“Putin’s Chef” Has Sanctioned Jets Flying To Strange Destinations
29 October, 2019
Maxim Kardopoltsev, 'Novaya Gazeta'

An investigation into private jets routes brings more light to Putin’s expanding economic and political presence in Africa, as well as the Kremlin’s quest to prop-up tyrants around the world.

At the end of September, the United States Department of the Treasury announced new sanctions against Yevgeny Prigozhin  – the former hot dog seller turned billionaire businessman often called “Putin’s chef.” Prigozhin is known for his links to the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and earned this nickname because of the restaurants he owns in the Kremlin. He now acts as a global “fixer” for Moscow, involved in everything from expanding Russia’s interest in Africa to sponsoring disinformation campaigns online in an attempt to influence the 2018 U.S. midterm elections.

The latest U.S. sanctions targeted Prigozhin’s assets, including the so-called Internet Research Agency, aka the St. Petersburg “troll factory” – a company engaged in disruptive commenting and influence campaigns on social networks, as well as three airplanes and a yacht, among other things. Now, anyone that gives Prigozhin’s aircraft the right to land could also be banned. 

According to an investigation form Hromadske’s partner Novaya Gazeta and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), Prigozhin’s sanctioned jets have been taking some interesting flights. Here’s what they’ve uncovered about their routes so far:

  • A Russian military delegation flew to Sudan aboard one of his business jets immediately after the country experienced a coup in April 2019. 

  • A number of high-ranking officials from the Sudanese government flew back to Sudan on this jet following negotiations in Moscow. 

  • Another one of Prigozhin’s sanctioned jets changed its tail number and re-registered in Russia – seemingly covering its tracks after making frequent flights to Syria, Lebanon and a few African countries, such as Kenya and Chad. 

  • A third plane belonging to Prigozhin arrived in the Central African Republic (CAR) – where the Prigozhin affiliated a private military contractor the Wagner Group is operating – just ten days before the murder of Russian journalists Orkhan Djemal, Kirill Radchenko and Aleksandr Rastorguev in July 2018. 

Kremlin Support for Sudan’s Tyrannical Regime

Sudan experienced a coup on April 11, 2019, when the Sudanese military removed President Omar al-Bashir from power and placed him under house arrest, putting an end to his 26-year rule over the country. Prior to the events in April, al-Bashir came to Russia several times, where he thanked President Vladimir Putin for participating in the preparation of the Sudanese military and asked for help “in protecting us from aggressive U.S. actions.”

After the coup, Russian presidential spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that what is happening in Sudan “is an internal affair of Sudan and should be decided by the Sudanese themselves.” But one week later a Russian delegation flew to Sudan’s capital Khartoum, by all appearances to help the Sudanese resolve their “internal affairs.”

Among the members of the delegation was the commander of the Black Sea Fleet, Igor Osipov, the military attache in Egypt, Andrei Glushchenko, and Ministry of Defense employee, Maxim Zelnik. According to a source with access flight information, the Russian military personnel flew to Sudan on an Embraer ERJ-135 with the registration number M-SAAN: an aircraft which, like the company that owns it, Autolex Transport, was subject to U.S. sanctions due to its affiliation with Yevgeny Prigozhin. 

A week later, the same jet flew from Moscow to Khartoum once again, carrying Sudan’s Deputy Minister of Defense, Gamal El-Din Omar, and the Deputy Commander of the Rapid Support Forces, Adelrahim Hamdan Dagalo. They were visiting Russia for a meeting with the country’s Deputy Minister of Defense Alexander Fomin. The head of the Sudanese military delegation assured the Russian side that despite the coup, they were still prepared to uphold all previous agreements in the field of military and military-technical cooperation. 

Prigozhin also repeatedly used the M-SAAN jet for his own flights to Sudan, including a visit to Khartoum with the Sudanese Ambassador to the United Nations, Daffa-Alla Elhag Ali Osman, in January 2019, during which he brought along his son Pavel and fighters from the Wagner Group. 

Russia has a variety of economic interests in Sudan, including arms sales. According to the SIPRI, Sudan is the second-largest purchaser of Russian arms in Africa after Algeria, and 50 percent of Sudan’s arms purchases in 2017 came from Russia. That same year, a Russian mining company called M Invest gained preferential access to Sudan’s gold reserves, after a meeting between Russian president Vladimir Putin and former Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir in Sochi. As Sudanese infrastructure helps transfer South Sudan’s oil to global markets, Russia has expressed interest in constructing an oil refinery in Sudan as well, to increase the profitability of its oil exploration deals in South Sudan.

Returning to the Homeland

The Seychelles-based company Beratex Group Ltd. is also included on the sanctions list and is known for registering a yacht called St. Vitamin and a Hawker 800XP aircraft with the tail number M-VITO. This business jet is known for its previously frequent flights to Syria, Lebanon and countries in Africa including Kenya and Chad. A photo of Prigozhin’s wife and children on board, as well as photos from his daughter’s Instagram, confirmed that the family uses the plane. 

On February 8, 2019, just four days after Novaya Gazeta published an investigation on M-VITO’s flights, the plane landed in Berlin and no more data about its movements were made publicly available. It seems as though the business jet was either no longer in use, or the data on its flight paths was not published for whatever reason. However, the plane also changed its tail number and was re-registered. 

According to the Isle of Man’s air transport registry, the aircraft was no longer assigned to its jurisdiction as of April 4, 2019, when Russia became its new place of registration. According to a statement from the Russian Air Transport Agency, the jet was given the tail number RA-02791 and its new owner became the St. Petersburg-based company, Trans Logistik. 

The owner and operator of Trans Logistik, Svetlana Yarovaya, has never owned any other business. However, according to the data from the Dossier Center (a non-profit project belonging to Russian dissident and former political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky), both the company and its manager are figureheads, listed among the nominal structures affiliated with Yevgeny Prigozhin. 

“Nothing links me to America and Europe

The third sanctioned aircraft associated with Yevgeny Prigozhin is a Hawker 125-800B with the tail number VP-CSP, whose routes copy the flights of two other business jets that Russian journalists uncovered before they appeared on the U.S. sanctions list. 

Novaya Gazeta was able to obtain data about the Prigozhin-linked aircraft, which landed in the Central African Republic (CAR). As it turns out, the VP-CSP business jet flew to the CAR’s capital, Bangui, just ten days before the murder of Russian journalists Orkhan Djemal, Kirill Radchenko and Aleksandr Rastorguev. 

The journalists were killed on July 30, 2018, en route from Bangui to Sibut. They had flown into the CAR three days earlier to shoot a documentary about the activities of the private military company the Wagner Group and other companies linked to Prigozhin. Some sources believe Prigozhin’s people could be involved in these murders, as well as other attacks on activists. 

According to an important investigation from the Dossier Center bringing to light the circumstances of the murder, the killing was planned in advance, premeditated and the work of professionals.

Novaya Gazeta also found that two more aircrafts belonging to companies associated with Prigozhin also flew into the CAR in July 2018: a Cessna 182 with the tail number RA-67717 (registered to the company M-Finance) and a Cessna 182-T with the number RA-67581 (registered to the company M-Invest). 

The aircraft VP-CSP belongs to a Seychelles-based company called LinBurg Industries Ltd. and its connection to Prigozhin would have been inconspicuous if the company had not opened a branch in the Czech Republic. 

The Czech branch is currently managed by Vitaly Murentsov, from St. Petersburg, who is associated with people registered as directors of Prigozhin’s firms or organizations affiliated with him, through a chain of companies. The Head of LinBurg Industries in the Seychelles, Andrei Yushin, signed the document appointing Murentsov as the director of the Czech branch. According to his resume, Yushin has been working as the Head of Security at Prigozhin’s Concord Food Plant for the past six years. 

The founding documents of the Czech branch of LinBurg said that his promotion to Europe was linked to the company’s decision to expand its business activities in E.U. markets, particularly in Central Europe. What exactly the company’s business entails was not described.

After the imposition of sanctions against Prigozhin in 2016, he said: “I have no assets abroad, I vacation on Russian territory, I have nothing [that] links me to America and Europe.”

The original director of LinBurg in the Czech Republic is a Latvian citizen by the name of Ivo Zutis. During the same month that the company opened this branch (April 2017), Zutis established two other Czech companies, which are located at the same address as LinBurg in the center of Prague.

One of them, Concorde Ventures, is notable for it name, which contains a direct reference to Prigozhin’s business in Russia. The name “Concord” has long been associated in Russia with restaurant holding belong to the “Kremlin’s chef.” Prigozhin opened the first company under this brand in 1996 and he now has four companies with the word “Concord” in the title. The U.S. Department of the Treasury imposed sanctions against two of them, Concord Catering and Concord Management and Consulting, in 2017.

In a phone conversation with Zutis, he confirmed to Novaya Gazeta that he was affiliated with the three Czech companies. He was unbothered by questions about his links to Prigozhin, but said that he preferred to talk about it in person. Novaya Gazeta’s correspondents were unable to arrange a meeting: at first, Zutis said he was on vacation, then he broke off contact.

Novaya Gazeta also sent requests for comments to the Russian Ministry of Defense and Yevgeny Prigozhin himself, but received no response. 

/Adapted by Eilish Hart, with materials from Alesya Marokhovskaya, Irina Dolinina and Denis Korotkov of Novaya Gazeta, produced in partnership with Jason Shay and Vlad Lavrov, Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). Courtesy of the Russian Language News Exchange