Putin’s chef’s company wins oil rights in Syria

The Russian companies Mercury and Velada, which the Syrian government has authorized to develop three oil and gas fields in the country, are linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Concord company, claims the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

In December 2019, the Syrian Arab News Agency and The Syria Times reported that Syrian parliament had approved contracts to explore, develop and extract oil with two Russian companies (Velada and Mercury Ltd). Novaya Gazeta claims that both companies are linked to Prigozhin’s organizations, which the mass media has also linked to the activity of the Wagner private military company (PMC). The businessman himself has denied all such connections.

The news outlet claims that Prigozhin’s Concord company is actually behind the nominal owners and directors of Velada and Mercury. In support of this, Novaya points out that the founder and former director of Velada is Yekaterina Trofimova. During her period as director of Velada, she worked as a director’s assistant at another firm – Concord Management and Consulting. The newspaper reports that it was able to reach Trofimova on the phone, and that she “did not deny that her role in Velada was purely nominal, and that for additional compensation she complied with a request from Concord’s accounting department and took over Velada. The current director and owner of Velada, Darya Baranovskaya, did not respond to an inquiry from the newspaper, but according to Novaya, one of her close relatives is also the director of one of Prigozhin’s companies.

The newspaper does not cite any other information on Velada’s ties to Prigozhin’s companies. 20 companies named LLC Velada are registered on Russia’s SPARK company database. Darya Baranovskaya is mentioned as the founder of one of them. The SPARK database does not contain any phone number or email address for LLC Velada.

According to Novaya, Mercury’s connection to Prigozhin is confirmed by an article in Current Time, which describes a helicopter crash which took place in 2016. The IAC reported that the helicopter belonged to Mercury. Current Time wrote that it had managed to get hold of one of the helicopter’s pilots, who said that he had transported Prigozhin and his wife “short distances within St. Petersburg and the surroundings”. The newspaper does not cite any other information about the company belonging to Prigozhin’s group.

According to SPARK, Mercury is owned by Olga Kholodovich and directed by Pavel Karasev.

Novaya Gazeta claims that, according to its estimates, the value of the resources obtained by Prigozhin’s companies in Syria in 2018 “could be around $20 million” per month. The amount of oil produced in 2019 has “not yet been clarified”. The newspaper did not cite the source of the estimates.

The press service of the Concord group said that Velada and Mercury have no connection to Prigozhin.

In 2017, the Fontanka newspaper reported that the Prigozhin-linked company LLC Evro Polis may have won contracts to extract one quarter of all the gas and oil produced in the parts of Syria that were reclaimed by Bashar al-Assad with Russia’s help. According to the news outlet, the company undertook to take the oil fields and refinery infrastructure away from Islamic State militants and opponents of the Assad regime, and then protect them.

An RBC source claimed at the time that the Wagner PMC had taken gas fields close to Palmyra away from IS forces. In 2018, CBS reported that Russian mercenaries had been among the forces which tried to attack pro-US forces in the region of the Khasham gas field (in Deir ez-Zor) in order to capture it. Der Spiegel later reported that 10-20 Russians, described as Wagner PMC mercenaries, had been killed in the fighting. Novaya Gazeta reported that Wagner mercenaries frequently guard Assad’s oil rigs in Deir ez-Zor.

Prigozhin has denied the reports that he is linked to the Wagner PMC. “We do not possess any information about the activity of the organization you mention,” a spokesperson for Prigozhin told RBC. “Yevgeny also asked me to pass on that he is extremely surprised by the very existence of the company in question, and has no link whatsoever to its activity,” the representative added.

In March 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin told NBC News in an interview that Prigozhin could have “interests in Syria’s fuel and energy sector”. “But we are not supporting him in any way, we are not getting involved, we are not helping him – this is all his personal initiative,” the politician said. He also refuted claims that Prigozhin had been doing Putin’s “dirty work” in the US. The Russian government denies any cooperation with the mercenaries in Syria.

In April 2018, the Russian Defense Ministry denied a report from the Security Service of Ukraine which claimed that the Russian cruiser Varyag had been used to transport Wagner mercenaries to Syria. “Before coming up with tall tales, you should consult the command of the Ukrainian Navy or its western supervisors,” said Russian Defense Ministry Spokesperson Major General Igor Konashenkov at the time.

(C)UAWIRE 2020

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