Why did these Russian businessmen die in unusual circumstances?

This story contains references to suicide.
Several Russian businessmen have recently died in apparent suicides or in accidental and, at times, unclear circumstances, including cases since the country’s invasion of Ukraine.
According to local reports, a number of those who died had links to oil and gas companies, with the deaths occurring both in Russia and abroad.

American-born British businessman Bill Browder was the biggest foreign investor in Russia until 2005, when his efforts to expose corruption in Russian state-owned companies resulted in him being denied entry in the country and to declare a “threat to national security”.

Bill Browder was Russia’s largest foreign investor until 2005, when he was denied entry to the country for exposing corruption in Russian state-owned companies. Source: AFP / BERTRAND-GUAY

He described the deaths as ‘murders’ and theorizes they are ‘just a fight for money’ as Russia continues to be hit with a series of sanctions from governments, large organizations and companies around the world.

Other experts say such cases are nothing new in Russia and have warned against “conspiratorial findings”.

What is happening?

Since the beginning of this year, several deaths of Russian-linked businessmen have been reported, both in Russia and abroad. Many of them have happened since Russia invaded Ukraine.
Mr Browder said the common thread running through most of the deaths is that the men worked in the oil and gas sector, including for Russian energy giant Gazprom and private oil company Lukoil.
Lukoil chairman Ravil Maganov died last month after falling from a hospital window in Moscow, two sources familiar with the situation told Reuters, confirming reports from several Russian media. But the circumstances surrounding his downfall were unclear.
Russian state news agency TASS called the death a suicide, citing a police source.

In a statement, the company said he died “due to a serious illness”.

A large white tank with 'Lukoil Oil Company' written on it

Fuel tanks of the Russian energy multinational Lukoil in Brussels, Belgium. Source: AAP / STEPHANIE LECOCQ/EPA

Unusually among Russian companies, Lukoil has taken a public position on the country’s shares in Ukraine. In March, the company’s board expressed concern over the “tragic events” and called for the “quickest possible end to the armed conflict” through negotiations.

A former Lukoil board member, Alexander Subbotin, was also found dead in Moscow in May after apparently visiting a shaman, TASS reported.
Several deaths were reported among people linked to Gazprom, including Leonid Shulman, who was leading his transport. He was found dead in a cottage north of St. Petersburg in January, local news reported.
A source told the RIA news agency that his death was ruled a suicide.

Another Gazprom executive, Alexander Tyulakov, was found dead at his home in St. Petersburg on February 25, the day after Russia invaded Ukraine, Russian media reported.

In a separate case, Ivan Pechorin, director of aviation for the Russian Far Eastern and Arctic Development Corporation (KRDV), was found dead in the Russian port city of Vladivostok in September. The company confirmed his death in a statement but provided no further details.
Local media quoted a source as saying he died after falling overboard from a boat.
The reported deaths have all been in Russia, except that of Sergei Protosenya, a former senior executive at Russia’s largest liquefied natural gas producer, Novatek, who was found with the bodies of his wife and daughter. in a villa in Spain.
Catalan regional police, investigating the case, said they believe the deaths were a murder-suicide.

Mikhail Watford, a Ukrainian-born businessman, was found dead at a property in southeast England in February, local media reported, citing police.

“A feature of Russian politics”

Stephen Fortescue, honorary professor of Russian politics at the University of NSW, said similar cases also occurred before the country invaded Ukraine – and are a feature of Russian politics.
“People dying in seemingly suspicious circumstances in Russia – or Russians, or people associated with Russia, dying outside of Russia – is not unusual. And it’s certainly not something that started since the invasion of Ukraine,” he told SBS News.

Professor Fortescue cited prominent cases, such as the fatal poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006, and more recently that of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who survived. The Kremlin has dismissed Mr Navalny’s claim that Russia poisoned him.

“Before the invasion, there were a lot of cases that didn’t reach Western news sources with this degree of importance,” he said.

“It is a standard feature of Russian politics and business.”

Why are Russian businessmen dying?

Professor Fortescue said he preferred not to jump to “big conspiratorial conclusions” too quickly.
“The thing you can say about these cases is that very often, if you look at them in isolation, you might say, ‘maybe we don’t have to jump to conclusions,'” a- he declared.

“That’s not to say that when there’s a lot out there, knowing what we know about how Russia works, maybe we should look a little closer.”

Professor Fortescue said many of the deaths in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union have been in property.
“A lot of these recent deaths have been in the oil industry, where there’s quite a bit of money,” he said. “So you might assume that their deaths were related to an effort by someone to grab the property of [a] particular company. »
But while splitting real estate assets could be an “immediate” assumption, he argues that this does not correspond to real cases, for example the death of Lukoil chairman Mr Maganov.

“There were no visible signs of anyone wanting to take over Lukoil,” he said.

“A Fight for the Money”

Prof Fortescue said such an assumption could extend to possession of money or information, particularly for those whose death occurred overseas.
Mr Browder also said he ‘suspects these murders are simply a fight for money’.
“My theory about how these people died is that there’s a much smaller economic pie to share in post-sanctions Russia,” he told SBS News.
“These people are sitting in front of oil and gas, one of the last sectors of the economy where sanctions haven’t hit, and someone wants the money they control.”
Mr Browder said the businessmen who died “in no way threatened the Kremlin”.
“They were all relatively unknown businessmen who did not wield any power or had any known opinions critical of the government,” he said.

Prof Fortescue agreed there are alternative explanations which are more likely to suggest it is “something lower level” than President Vladimir Putin.

What does this have to do with the war in Ukraine?

Eight months into the war with Russia, Mr Browder said the deaths are a telltale sign that ‘sanctions work if the cash position is so tight that they kill each other for money’.
But Professor Fortescue is less convinced and questions the establishment of a link.
“I don’t think what’s happening with these deaths tells us anything fundamentally important about the invasion or Putin’s situation,” he said.
“There are clearly conflicts within the upper elite … over how this war should be fought and how economic policy should be shaped accordingly.
“But it’s hard to tie this debate to these particular cases that we’re talking about.”
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