.

Rybolovlev's network in Cyprus extended into the upper echelons of political leadership, with the head of the governing party enjoying a few days of skiing in Gstaad in 2014. As such, there was a willingness to help in Cyprus when the divorce from his wife was threatening to become too expensive. Elena Rybolovleva was demanding 4.5 billion euros, half of his fortune.

Under the pretext of holding concluding talks about the financial details of the settlement, Rybolovlev lured his ex-wife to Cyprus in February 2014. At the same time, he filed a criminal complaint against her on the island for theft, claiming she had absconded with a ring worth $25 million. The Cypriot police were willing to punish the deed. According to documents pertaining to the case, the law firm of Andreas Neocleous ensured that the alleged theft immediately ended up on the desk of the deputy attorney general. And Rybolovlev's lawyer Tetiana Bersheda sent precise data pertaining to Elena's arrival and passport by text message.

When Elena Rybolovleva was taken into custody upon her arrival at the airport and brought to a police station in Limassol, Bersheda's mobile phone registered significant text message traffic. She followed events on the island in real-time. "She says the ring was a gift," she learned from a text message sent from the interrogation.

The plot ultimately ended in embarrassment for Dmitry Rybolovlev. With the help of the Russian Embassy in Cyprus, Elena Rybolovleva was able to produce proof that the ring had been purchased by her ex-husband and given to her as a gift. After seven hours, Elena Rybolovleva was released. In the end, she received more than $600 million from the divorce settlement.

Part V: AN UNRELENTING INVESTIGATING JUDGE

A typical feature of the Rybolovlev system is that he seldom steps out of the shadows, preferring to allow AS Monaco Vice President Vasilyev or, especially, Tetiana Bersheda to take center stage. Bersheda is the daughter of a Ukrainian diplomat and completed her legal studies with distinction in Fribourg, Switzerland, and is also a citizen of the country.

She sometimes speaks and writes on behalf of Rybolovlev, such as in a message of appreciation to Monegasque Police Chief Régis Asso, which is worded almost as though he were Rybolovlev's own private investigator ("Dear Régis, thank you for the effectiveness of your investigation"). Or in the extension an invitation to the royal family to Rybolovlev's estate on the island of Mallorca.

She was also there on Feb. 22, 2015, when Justice Minister Narmino and his wife were flying home in a helicopter from a weekend of skiing in Switzerland. The two expressed their gratitude for Rybolovlev's hospitality in a text message and congratulated him "for the beauty of your residence in Gstaad." One month later, Christine Narmino once again felt indebted: "Many thanks for your lines, your flowers are wonderful ... Many hugs and I will see you soon."

That degree of proximity would ultimately prove unhealthy for a public servant whose agency was concurrently involved in Rybolovlev's case against Bouvier. What Philippe Narmino likely couldn't anticipate at this point is that the French state would relocate a young and principled investigating judge to Monaco in 2016: Edouard Levrault. He wasn't particularly interested in AS Monaco games. He was, though, exceedingly curious about the invitations, gifts, trips and courtesy jobs with which Rybolovlev had secured significant influence in Monaco.

Levrault's investigations resulted in Narmino going into early retirement. Suddenly, the investigations reversed their focus: No longer was the primary center of attention on whether Bouvier had defrauded the Russian, but on how much influence Rybolovlev may have exerted over the investigation. Several civil servants have now been charged, as has Tetiana Bersheda, who denies any illegal activity. Last Tuesday, the billionaire was detained overnight for questioning; on the same evening, AS Monaco lost its Champions League match to Bruges 0:4. Rybolovlev was released the next day, subject to restrictions on his movement.

Part VI: TOO MANY MOVING PARTS

The man who would prefer to remain behind the scenes is now at center stage. Several agencies in several countries are after him. At UBS Bank in Monaco alone, 15 accounts belonging to Rybolovlev have been found, most of them linked to offshore companies located in tax havens. International money-laundering investigators have long been suspicious of the business sectors in which he operates: "Football, art, real estate, all of it ideal conditions for laundering illegal money from Russia in the West," one of them says.

Western intelligence officials also believe that Rybolovlev may be managing parts of Russian deputy premier Trutnev's assets in a fiduciary capacity. The two of them continue to do business together, they believe: with diamonds from Namibia and with logging in eastern Russia. One Russia expert from a European intelligence agency believes: "Rybolovlev is Trutnev's largest bridge to the West."

Trutnev declined to respond to requests for comment while Rybolovlev let it be known that he was unable to respond due to the ongoing investigation. But he denies all accusations of wrongdoing.

Benedikt Rugar/ DER SPIEGEL

Prince Albert has noticeably distanced himself from the Russian. Should the accusations of corruption prove valid, he says, Rybolovlev would withdraw from AS Monaco of his own accord.

Rybolovlev has even become a person of interest in the U.S., having become a focus of none other than Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who has for several months been investigating U.S. President Donald Trump's former campaign team for possible cooperation with Russian attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election. Ten years ago, Rybolovlev bought Trump's luxurious home in Palm Beach, Florida, for the phenomenal sum of $95 million. The purchase came when the market was already suffering mightily from the Lehman collapse just a few weeks prior. Trump had paid just $41 million for the mansion four years earlier. Was someone trying to provide a bit of support to the Trump empire from Russia?

Mueller's investigators are also interested in learning whether additional connections between the oligarch and the president exist. Rybolovlev's silver-and-black Airbus A319 landed on Nov. 3, 2016, at Douglas International Airport in Charlotte. Just two hours later, Trump flew in for a campaign appearance in the city. Four days earlier, Rybolovlev's airplane had been seen in Las Vegas -- concurrent with another Trump campaign rally in the gambling capital.

Last Saturday, Rybolovlev headed for Moscow. Since then, speculation has abounded in Monaco that it may have been his escape. In football circles, the rumor has been making the rounds that AS Monaco is for sale and investors from the U.S. and from China are apparently interested. That would fit with a new project that Rybolovlev has announced he is undertaking on the private Greek island of Skorpios. He acquired the island five years ago for more than $100 million from the granddaughter of Aristoteles Onassis, the former shipping magnate who married Jackie Kennedy on the island.

Originally, Rybolovlev gave the island to his daughter Katia for her birthday. Now, though, he appears to be pursuing other plans for the 88-hectare piece of land in the Ionian Sea. He wants to build a luxury resort with a dozen villas, restaurants and wellness facilities. It looks, in other words, as though he is creating a new safe harbor. For himself and his confidantes.

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