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When Is It War?; The Pharma Exemption; Short-Lived Rally? How Long Will Americans "Rally Round the Flag" for Ukraine?; Sanctions Take Aim At Russian Oligarchs' Yachts. Aired 9-10a ET
Aired March 12, 2022 - 09:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN ANCHOR: So, where's the trip wire?
I'm Michael Smerconish in Philadelphia.
What would it take for NATO and the U.S. to actually be at war with Russia? Or are we already there?
I ask the question, because the hair-splitting that went on this week regarding Poland's supply of MiG-29 fighter jets. Poland surprised American officials by offering to turn over its ageing Russian-made MiG fighters to Ukraine. But America balked when Poland wanted to transfer them through the U.S. and NATO and then have their fleet replaced with American-made fighter jets. The U.S. said the move could be considered, quote, "escalatory." And trigger a significant Russian reaction.
My question, why would that make any difference in how Russia views the transfer of those planes as "The New York Times" put it in the midst of a remarkably unified alliance. The back and forth was a reminder that the joint effort to punish and ultimately repel Russia has a third rail that no one wants to touch.
"The Wall Street Journal" said this. "The bigger problem is the message that this fiasco sends to Mr. Putin about NATO. By so ostentatiously not sending the fighters, and saying the reason is fear of escalation, Mr. Biden is telling the Russian what he doesn't have to worry about."
It all reminded me of the elaborate workaround. The United States devised when trying to adhere to the Neutrality Act during World War II before the United States was bombed at Pearl Harbor.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill sought to buy fighter planes from the United States. FDR asked England to send an aircraft carrier to pick them up. But England was short on aircraft carriers and asked instead for them to be delivered to its ally Canada. The U.S. military personnel flying the planes to Canada would have broken the Neutrality Act. So here's what happened.
The United States flew them to the border, drained them of fuel and horses and trucks were then used to transport them to few hundred yards across the border where they were then refueled. That may then have followed the letter of the law but made it pretty clear which side the U.S. would be supporting. Of course, two years later, Japan ended the Neutrality Act by bombing Pearl Harbor.
In the current battle for Ukraine, American support has been even more extensive and expensive. By the end of February, the Biden administration had already given a billion dollars in aid including javelin missiles, command launch units and patrol boats. And the new appropriations bill passed by Congress allocates another $13.6 billion including more than $10 billion of direct or indirect military related aid.
On top of the sanctions that Putin has already labeled an economic war, can the United States really think such moves are themselves not escalatory and won't provoke reaction from Vladimir Putin.
Yesterday, bipartisan group of 15 House members wrote to the president and asked the administration to step up its support including supplying surface-to-air missile systems and facilitating the transfer of those fighter jets. 40 Republicans in the Senate said pretty much the same thing.
President Biden on this topic said this yesterday.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The idea that we're going to send in offensive equipment and have planes and tanks and trains are going in with American pilots and American crews, just understand, don't kid yourself, no matter what you all say, that's called World War III. OK?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SMERCONISH: Still, why can the United States deliver millions and billions to be used for weapons, but still claim it's not directly involved. It all leads me to this week's survey question at smerconish.com.
Should President Biden aid the transfer of aircraft and air defense systems to Ukraine?
Joining me now to discuss is retired Navy Admiral James Stavridis, who spent four years as the supreme allied commander at NATO. He's written an all too relevant work of fiction just out called "2034: A Novel of the Next World War."
Admiral, good morning. You have a PhD in international law. You were the dean of a graduate school of international law and diplomacy. You're the perfect person for me to ask. What exactly is provocation in this context?
ADM. JAMES STAVRIDIS (RET.), FORMER NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: Let's start with ground truth and international law here which is Putin is the one provoking. Putin is the one invading. Putin is the one flagrantly violating international law. He hasn't declared war on Ukraine. He's simply invaded it. And he's throwing gasoline on a bonfire of war crimes by now purporting to bring Syrian volunteers to the battlefield.
So, Michael, we got to start by saying the serial violator of international law here is Vladimir Putin. Having said that, OK, let's go over to our side of the coin here with the democracy. What can we do? I think the false discussion here is that it's kind of an on and off switch. In other words, we just keep the switch off, and we watch what happens in horror. Or we flip the switch on, and we send troops in. And we put our jets over Ukraine. Neither of those answers are right. It's a rheostat, right? Like in your dining room. You kind of turn up the light.
So what we're doing in my mind is about right, which is massive additions of military assistance. It is huge sanctions. And it is supplying very lethal but defensive weapons. We're not giving Ukraine anything that they could use to invade Russia. We're giving them the systems they need to attack Russians who are invading them. I think we're in the right place.
SMERCONISH: OK. So, in my house, if it were the thermostat, not the rheostat, I'd be the one turning it on, and my wife would come along and then completely shut it off. Has Vladimir Putin completely shut it off? In other words, have you considered that he has, through backchannel communications served notice, if you transfer those MiG fighters, that's it, it's game on with NATO?
STAVRIDIS: I doubt it, for a couple of reasons. First of all, he would not want to lay out a bold red line like that. And nor should we, by the way. I think we should stop saying we'll never do this. We'll never do that.
STAVRIDIS: We should say things like at this time, we're not going to, et cetera. Point two here would be, he doesn't want to take on a conventional fight with NATO. He doesn't want a nuclear fight either. You know, he's got family. He loves his country. He's not going to reach for the apocalypse button. And he doesn't want a conventional fight with NATO because we outnumber him massively.
There's this kind of misconception that somehow the Russian armed forces are comparable with NATO armed forces. It couldn't be further from the truth. We outspend them 15 to 1. We have a 5 to 1 advantage in troops, a 5 to 1 advantage in combat aircraft, you get the idea.
So I think Putin is rattling that nuclear sabre hoping we will simply back down. And we just can't do that. We have to continue our course of action.
The one thing you mentioned up front, the MiG-29s. I can see both sides of that conversation. But in my view, give them to the Ukrainians, figure out the logistics. Put Ukrainian insignia on them. Have Ukrainians fly them. I think it's a huge morale boost and I think it also would have impact on the battlefield. It's a hard logistics problem but we shouldn't back down and be scared of our shadow in terms of Vladimir Putin.
SMERCONISH: So my survey question today is asking our viewers, should the president aid the transfer of aircraft and air defense systems in Ukraine? Admiral Stavridis says yes.
STAVRIDIS: I do. And I'll make a small caveat, which you didn't clarify in the question. I would not put U.S. pilots flying those aircraft that you refer to.
STAVRIDIS: And part of the reason there, Michael, not only the international law, but it's also who's up there in the cockpit. You know, that's not Madeleine Albright up there, former secretary of state, you know kind of figuring out all the back and forth. That's Goose and Maverick.
And so, same thing on the Russian side. So the potential for an incident between nuclear-armed powers is pretty high. Let the Ukraine --
SMERCONISH: That's implied. By the way, Admiral, that's implied. That is implied in my survey question. I do not intend to suggest that they would be American pilots.
SMERCONISH: Hey, you spoke to the Russian military capability. Yesterday -- put this up, Catherine.
"The Washington Post" said the following. "Two weeks after Russian forces streamed into neighboring Ukraine following months of buildup, evidence is mounting that invasion has not gone to plan -- and that Russia's much-vaunted military may not be the formidable force once feared. That doesn't mean Russia won't ultimately seize Kyiv and topple the Ukrainian government. And it doesn't mean Ukraine won't pay a horrific price in both military and civilian casualties, as it continues to do daily. But the stumbling pace of Russia's assault since President Vladimir Putin ordered troops into Ukraine late last month - marked by apparent confusion among commanders plus viral images of downed Russian planes and tanks set alight - has reset expectations for how the conflict will unfold."
Are you surprised by the Russian capabilities thus far?
STAVRIDIS: I am not shocked at their failures. I think that they have improved over the force that I surveyed as the supreme allied commander some years ago. But they still have three key faults that are on display here.
One is they still have the high percentage of (inaudible), reservists that they're putting into the fight. They're inexperienced. They're afraid. They seem very almost disoriented. Secondly, logistics. This has always been a shortfall for Russia. Logistics are hard. Professionals military really do logistics well. We do that well. Russia is failing to get that (inaudible).
And third and finally, Michael, the general ship here, the admiralship has not been very good. The battle plan isn't good. There's a lot of confusion and all three of those are weaknesses we've seen in Russia, historically. I think Vladimir Putin was told, we corrected those, boss, turns out, not so much.
SMERCONISH: Front page of "The New York Times" today calls it nevertheless a long slog strategy. Time is on Putin's side. Do you see it that way?
STAVRIDIS: Unfortunately, I do. You know, quantity has a quality all of its own, and that's a Russian proverb. But don't underestimate how these Ukrainians can slow and stymie and make this very painful for Russia.
And I'll tell you why, Michael. It's because behind those Ukrainians are their spouses, their children. Their parents, their cities, their civilization. On the other side are Russians. There are a lot of those Russians, but if we arm and equip those Ukrainians as you and I have been discussing, they can make this very painful for the Russians.
And last though, Kyiv. Yes, the Russians have encircled it. It's a city of 3.5 million or so, think Chicago, the locals know that city very well, they're well-armed. I think taking that city is going to be a significant undertaking of not days, not weeks, but months.
SMERCONISH: Admiral, I'm limited on time, but I must show this tweet from your Twitter account.
"A king asked the Oracle at Delphi if he should attack a neighboring kingdom. Oracle: 'If you go to war, you will destroy a great kingdom.' Elated the king went to war, little suspecting the destroyed kingdom would be his own. Putin is a threat to Russia as well as his neighbors."
Take 30 seconds and address that.
STAVRIDIS: It's quite simple. Vladimir Putin is isolating Russia. He will crater its economy. People are spurning Russians in normal interactions around the world. What nation wants to be a pariah nation? That is the path he is walking for Russia.
SMERCONISH: As I kid, I played battleship. I think I recognize the game of risk over your left shoulder. I guess - I guess you're telling us something there, too.
STAVRIDIS: We are in risky times, but we need to apply strategy to what we do. We'll come out OK here. Don't bet against us.
SMERCONISH: Thank you, Admiral. Appreciate you being here.
STAVRIDIS: My pleasure. SMERCONISH: What are your thoughts? Tweet me @smerconish. Go to my Facebook page. This comes from the world of that looks like YouTube.
"Yes, we are already at war with Russia and it does no good to pretend we aren't. We need to have boots on the ground in Ukraine and help them however they need."
Wow, boots on the ground in Ukraine, I assume, Paradox Destroyer, you mean American boots on the ground. I am not suggesting American pilots in the sky with this week's survey question. Go to smerconish.com and tell me what you think about this. Here it is.
Should President Biden aid the transfer of aircraft and air defense systems to Ukraine?
15 representatives from the House yesterday, bipartisan, wanted him to do that. 40 members of the Senate, Admiral Stavridis said that he thinks it's the right call. I want to know what you think. Go to the website and answer that question.
Up ahead. More than 300 businesses from McDonald's to Goldman Sachs have halted dealings with Russia but one sector exempt from sanctions has not pulled back their dealings. Drugmakers, medical device manufacturers, health care companies. If big pharma join the boycott, might it quicken a revolt against Putin by the Russians or will it cause the U.S. to lose its moral standing. We'll talk about it.
SMERCONISH: More than 340 companies have withdrawn or scaled back their operations in Russia since its invasion of Ukraine 17 days ago. And some of these include corporate heavyweights, right? You've heard the names, Apple, BP, Coca-Cola, Disney, Goldman Sachs, Marriot, Volkswagen.
How is Russia reacting to this exodus that's blowing holes in their economy? "The New York Times" writes this.
"Dmitri Medvedev, the vice chairman of Mr. Putin's security council, said the Kremlin could respond to Western companies leaving the Russian market with the seizure of their assets and their possible nationalization." - of those assets.
That proposal drew swift criticism and condemnation from White House press secretary Jen Psaki who tweeted this.
"Any lawless decision by Russia to seize the assets of these companies will ultimately result in even more economic pain for Russia. It would compound the clear message to the global business community that Russia is not a safe place to invest and do business."
But guess who is continuing to do business in Russia. That would be big pharma. With me now to discuss is "Kaiser Health News" senior correspondent Sarah Varney. She reported the story this week that examines why drug makers and health care companies have decided they aren't cutting ties with Russia.
Sarah, thank you for being here. I want to put on the screen a paragraph from your piece that kind of focuses this issue. You quote an Abbott Labs vice president who says, "As a health care company, we have an important purpose, which is why at this time we continue to serve people in all countries in which we operate who depend on us for essential products."
His name is Scott Stoffel. And then Abbott is identified as manufacturing and selling medicines in Russia for oncology, women's health, pancreatic insufficiency and liver health.
The question is, how dependent are the Russians on so-called big pharma?
SARAH VARNEY, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT, "KAISER HEALTH NEWS": The Russians are very dependent on global pharmaceutical companies to help them both produce drugs inside the country as well as the importation of drugs. So in about 20 years ago or so, about 90 percent of all the drugs in Russia were imported from outside the country.
This was a huge priority for Vladimir Putin to essentially really build up domestic manufacturing of pharmaceuticals. He formed partnerships with Eli Lilly, with Abbott, with Pfizer. Many of these companies all came in. They helped to build manufacturing facilities there. And they are crucial to the domestic pharmaceutical industry inside Russia.
SMERCONISH: Is this a legal issue, a moral issue or some combination of both?
VARNEY: I think it's a combination of both. It is true that medicines are considered -- you know, they are different than a hamburger, as Nell Minow says in my piece. You know, there's a difference between the hamburger and a pill, she says.
And it is true that essential medicines during other global conflicts have continued to flow. That included, we know, apartheid era South Africa. There were exemptions made for essential medicines. So these pharmaceutical companies essentially say not only do we need continue to supply pharmaceuticals to people in Ukraine and the region, but also to Russia as well.
SMERCONISH: I mean, the issue as I look at it is whether the United States in an effort to really turn up the heat on Putin is willing to risk its moral high ground.
Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld who is often a guest on this program gave you a very interesting quote. Let's put that up on the screen. He, of course from Yale. And he says that, "Pharmaceutical companies that say they must continue to manufacture drugs in Russia for humanitarian reasons are being misguided at best, cynical in the medium case, and outright deplorably misleading and deceptive."
He goes on to say. "Russians are put in a tragic position of unearned suffering. If we continue to make life palatable for them, then we are continuing to support the regime."
And finally, he says, "These drug companies will be seen as complicit with the most vicious operation on the planet. Instead of protecting life, they are going to be seen as destroying life. The goal here is to show that Putin is not in control of all sectors of the economy."
What reaction do you have to the quote that Professor Sonnenfeld gave you?
VARNEY: Well, I think he's making a very strong argument. I think there's plenty of other people who would say, including Nell Minow, who would say look that, you know, it is immoral to deny lifesaving medications, oncology medications, those sort of things to Russians simply because their president has - has invaded Ukraine.
But I think Sonnenfeld - feels very strongly about this issue obviously. And it is true that you know during World War II, American companies continue to sell into Nazi Germany up until the moment that the U.S. actually declared war against Germany.
Nell Minow and some other effaces would say until the U.S. actually engages directly in war with Russia. Unless we were to engage directly in war with them. That these pharmaceutical companies are in the right to continue to sell and manufacture pharmaceutical drugs inside the country.
SMERCONISH: You have to worry as well, I mean, I -- my heart is with Jeffrey Sonnenfeld. My head is telling me something different. I worry that we're playing into Putin's hand. Because he's already trying to project this as or portray this as an economic war that the West is waging against Russia. And now, if all of a sudden, he can parade citizens who need their insulin, it probably does him a world of good in a propaganda sense.
VARNEY: Well, it's really interesting, right? We've seen how dependent the West particularly Europe is on Russian oil. So clearly, that was a strategy from Putin for many years, right? Let the West, get the West to be dependent on Russian oil.
And in the same way, Russia is in a sense dependent upon European and American pharmaceutical companies for their lifesaving drugs and life- sustaining drugs. So in a sense, it's a leverage point for the West, depending on how Western governments want to use that point is up to them. But, you know, in the same way that - that Putin has really essentially threatening the West with access to energy, the West could in a sense threaten Russia with access to drugs.
SMERCONISH: Sarah, I'm glad that you wrote this because I pay close attention and until I saw it at Kaiser Health, I had no idea that there was this carveout for pharma. So thank you for writing it and for your willingness to be here.
SMERCONISH: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thank you.
SMERCONISH: More social media reaction now. Again, from the world of YouTube. What do we got?
I don't agree with keeping medicines and devices out of Russia. This is stooping to Putin's level. Says Lisette Dolehanty.
Lisette, it reminds me in some respect of the debate over so-called harsh interrogation methods or torture post 9/11, which by the way, in the early stages I was on board with on, you know, Dershowitz's idea of a ticking time bomb. Ticking time bomb is coming. You do anything you can to save lives. And I know that was a big debate.
And what did people say then? They said, no, you can't do it because you're now stooping to their level. And like therein lies the debate. Are we surrendering the moral high ground if we shut off the Russians from their - their medical necessities.
I also listened to what Sarah had to say, and it sounds like they've - they've maybe not come to a level of complete independence, but that Putin has been beefing up for the last couple of decades on exactly this score.
Remember, go to the survey question. Go to smerconish.com today and answer the survey question. While you're there, you might want to register for the daily newsletter.
Should President Biden aid the transfer of aircraft and air defense systems to Ukraine?
Up ahead. So far, the Ukraine conflict has Americans rallying around the president. A majority even saying it's OK to pay more at the pump to help out democracy but what if the conflict and economic hardship drag on? Jeff Greenfield is here to discuss.
And Friday night, Italian authorities seize a $578 million yacht belonging to a Russian oligarch, just the latest in the series of such impounding.
Coming up. A former CIA officer who's been tracking the whereabouts of the super yachts.
SMERCONISH: As the Biden administration has moved to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, so far, America has been rallying around the flag. But how long will that last?
To be sure, President Biden's poll numbers which had been under water got a big boost from his handling of Russia. An NPR/Marist poll after the State of the Union Address found 52 percent of Americans approve of how he's handling the situation in Ukraine. And his overall job approval rating spiked eight points from 39 percent to 47 percent, before he moved to stop Russian oil imports, Reuters/Ipsos found 63 percent of Americans said they were willing to pay more at the pump to support a fellow democratic country.
But now that Biden has made the move, gas prices are rocketing along with other pocketbook items. Will political division return before the midterms?
Joining me now is Jeff Greenfield, the five-time Emmy winning network television analyst and author. His latest piece just up this morning at "Politico" is titled "Polls Show the Public Is Willing to Sacrifice for Ukraine. History Suggests Biden Shouldn't Count on It."
Jeff, I cannot tell you how many times I have said on television, on radio. Well, it used to be that politics would stop at the water's edge. And here you are, writing this piece today saying, that's never been the case. Explain.
JEFF GREENFIELD, POLITICAL ANALYST: Rarely been the case. That famous quote from Senator Vandenberg when he was rallying -- a Republican, rallying support behind the building of NATO misreads history. You know, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq were subject to major political disputes until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The whole idea of aiding Britain as you alluded to earlier was widely a device of the draft extension in 1941, passed the House by one vote.
It is true that when the United States is attacked as in Pearl Harbor or 9/11 there is for a while unity. But the idea that people can say, OK, we're engaged with a foreign foe, let's all rally around the flag.
One little historical note, the 1942 midterms, one year after Pearl Harbor, Republicans gained 44 House seats and eight Senate seats in part because of disaffection with the impact of the war on the home front and how the war was being weighed. So, you have to put a big asterisk behind that famous quote.
SMERCONISH: Is there some sense of transference, when you look at the historical record? In case, Ukraine was clearly, was attacked, invaded by Russia, might that alter how it's perceived politically?
GREENFIELD: I'm not much for predictions. But I think that the indirect nature of the attack on the United States -- the United States wasn't attacked. As Vice President Harris said just yesterday, you know, you rally behind your friends. And there is an impulse to do that.
But I think when gas prices rocket as expected -- out in California, where I spend most of my time, we're going to pay $8.00 or $9.00 for gas. I just don't think people are going to pull up to the pump and say, "That blankety blank Putin."
When OPEC tightened the screws on oil in 1973 and 1979 the impact was felt politically by Richard Nixon and then by Jimmy Carter. So I think whatever people say -- I think I mentioned in the piece, people say they want -- they will willingly pay more. But people also tell pollsters they want to eat more vegetables and watch more documentaries on television. You know, good intentions are one thing. When reality hits I think it's -- it could be quite another.
SMERCONISH: I hear -- you know, I hear Carville somewhere in the back of my mind talking about the economy as Jeff Greenfield makes these observations. I mean, frankly, as we head into the midterms is it possible that the border that matters more to voters is the Mexican/American border and not the Ukraine/Russian border? In the end are all politics local?
GREENFIELD: That's another one of those statements that's true but not as true as it sounds. Look, I think it is true that the combination of inflation and the feeling about immigration tend to hit closer to home.
And as I say, if the United States were directly involved even -- let me go way back. The spurious, nonexistent attack on the battleship "Maine" outraged Americans with the help to get into the yellow press enough to get into the Spanish-American war. We also, by the way, I should point out prefer our conflicts to be very quick and very decisive. The Gulf War in 1991, the ground war lasted, I think, roughly 100 hours.
When an international entanglement becomes a quagmire, a slog, I think a word you used a few minutes ago, that's when discontent really rises. We saw it in Iraq. We saw it in Vietnam. We saw it in Korea. The 1952 elections, the Republicans made Korea one of the major issues, it wasn't being won enough. We were holding back our forces, whatever.
So these kinds of international crisis when they are directly felt -- you know, in World War II, I think, there were 16 million American men under arms, everybody had a stake in that. So planting victory gardens and accepting rationing was much more likely because it was clear that the stakes were still enormous and that everybody had a piece of the action. I just think things are different today.
SMERCONISH: It's good to -- it's -- Jeff, it's good to have you around but you're robbing me of all my sound bites with all of your historic lessons. I mean, I took this politics ending at the water's edge so far that I double it up and make an analogy. And I say, "You know, it's like cops. They don't want to respond to a domestic dispute because you've got two partners who now turn their attention on law enforcement, instead of on each other."
So, I think it's really important that which you have said. You get the final word on how this might all impact domestic politics.
GREENFIELD: Actually -- and this may seem like a curveball to you, and I'll apologize in advance. I think as much as anything else, if you're looking to November, the absence of COVID and the return to normal life is going to be a major factor. Because part of what is dragging Joe Biden down in the polls is this general sense of miasma. We're in this mist of our schools, the way we live.
So, you know, I have no idea how Ukraine is going to play out. And I don't think, frankly, anybody else does either. So I think if you're looking for the political impact I would look much more at COVID and if there's some way to get inflation under control.
That's what I'll be looking for and I'd do it with a strong sense of humility. Because I used to try to do predictions and reality hit me over the head many times. And I hold my tongue these days.
SMERCONISH: Thank you, Jeff. The piece is in "Politico" today. I put it on my social media. It's my newsletter as well. I appreciate you being here.
GREENFIELD: OK, thank you.
SMERCONISH: More social media, from the world of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. This come from Twitter, I think. What do we have, Catherine?
Biden keeps talking about how he won't engage Russian forces. It feels like he is signaling to Putin that he won't interfere. Biden is making himself look weak.
Look, Admiral Stavridis, who was here at the outset of the program, former Allied Supreme Commander of NATO, said that he too is of the opinion that the White House shouldn't -- I'm paraphrasing now -- telegraph it's -- not only its intentions but the limitations on where it might go. I think that makes intuitive sense and I guess that's where you're coming from.
Are you responding to the survey question at Smerconish.com? I hope that you are because here is what it is. Should the president aid the transfer of aircraft and air defense systems to Ukraine?
I'm not talking about putting American pilots in those planes. Go vote. I'll give you the results in just a couple of minutes.
Still to come, pursuing oligarchs' ill-gotten gains. Europeans authorities have been seizing their superyachts some worth in the hundreds of millions. I'll ask a former CIA agent who's been tweeting names, locations and ownership of the boats. What this all means for their fortunes.
SMERCONISH: President Biden warned Russian oligarchs, his administration plans to seize their ill-gotten gains. And now the world is targeting the billionaires' extravagant yachts.
Friday, Italian authorities in the Port of Trieste seized the ship known as Sailing Yacht A worth about 578 million belonging to Andrey Melnichenko. He owns a fertilizer producer and coal company. This followed the impoundings of Lady M, that's owned by Alexei Mordashov, the so-called richest man in Russia, and Lena belonging to Gennady Timchenko who controls an oil exporting company.
French officials seized the $120 million Amore Vero claiming it's owned by Igor Sechin, that's the head of Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft. Other oligarchs are trying to preventing this from happening. After it left port in Montenegro on March 2nd the Galactica Super Nova owned by LUKOIL CEO Vagit Alekperov turned off automatic tracking systems which is against the law for a ship of its size.
After Britain sanctioned Roman Abramovich, the billionaire who's selling his stake in the football club Chelsea, his two superyachts began moving reportedly to reach countries without formal extradition agreements. His Eclipse is the world's second largest such boat. It has got its own missile defense system, a mini submarine as well. After recent renovations its estimated value is $1 billion.
And rumors are rampant that the secret owner of Scheherazade, that's a 459-foot $700 million superyacht currently anchored in a coastal town in Tuscany, might be Vladimir Putin himself. The ship was built in 2020, registered in the Marshall Islands, boasts two helicopter decks, a swimming pool that converts to a dance floor and gold-plated bathroom fixtures.
The ship's British captain told the "New York Times" that Putin did not own the yacht and that he'd never been on it. The captain said the mystery owner was not on the sanctions list but that a non-disclosure agreement prevented him from revealing more. Putin owns very little in his own name and often uses homes and ships that are owned by the oligarchs.
Joining me now is Alex Finley, a former CIA officer who's in Barcelona where many of these yachts go to get repaired. She's been maintaining a yacht watch on Twitter and been studying the billionaires too as part of research for a forthcoming novel. Alex, thanks so much for being here.
I remember a story a couple of years ago in the "New York Times" that talked about just how difficult it is to figure out the ownership of real estate in midtown Manhattan because in part of oligarchs going to great lengths to hide their identity. This is just like that, right, it's tough to figure out who owns them?
ALEX FINLEY, FORMER CIA OFFICER/TRACKING YACHTS OF RUSSIAN OLIGARCHS: You're exactly right. Most of these ships are owned actually by front companies and they have property managers who sort of run them. Most of them are flagged in places like you noted the Marshall Islands or the Cayman Islands, the Isle of Wright -- Isle of Wight, excuse me.
So it's very difficult to sort of untangle who the beneficial owner is. There's shell company upon shell company. And so trying to follow all of that back and figure out exactly who the owner is is very difficult and it's done that way on purpose. SMERCONISH: What are you noting as you're tracking them? Is there any concerted effort that comes to light or are they all just going in separate directions? What are the patterns?
FINLEY: So far, we've seen a number of them that have left Europe. They seem to be heading south. There's questions if they would try to go through the Bosporus to the Black Sea but with Turkey it's not clear if that would be a good move for them. So some seem to be moving through the Suez Canal and into the Indian Ocean. We've seen a number of them cluster around the Seychelles and the Maldives.
What happens after that, I don't know. There are very few places outside of Europe and the United States that can service and maintain these types of yachts. I mean, you were -- you were running off some statistics about these. These are enormous, very sophisticated machines.
They're worth a lot of money. They're highly technology heavy. They have, like you said, missile defense systems and the rest, and high- tech radar.
So, even if in the end there are some rumors that all of these boats are trying to make their way to Vladivostok, for example, where Russia has its pacific command -- pacific command, excuse me. There are still questions, you know, once they're there, can they be maintained? Because that knowledge, that infrastructure is all here in Europe and in the United States.
SMERCONISH: Do you think that Putin owns the yacht that I referenced that right now is docked in Tuscany?
FINLEY: I don't know. I'm watching that one as closely as everybody else.
SMERCONISH: When the oligarchs board their yachts, I've been reading and learning that it seems like they shift from a crew that may be multinational to, all of a sudden, an all-Russian crew. Can you speak to that?
FINLEY: Yes. We have heard some cases where that -- that's what happens. An international crew will move the yacht from one place to another. But once certain guests come onboard one crew is dismissed and an all-Russian crew will come on. And as you referenced before, anybody working on these boats, they have NDAs, you know, it's all very hush-hush.
SMERCONISH: What flags do they fly under? Or is it a variety of them?
FINLEY: You mentioned the Marshall Islands before, the Cayman Islands, some Malta, the Isle of Man, any sort of offshore tech haven that you can imagine.
SMERCONISH: And finally, where are they safest? So, if you could sort of switch hats and you were trying to place them in a location where they wouldn't be seized, where would that be? Where do you think they'd most want to get to? FINLEY: Well, like I said, I mean, outside of the sanctioned area is anywhere outside of the E.U. or the U.K. or the U.S. and some of them are not sanctioned by all three of those. You mentioned Abramovich's yachts. He's only sanctioned at this point by the U.K. So even if he's in E.U. waters, I don't think anybody is going to do anything.
Once they reach the Indian Ocean, that's it. Unless these governments can get, you know, coordination and help from other governments who want to help but we're not seeing any indication of that so far.
We've even seen some indications that, you know, some are ready to work with the Russians and it means more money for them. That the UAE, for example, is sort of happy to have the Russians come and make the UAE their new playground. So we're not sure yet how this is all going to play out but there's a number of different players.
SMERCONISH: Great fodder for you and for your next novel. Thanks, Alex. I appreciate it.
FINLEY: Thank you.
SMERCONISH: Still to come, more of your best and worst tweets and Facebook comments. And we'll give you the final result of the survey question. You could still go vote at Smerconish.com. Should President Biden aid the transfer of aircraft and air defense systems to Ukraine?
SMERCONISH: Time to see how you responded to the survey question at Smerconish.com this week. Should President Biden aid the transfer of aircraft and air defense systems to Ukraine?
Here's the result. A lot of voting, 32,000 and change. The yeses, 90- 10. It fits with a pattern. For the last three weeks, we've been all about Ukraine and the questions have been one of the degree of involvement, what level of militaristic support. And the results are the same. Heavy voting and a lot of support for doing more.
From the world of social media, what do we have?
Smerconish, don't give me the stoop to his level argument. You will never beat a bully turning the other cheek, says Liz73.
Yes, the issue there is should big pharma turn up the screws as well and say, guess what, we're not going to deliver medications or medical devices so long as this invasion of Ukraine continues. Because there's been a carveout of all this corporate support for Ukraine for pharma not toeing that line.
I think there's going to be much more written on that story. Also from social media, what do we have?
This isn't America's war. We won't send our sons to fight in a war that isn't against us. We need energy independence now.
Stephdixie, no doubt about that. I think that's one of the reasons why Russia has Germany over a barrel more so than they do the United States. We need to do both, right? We need to fight climate change and fight for democracy. I think we can get both done.
One more, if I have time. Catherine, quickly what do we got?
Ukrainian people aren't being allowed medications. Neither should Russians.
OK. Jeffrey sees the flip side of it and says, deny them their meds. Keep voting at Smerconish.com, register for the newsletter while you're there. See you next week.