Ministers warned off ‘plot to seize oligarch’s £300m London home’

A businessman suing one of the oligarchs sanctioned over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has warned UK government ministers that he has a prior legal claim over Witanhurst, the £300m property that is London’s largest private residence.

Sky News has learnt that advisers to Alexander Gorbachev, a Russian businessman who was granted political asylum in Britain in 2005, have written to Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, and Michael Gove, the levelling-up secretary, to alert them to a pending legal case against Andrei Guryev Sr.

In an email to the two cabinet ministers and their senior aides, a copy of which has been seen by Sky News, Mr Gorbachev’s advisers highlight “a de facto prior legal claim [that] already exists in relation to assets [Mr Guryev] holds in the UK”.

“If he is successful in court, Mr Gorbachev fully intends to enforce against Witanhurst and Mr Guriev’s other assets held in the UK,” the email said.

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Image: Michael Gove was reportedly drawing up plans to seize British property owned by Russians with close links to Vladimir Putin

The correspondence follows a report in the Financial Times earlier this month which suggested that Mr Gove was drawing up plans to seize British property owned by Russian businesspeople with close links to Vladimir Putin.

The newspaper reported that Boris Johnson was “supportive” of such a plan, although no formal announcement has yet been made by the government.

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Mr Guryev Sr is the largest shareholder in PhosAgro, a Russian fertiliser producer which has a listing on the London Stock Exchange (LSE).

This week, Xavier Rolet, former chief executive of the LSE’s parent company, stepped down as chairman of PhosAgro after Mr Guryev Sr was added to the European Union’s sanctions list.

He has not yet been sanctioned by the UK government.

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According to an announcement issued by Mr Gorbachev in 2019, his legal claim against Mr Guryev Sr relates to the latter’s alleged decision to renege on an agreement to hold a 24.75pc stake in PhosAgro on the former’s behalf.

Mr Gorbachev co-founded the company and said at the time that the writ was served in October 2019 that the disputed stake was worth £1bn.

The case involving the two men is scheduled to begin at the High Court next January.

“It is likely to be one of London’s biggest litigations next year, and to attract significant media interest,” the email from Mr Gorbachev’s advisers said.

Witanhurst, in Highgate, is London’s second-largest home behind Buckingham Palace, and is reported to have been bought by Mr Guryev Sr in 2008 through a company based in the British Virgin Islands.

In the email to Ms Truss and Mr Gove, Mr Gorbachev’s advisers also referred to “a penthouse apartment at St George’s Wharf, London, and quite possibly other UK assets as well” said to be owned by Mr Guryev Sr.

The legal claim involving two Russian-born businessmen underlines the extent to which London’s super-prime property market has over recent decades become a repository for Russian money.

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The future of Chelsea is uncertain after the government froze the assets of the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich.

Among the assets frozen in this week’s sanctions imposed by the government are multimillion pound homes owned by Roman Abramovich, the Chelsea FC owner.

The Department for Levelling-Up, Housing and Communities did not respond to two enquiries from Sky News.

A government insider quoted by the FT said that “freezing assets is not enough” and that officials were “looking at seizing the land and property of sanctioned individuals”.

A spokesman for Mr Guryev declined to comment.