Wife of Putin’s ice hockey-playing oligarch friend could net Britain’s biggest divorce payout

·5 min read
President of Russia Vladimir Putin (L) and Vladimir Potanin at an ice hockey friendly match - Valery Sharifulin /TASS
President of Russia Vladimir Putin (L) and Vladimir Potanin at an ice hockey friendly match - Valery Sharifulin /TASS

He is Russia’s wealthiest oligarch and perhaps its most influential; a nickel magnate who in his spare time plays ice hockey with Vladimir Putin.

But a Court of Appeal ruling on Thursday risks taking a large dent out of Vladimir Potanin’s vast fortune. Senior judges have given Natalia Potanina, his ex-wife, the green light to pursue the 60-year-old through the English courts – despite the fact the Russian courts divorced them seven years ago.

If her financial claim is successful, the divorce payout will be the most lucrative in British legal history and worth up to £10 billion.

The Telegraph understands that Mrs Potanina is seeking half her ex-husband’s fortune, estimated by Forbes magazine at just under £20 billion, making Mr Portanin the world’s 55th richest man and, according to reports, the wealthiest documented billionaire in Russia.

Mrs Potanina, 59, was awarded in the region of £30 million by a Russian divorce court in 2014 but the Court of Appeal, sitting in London, ruled that she is entitled to bring a new claim here.

The world's richest divorcee Natalia Potanina - Sarah Lee 
The world's richest divorcee Natalia Potanina - Sarah Lee

Lady Justice King said in her judgment made public on Thursday: “No doubt to most people, whether affluent or poor, the sums received by the wife [in 2014] made her a rich woman.

“Everything is, however, relative. The wife's settlement represented only a tiny proportion of the vast wealth of this family, all of which had been accumulated during this very long marriage.”

She said that since Mrs Potanina was still in her 50s at the time, then “arguably the sum she received would nowhere near meet her long-term needs when considered by reference to the lifestyle to which she had long been accustomed”.

Mrs Potanina, who made London her permanent home in 2017, could be in line for a payout of as much as £10 billion if she wins the divorce battle.

That sum would easily dwarf the previous English record for a divorce settlement of £453 million that another Russian billionaire, Farkhad Akhmedov, was ordered to pay his ex-wife. The world’s biggest payout is the $38 billion that Jeff Bezos reportedly paid to his ex-wife MacKenzie.

The court heard that Mr Potanin and Mrs Potanina were childhood sweethearts who met as teenagers and married in their homeland in 1983 when both were in their early 20s. The couple, who have three children together, began married life impoverished but, in her ruling, Lady Justice King noted that Mr Potanin “accumulated vast wealth” in the 1990s at the fall of communism.

Mr Potanin, according to Forbes, is worth just under £20 billion having made his fortune acquiring a stake in Norilsk Nickel, the world’s largest producer of refined nickel, during Russia’s privatisation in 1995. He currently owns a little over a third of the company, according to Forbes, as well as other assets. Mr Portanin reportedly owns three luxury yachts and spent $10 million on his daughter’s wedding in the south of France. He is described as an “ice hockey buddy” of President Putin.

The Potanins’ long marriage faltered with Mr Potanin claiming the couple separated in 2007 although Mrs Potanina insists they did not split up until 2013, by which time “unbeknown to her”, Mr Potanin had a child with another woman – now his second wife. Mrs Potanina said her husband’s announcement that the marriage was over was a “devastating bolt out of the blue” and led to a Russian divorce in 2014 and a further “blizzard of litigation”.

Vladimir Potanin and his wife Yekaterina attend a gala event to mark the upcoming New Year 2019 at the Bolshoi Theatre - Valery Sharifulin/TASS
Vladimir Potanin and his wife Yekaterina attend a gala event to mark the upcoming New Year 2019 at the Bolshoi Theatre - Valery Sharifulin/TASS

In the English stage of their long-running court battle, Mr Potanin had won the first round by blocking his ex-wife's attempt to bring a case against him in London in November 2019, when a High Court judge ruled that her claim was an example of "divorce tourism".

But, in Thursday’s ruling, the Court of Appeal cleared the way for Mrs Potanina to bring what could be the highest-value divorce case in English legal history.

Lady Justice King ruled the decision to prevent Mrs Potanina from making an application for financial relief in England should be overturned, saying: "The matter will therefore proceed to trial."

The judge added: "The fact that the appeal has been allowed and that the wife may therefore proceed to make an application... for financial relief should not be taken by either party as an expression by this court of any view as to the merits or otherwise of that application."

Mrs Potanina previously argued she was the victim of a "grave injustice" and was not given a fair share of the marital wealth because of her ex-husband's "wealth, power and influence" in Russia.

Her lawyers told the Court of Appeal in January that Russian courts deal with divorce settlements by equally dividing the parties' assets, but do not share any assets owned through trusts or other "corporate vehicles".

This meant Mrs Potanina's attempts to get half of the assets ultimately owned by her ex-husband have been "fruitless", the Court of Appeal said.

In the court's ruling, Lady Justice King – sitting with Lords Justice David Richards and Moyland – said the High Court wrongly overturned a previous decision allowing Mrs Potanina to bring a claim for financial relief in the English courts.

Lady Justice King concluded: "In the event that the parties cannot reach some sort of compromise in this long-running and expensive litigation, the case will be determined with the benefit of oral and, I anticipate, expert evidence by a High Court judge in due course."

The legal battle pits the two doyennes of divorce lawyers against each other. Baroness Shackleton, who represented Sir Paul McCartney, is acting for Mr Potanin while Frances Hughes, who has spearheaded a number of groundbreaking divorce cases, has been hired by Mrs Potanina.