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How Ukraine's conflict boosts US real estate

Ukraine's ongoing war with pro-Russian separatists and their Moscow benefactors is pushing money out of the region—and into the United States.

"I hate to say it, but all this uncertainty and chaos is great for my business," said Marlen Kruzhkov, a Ukrainian-American attorney whose business is oriented toward foreigners, particularly those from the former Soviet Union who want to invest in the United States.

And he's not alone. Several firms that handle wealthy Russian and Ukrainian clients echoed those sentiments in conversations with CNBC.

Rich Russians and Ukrainians have varied reasons for moving their money overseas, and investing in the more-stable West is nothing new for them. But anecdotal evidence indicates they're trying harder than usual to get their money out of Ukraine and Russia as quickly as possible and into the United States. And overwhelmingly, that money is flowing into American real estate.

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Alexander Aginsky, managing director of Aginsky Consulting Group, whose clients include a few Russian billionaires and several millionaires, said the number of deals he has closed this year compared to last year has tripled. Compared to 2012, he said it's quadrupled.

All of the deals so far have been "investments in safe and stable assets like commercial real estate," he said, particularly on the West Coast, where Aginsky is based.

His latest acquisitions include a building that housed a trade school near Seattle. An investor from Moscow bought it for $1.5 million; one of Aginsky's smallest deals. Another Moscow investor bought up a hospital near California for $3.5 million. Another deal for $8.5 million of a 24-hour fitness center in California is pending.

Apartment buildings on the Upper East Side neighborhood of New York, Feb. 25, 2014.
Victor J. Blue | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Apartment buildings on the Upper East Side neighborhood of New York, Feb. 25, 2014.

Kruzhkov is a partner with New York-based Gusrae Kaplan Nusbaum, a boutique firm that deals with individuals who want to make investments of up to $600 million. He pointed to subtle differences between Ukrainian and Russian buyers, saying that Ukrainian clients are looking for a safe harbor as war throws their nation into tumult.

"For Russians, it's purely economic-driven," he said. "The sanctions and existing economic pressures have really started to squeeze people."

He said Western sanctions—and Russia's retaliations against them—have also had a boomerang effect. For example, the closures of some McDonald's locations in Russia has put a lot of Russians out of work since those businesses are locally sourced and staffed.

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"All the people in that supply chain are screwed," he said. "Who will they sell products to?"

Kruzhkov added that there's also a major fear among the wealthy that the Russian government will seize assets and money if it is kept in or brought back to Russia.

"People aren't hiding assets because of taxes, they are hiding it because of the people in charge," he said.

Edward Mermelstein, a New York-based attorney for Rheem Bell & Mermelstein who works with affluent Russian clients, said the firm has been very active of late but expects business to wane if another round of sanctions is imposed, as the European Union and United States have threatened. It's becoming steadily more difficult to get money out of Russia.

"Banks are cracking down on all foreign transfers, and Russians are especially being given a hard time," Mermelstein said. "Also, they are being pressured in Russia about any outgoing transfers."

Kruzhkov noted that the rates of return available in the United States are lower than in Russia, and said some clients have to become accustomed to that reality. He told a story of offering a Russian client a set of U.S. real estate investments that were expected to yield returns of 9 to 12 percent.

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"The client reviewed the three options and said something like, 'These all seem like very good opportunities but the best rate of return is 12 percent. That is very low. In Russia I can get a better rate of return putting my money into my mother-in-law's couch cushions," Kruzhkov said.

"I replied, 'Yes, but the problem is that your mother-in-law's couch is located in Russia, and there's a reason why rates of return in Russia are as high as they are,'" he said.

—By CNBC's Dina Gusovsky

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  • Diana Olick serves as CNBC's real estate correspondent as well as the editor of the Realty Check section on CNBC.com.