In the icy waters of a Siberian harbour, the Christophe de Margerie, a Russian ship with an unusual French name, was ready for loading. The world’s first ice-breaking gas tanker had been designed for a very specific purpose: opening up Russia’s Arctic shipping routes towards Europe and Asia during the winter months.
It was December 2017, and the temperatures had plunged to -27C, but the politicians and oil executives gathered in Sabetta, on the Yamal peninsula, were jubilant. Vladimir Putin had flown in for the event. At the president’s signal, gas began to pump into the tanker.
“This is probably the biggest step in the development of the Arctic,” Putin declared.
As they watched, the onlookers will have noticed another of the ship’s distinguishing features: its prow was painted with a giant white moustache.
The whiskers – and the name – were a tribute to the former boss of the French oil major Total. Known as “big moustache” for his luxuriant facial hair, De Margerie had spent years flying between Paris and Moscow, setting up a $27bn (£22bn) partnership with Novatek, Russia’s largest private gas group, and China’s state oil company, to transform a remote wilderness with a vast untapped gas field into a busy industrial hub.
Sabetta now has a port, an airport, a railway station, a power plant and a facility for condensing methane into its liquid form. The liquid natural gas (LNG) is then exported by sea. But De Margerie was not there for the tanker’s inauguration. He had been killed in an accident three years earlier, when his private plane collided with a snow plough at Moscow airport.
Doing business in Russia comes with risks, but the rewards can be tempting. In the five years since 2017, Total (or TotalEnergies as it is now known) has collected nearly $1.8bn (£1.48bn) in dividends from its investments with Novatek, and its Yamal LNG joint venture; $750m of that in the last year, according to the company’s filings. Advisers to the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, have described the profits as “blood money”.
In the days that followed Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, acted as an intermediary, maintaining a dialogue with Putin before eventually distancing himself. Total took a similar approach: while BP and Shell announced an intention to cut ties within days of the 24 February invasion, and Norway’s Equinor has completed its exit, Total continued working with Novatek.
On Friday last week, it changed tack. Total wrote off the value of its near-20% stake in Novatek and its two representatives on the board resigned with immediate effect.
The timing appeared surprising. “The key questions from today’s release is why now and not earlier,” one analyst told Reuters.
The Guardian can reveal the Total press release came hours before a 5pm deadline for a response to a letter, sent by this newspaper, raising questions about Yamal LNG’s ties to the Kremlin.
Total said there was no link between the deadline and the announcement. It said it had already written down the value of its Russian investments by billions of dollars and quit another joint venture with Novatek. A spokesperson said the decision was “a new logical step, in line with our principles of conduct of gradual withdrawing from our Russian assets”.
Our investigation shines a light on how two members of Putin’s inner circle, Gennady Timchenko and Peter Kolbin, appeared to play a role in bringing Novatek, Russia’s largest private gas company, under Kremlin control, making huge profits in the process.
Some of this story has been told before but some important details are new. Many of these events took place while Novatek was listed on the London Stock Exchange, where its shares were owned by blue chip funds on behalf of British savers. Viewed through the lens of recent events, it is a reminder of the complications of doing business under the Putin regime.
Kolbin was a childhood friend of Putin’s and is thought to have died in 2018. He is described by the UK government as Putin’s “alleged business associate” and widely claimed as having been a purse-holder for the Russian president. We can reveal an offshore company of which he was a beneficiary appears to have booked more than $400m in profits from selling a stake in Yamal LNG.
The transaction was recorded in company filings as having taken place in 2011. The same year Total invested $4bn in Novatek and a separate, undisclosed amount in the Yamal LNG venture. Total said it bought its share in Yamal from Novatek.
By piecing together information from offshore leaks – including the Panama Papers, corporate and shipping registries in Cyprus and Russia, and documents provided by a source to the Dossier Center, an investigations unit funded by the exiled oil boss Mikhail Khodorkovsky – we have traced a network of secretive offshore companies apparently used by Kolbin and Timchenko to manage their investments in Yamal.
That network appears to connect Timchenko to money paid for building one of Putin’s most expensive playthings – a $100m superyacht called the Graceful.
In a statement, Total said: “Given that TotalEnergies’ investments in Novatek and Yamal LNG were done publicly, at market value, with legitimate and rightful shareholders who had actual business activities and who were not subject to any sanctions, TotalEnergies categorically rejects all the unfounded and ludicrous allegations about being involved, in any way, in alleged transactions destined to enrich Vladimir Putin or his inner circle.”
It said Novatek and its partners were able to raise multibillion-dollar international financing for the Yamal LNG project after thorough due diligence of reputed international financial institutions.
Novatek said it follows stringent corporate governance standards, and its financial statements are verified by external auditors and its board of directors, who include independent members of the international business community. It said transactions at the company were always made on market terms and beneficial to all shareholders, adding: “Novatek is not aware of, and does not comment on, actions by persons who are not involved in the company management as well as transactions that are outside of the company’s activities.”
A spokesperson for Putin did not respond to a request for comment. Timchenko and Kolbin’s family did not respond to emails.
Originally discovered in the 1970s, the South Tambey gas field lies beneath the permafrost of the remote Yamal peninsula, where the snowy plains provide a vital habitat for reindeer, polar bears and wild birds.
In the post-Soviet privatisation drive of the mid-1990s, a former KGB colonel, Nikolai Bogachev, saw the opportunity and acquired the South Tambey licence. He eventually partnered with Novatek.
Novatek’s founder is Leonid Mikhelson, a 67-year-old engineer who started out as a construction foreman before going into business.
Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister under Putin, now an opposition campaigner, holds him in the highest regard. “He is capable of large-scale visionary stuff and getting things done. In the gas industry I’ve never seen a high-level professional like this, he is number one.”
In search of capital to begin drilling, Mikhelson approached Total. In the summer of 2004, he struck an agreement to sell a quarter of Novatek’s shares to the French company.
But the transaction ran into political opposition, and Russia’s Federal Antimonopoly Service refused to give approval.
So Novatek turned to the London Stock Exchange, raising $880m. The 2005 listing appears to have been a trigger for a series of deals. It was also a period during which the South Tambey licence changed hands several times.
Bogachev soon found himself under what he believed was government pressure to sell his 74.9% in Yamal LNG, incorporated by him to hold the licence, after Gazprombank, a subsidiary of the state-owned gas giant Gazprom, launched a legal complaint.
Bogachev’s son Victor, who was sent to live in the US, alleged in a 2017 interview that his father had been subject to a campaign of intimidation.
“There were raids on his office with guns trying to find information. He had three cars following him at all times. When we were in his office he would turn up the TV noise loud and tell us in whispers what is the development. It was intense. Fortunately, because of his connections, they didn’t go after him in a way that could be life threatening.”
Bogachev won the legal case on appeal but agreed to sell his share in Yamal LNG to a private company. Gazprom then set its sights on Novatek, acquiring a chunk of its shares and gaining two boardroom seats.
Mikhelson needed a strategy. Without political protection, Novatek’s founder may have faced similar pressures to Bogachev. “Novatek could not have survived as an independent producer if it did not allow people from Putin’s inner circle to come in and become shareholders,” Milov claimed. “What Mikhelson did is the smoothest integration with the Kremlin’s people. Not a hostile takeover. He bought himself the ability to implement his vision.”
Mikhelson did not respond to a separate request for comment.
It was at this point that Timchenko became a shareholder in Novatek, acquiring a 5% stake in 2008 through his conglomerate, Volga Group. The 70-year-old St Petersberg oil trader has known Putin since the 1990s and the pair rose up the commercial and political ranks in tandem. They share a passion for judo, ice hockey – and dogs. Timchenko once told an interviewer his family pet, Rommie, was the daughter of Putin’s black labrador Connie. She spent her first weeks as a puppy living in one of the presidential palaces.
Also in 2008, Timchenko acquired the 74.9% share of Yamal LNG that Bogachev had relinquished. The transaction took place offshore, in Cyprus, where there is no obligation to declare who ultimately owns a company. The Cyprus-registered entities Aldi Trading Ltd and Orsel Consultants Ltd bought 25% each, while Innecto Ventures Ltd bought 24.9%. Leaked documents connect all three to Timchenko, and he would later declare a connection.
In April 2009, another Cyprus company, Varix Enterprises, acquired 25.1% of Yamal from Gazprombank, according to press reports. It was not until the following year that the identity of the new owner of Yamal emerged: Interfax news agency named the buyer as Kolbin.
It has since emerged that Kolbin and Putin grew up together, in the village of Imenitsy, near the Estonian border. Their fathers were friends and as teenagers they brawled with boys from a neighbouring village. Their adult lives would diverge, with Kolbin eventually working in a Soviet butcher’s shop, while Putin joined the KGB. However, the president never forgot his old friend: he sent Kolbin a birthday letter shortly after becoming head of state.
“Kolbin is generally considered a window-dressing representative of Putin,” Milov said. “Timchenko was always personally very involved in business and decisions. Kolbin was clearly representing someone else.”
In May 2009, Volga Group announced it had increased its stake in Novatek, and Timchenko had been made a director. As part of the deal, Novatek would acquire a 51% share of Yamal LNG from Volga and associated companies.
Between them, Timchenko and state-owned Gazprom now owned more of Novatek than Mikhelson and his management team. Reporting the deal, the financial newspaper Kommersant declared: “Novatek lost its independence.”
The historian and author Anne Applebaum said control of strategically important companies is central to how Putin governs. “Putin’s grip on power in Russia is very closely related to his assault on the oligarchs and his attempts to bring them under control. The goal of it was to make sure that everybody conducted business in Russia only with his permission.”
Until this year, most of Russia’s gas was transported via pipelines to Europe. But the flow has largely stopped as the Kremlin pressures western governments over the war against Ukraine. For Putin, exporting gas by sea in ultra-chilled LNG form to still-friendly trading partners, such as China and India, is now a top priority.
Yamal’s importance is not only commercial. “One of Putin’s ambitions was to re-establish Russian control over the Arctic coast,” said Mikhail Krutikhin, a partner at the consultancy RusEnergy. Moscow’s military presence in the region was weakened by the fall of the Soviet Union, and Putin was convinced commerce could help reverse that. “This was a project that had a very interesting political meaning,” Krutikhin said.
In 2011, Total was finally allowed on to Novatek’s shareholder register. On 2 March that year, it acquired a 14.1% chunk of Novatek for $4bn, which Total says it bought from Mikhelson and Timchenko. It also acquired a direct 20% stake in Yamal LNG from Novatek for an undisclosed sum.
Total said it bought the Yamal shares from Novatek “and its 100%-owned affiliate” and that “each time, Total paid the due amounts directly to the respective owners or through companies based within the European Union”.
Days later, Kolbin apparently cashed in. On 14 March, company accounts show Varix sold its shares in Yamal for $526m, netting an estimated $416m profit. That September, Timchenko sold up, too. Innecto’s remaining 23.9% went for $450m, according to company filings.
Adding up the various transactions, Timchenko and Kolbin appear to have sold Yamal for £1.6bn. They acquired all of the company in 2008, sold some of it in 2009, and the rest in 2011. Because the accounts declaring the deals were only filed in 2014, when the Cyprus companies were being liquidated, the profits remained hidden from public view for years. The filings do not name the buyer.
With marble bathrooms and tooled leather furniture, a helipad and a 15-metre indoor pool that can be covered to make a dance floor, the Graceful superyacht costs more than $5m a year to maintain. In June, the US Treasury identified the yacht as “property in which President Vladimir Putin has an interest”, and which he had used for “numerous” trips. Putin has not commented on those allegations.
Leaked documents from the Panama Papers, shared by the ICIJ, and papers from a court dispute unearthed by the Finnish broadcaster Yle suggest the no-expense-spared construction was funded at least in part by a British Virgin Islands company called Olneil Assets Corp. Until 2019, Olneil was named on the Lloyds shipping register as the owner of the Graceful. Olneil appears to have been part of Timchenko and Kolbin’s offshore structure. It was ultimately controlled via the same Panama company, a nominee shareholder called Mishositos SA. From 2020, the Graceful was moved to the Russian shipping registry, where it was owned by a Russian company, which ultimately belonged to a British Virgin Islands company. That BVI company, Navolution Ventures Ltd, appears to have been controlled by Timchenko, offshore documents suggest.
Navolution is named as a “related party” in accounts filed by a Timchenko Cyprus company, Innecto. The filing gives a clear definition for the term: “Related parties are companies which are subject to common control”.
An invoice dated 29 June 2011, addressed to Olneil and issued by the Maritime Authority of the Cayman Islands, shows one of the registry’s surveyors travelled to Germany for a “meeting to discuss Project Graceful”. Olneil was charged for the surveyor’s accommodation, travel, communications and a €60 “daily allowance”.
In September 2011, an engineering company in Florida had sent another invoice to Olneil, for the installation of a “two-fin stabiliser system”, costing €123,620.
There is no evidence the yacht was funded by money made on the Yamal deal. Timchenko is worth an estimated $13bn and could have sourced the cash from other investments.
In 2013, Timchenko received France’s highest order of merit, the Légion d’honneur, from François Hollande. Despite being blacklisted by the US a year later, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the EU did not impose sanctions on him until February this year. Shortly after, he resigned from the board of Novatek.
Europe has walked the tightrope of opposing the war, while ensuring some Russian gas keeps flowing. Mikhelson, who remains the chair of Novatek, has had sanctions imposed by Canada and the UK, who do not rely on Russian gas, but not by the EU or the US. Brussels has not commented on the matter.
Total’s Russian withdrawal is still only partial. It is keeping the shares in Yamal LNG and another promising joint venture with Novatek, Arctic LNG 2. In a statement, Total indicated it would continue to accept dividends if they were paid. A spokesperson said: “EU authorities have asked TotalEnergies to contribute toward securing Europe’s gas supply from the Yamal LNG plant within the framework of long-term contracts that the company must honour as long as Europe’s governments do not take sanctions on Russian LNG.”
Meanwhile, the Christophe de Margerie sails on. Since October, a vessel tracker shows it has made two journeys to LNG terminals in Spain, and is now crossing the Arctic on its way back to Siberia.