When wealthy Russians went shopping for assets in the West during the past decade, they usually looked for one thing: status.
Whether it was a Picasso, Feadship yacht or penthouse overlooking Central Park, the Russians wanted the biggest and the best, no matter the price.
Now, they're looking for something else from their purchases: income.
With the Russian economy headed into a severe slowdown or recession, and with the ruble and asset prices crumbling amid the crisis in Ukraine, Russians are looking for safe places to store their wealth overseas that will also give them cash income. Oligarchs, who could once count on big returns in Russia, are now seeing those assets and businesses collapse.
And many are now turning to the U.S. for growth and returns, despite the threat of sanctions and asset freezes.
Their main target is commercial real estate. According to commercial real estate brokers, attorneys and wealth managers, rich Russians are swarming into the commercial property market, especially in New York. They said the new crop of buyers are rich Russians with looser political connections to Russian President Vladimir Putin, so they're less vulnerable to U.S. sanctions and asset freezes tied to Ukraine. Others are using offshore entities to hide their identities.
"They're moving money off the sidelines, or sitting offshore, and they're looking to put it into income-producing properties," said Edward Mermelstein, a New York attorney who works with prominent Russians doing deals in the U.S. "They see what's happening in Russia and they see the recovery opportunities in the U.S., so they're investing here."
Mermelstein said Russians have traditionally showed little interest in buying businesses or commercial assets in the U.S. because they could earn far more in Russia.
"When we would propose something that generated 4 percent or 5 percent in New York, ... they would scoff," he said. "They could get 30 percent or 50 percent in Russia."
Now, he said, a safe investment that will also cover its costs is the new trophy for wealthy Russians. He said the buyers he works with have "no political ties" to Putin and have transparent, fully traceable sources of wealth so they can work with U.S. banks complying with U.S. rules.
But commercial real estate brokers and developers in New York said other Russians are using offshore entities or private banks in Russia to hold the cash. Those banks then invest through shell companies to better hide the identities of the buyers.
"They're turning to these private banks to hide the ownership," said one developer. "It's hard to know who is behind the cash."
One developer in New York said he is working on a new building that would be part residential, part commercial. While the developer was trying to sell the residential units, a rich Russian offered to buy the whole building.
"We thought he might want the penthouse," the developer said. "But he wanted the entire project."
The developer said he's still in talks with the buyer.
—By CNBC's Robert Frank.