The powerful Russian oligarch Igor Sechin, chairperson and CEO of Russia’s largest oil company, the state-owned Rosneft, and widely believed to be President Vladimir Putin’s “de facto deputy”, secretly visited South Africa last week. President Cyril Ramaphosa, through his spokesperson, claims no awareness of the visit.
Sechin, one of Russia’s notorious oligarchs and widely sanctioned by the West, appeared to have come to South Africa mainly for a holiday in Cape Town and the Kruger National Park. But while in Cape Town he also briefly flew to Lanseria Airport on 15 August and spent just over three hours in Gauteng, prompting considerable speculation.
Did he travel to Gauteng to meet senior government officials? Perhaps to discuss oil purchases? Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, Vincent Magwenya, denied that the two men had met or even that the President was aware Sechin was in the country. The Department of International Relations referred all queries to the Presidency.
ANC MP Lawrence McDonald claims that Sechin’s aircraft flew to Lanseria International Airport on 15 August without passengers, merely to refuel as the Airports Company South Africa (Acsa) had refused to refuel it in Cape Town because of Western sanctions against Russia.
In any case, South Africa’s intelligence services should have known that Putin’s closest crony and the second most powerful man in Russia was in South Africa. Putin and Sechin go back to Putin’s days as deputy mayor of St Petersburg in 1994 when Sechin was his chief of staff. If South African intelligence did know Sechin was in South Africa it would have been a serious dereliction of duty not to inform senior officials, if not Ramaphosa himself.
Sechin arrived in South Africa just a day after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had left the country after an official visit in which he had met Ramaphosa and International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor to co-chair the Strategic Dialogue between the two countries. The issue of Russia’s war against Ukraine came up several times in these discussions. At one point Pandor publicly rebuked Blinken for legislation going through the US Congress that would punish African individuals and companies for doing business with Russia.
However, diplomatic sources said that as things now stood, US sanctions did not have secondary effects. “They limit doing business with Russia, but unlike our sanctions on Iran, they do not punish countries or businesses that do business with Russia.”
ANC MP McDonald’s role in Sechin’s visit is intriguing too. He tweeted on 16 August — the day after Sechin’s jet had flown from Cape Town to Lanseria and back — that “Never Again will a Russian aircraft on South African soil be refused fuel at ACSA airports. I have just stopped that nonsensical behaviour. Svetlana Medvedeva and RA-73455 @RosneftEN I apologize on behalf of @ACSA and South Africa.”
@EmbassyofRussia @DirksMervyn Never again will a Russian aircraft on South African soil be refused fuel at ACSA Airports , I just stopped that nonsensical behaviour.. Svetlana Medvedeva and RA-73455 @RosneftEN I apologise on behalf of @ACSA and South Africa .
— Lawrence McDonald (@macdee_ANC) August 16, 2022
RA-72455 is the registration number of the B737 Boeing Business Jet in which Sechin flew to South Africa.
Svetlana Medvedeva is Russia’s former first lady, the wife of Dmitry Medvedev who was Russia’s president from 2008 to 2012. He was widely regarded as a proxy for Putin, who could not run for president again as he had already completed two terms.
News24 reported last month that a Bombardier Global 5000 private jet registered in Svetlana Medvedeva’s name had to divert its return flight from Cape Town International Airport to Lanseria International Airport on 6 July because its operators were denied fuel by suppliers in Cape Town. The reporter was unable to confirm if Medvedeva herself was on the plane.
‘Avid aviation enthusiast’
McDonald’s mention of “RA-73455 @RosneftEN” is clearly a reference to Sechin’s aircraft. Daily Maverick spoke to McDonald to ask how he had become involved in the saga. He said he was an avid aviation enthusiast and had become aware of the problem from having followed the refuelling problems of the Medvedeva aircraft and also a Russian giant Antonov An-24 cargo plane which had earlier been refused refuelling at OR Tambo International Airport.
McDonald said he had tracked the flight of the Rosneft jet on Flight Aware, an aircraft tracking app, and noticed that it had flown to Cape Town and then had to fly to Lanseria on 15 August. He had called Lanseria and the airport had confirmed that the plane had to fly to Lanseria — which is a private airport, not run by Acsa — because it had been refused fuel in Cape Town.
McDonald said he then spoke to Acsa and was told that a BP-Shell consortium supplied all the Acsa airports and had refused to refuel the Rosneft plane “because their companies in the UK gave them instructions not to refuel Russian aircraft. And Iranian aircraft.
“It doesn’t make sense. We’re a country that’s growing. We need money. These Russian tourists come here and spend millions,” said McDonald. And he added that as a member of BRICS, SA should not propagate “colonial laws”.
McDonald said he had called the Acsa CEO, Mpumi Mpofu, and told her “we need to find another way to handle this”, and she had agreed that in future Acsa would refuel Russian aircraft with emergency fuel from its own stocks “so we won’t need to rely on BP and Shell, etc.”
His account differs on one important point from what Daily Maverick learnt, in that he says the Rosneft aircraft was refuelled at Lanseria on 15 August on a special trip from Cape Town rather than at Lanseria on 19 August before departing from South Africa.
McDonald said he did not know that Sechin was on board when the Rosneft plane came to South Africa.
Sechin entered South Africa on 12 August, landing at Cape Town International Airport at about 10.30 on a B737 Boeing Business Jet, RA-73455. There were four people with him on the plane, of which at least two are said to be female.
Scorpio confirmed that his son, Ivan Sechin, also on the Western banned list, was not one of the passengers.
Some sources said Sechin was accompanied by a large security detail, but this could not be confirmed at the time of publishing this story.
Sechin’s plane had flown from Moscow to Saudi Arabia on 11 August, refuelling at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Kenya on 12 August before landing at Cape Town International Airport. It seems that the Sechin party was in South Africa mainly for a vacation, because Sechin’s plane flew to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport on 16 August, where it spent two days before leaving early on the morning of 19 August for Lanseria airport. After refuelling, Sechin’s Boeing left the country and landed in the Seychelles on the evening of 19 August and then flew to the Maldives the next day.
The anomaly: Sechin seemed to have interrupted his Cape Town stay with a brief trip to Lanseria.
Two waiting BMWs
Sechin’s Boeing left Cape Town just before 6am on 15 August and landed in Lanseria at 7.20. Sechin and his entourage were seen climbing into two BMWs waiting at Lanseria and drove off in the direction of Pretoria, Daily Maverick has been told.
Significantly, the plane was not refuelled at this stage.
At 10.45, just over three hours after the plane had landed in Lanseria, Sechin and his entourage left for Cape Town again.
Whatever they did in Gauteng, it seems to have been brief.
The plane departed the next day for Kruger International.
Scorpio understands that Sechin’s plane used a third-party company in the UAE, Jetex, to negotiate payment for the fuel. Payments for the fuel also emanated from the UAE. In South Africa, negotiations were handled by ExecuJet. Questions about the Luxembourg ownership of ExecuJet are relevant here.
The Boeing in which Sechin flew seems to belong or to have belonged to Rosneft. All data on ownership seem to have been deleted from online aviation databases.
However, aviation groups and McDonald’s tweet seem to support the view that RA-73455 is a Rosneft plane. It is currently operated by UTair Aviation, a Russian airline. But RA-73455 is not registered under UTair’s list of planes, strengthening the suspicion that Rosneft is trying to camouflage its ownership.
One source said that European Union sanctions must have forced Rosneft to re-register the plane in Russia under UT air AOC as it operates B737s already and probably has the expertise to look after the Boeing planes. The fact that the colour scheme stayed the same seems to confirm this.
They said the Boeing’s tail number used to be OE-IRF, which was managed on behalf of Rosneft. The same aircraft was now RA-73455 with a colour scheme identical to when it was Austrian-registered.
In March this year, Bloomberg reported that Putin had steadily clipped the wings of all the once-powerful oligarchs — except Sechin.
“It’s safe to say that he didn’t originally get the job [as head of Rosneft] because of his expertise managing energy companies,” Bloomberg wrote. “Like Putin, Sechin is a former intelligence operative, and the president simply gave Rosneft to Sechin in 2004.
“Putin bulked up Rosneft by dethroning one-time oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and folding the assets of his company, Yukos Oil, into Rosneft. He then imprisoned Khodorkovsky.”
The chairperson of its board of directors is former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who was appointed to the board in 2017 after Rosneft was already under sanctions in retaliation for Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea.
First published in Daily Maverick (South Africa)