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Kathy Sheridan: Oligarchs have been hiding in plain sight all along

Twitter account tracking movements of those close to Putin arouses healthy curiosity

In 10 days, an automated Twitter account set up to track the private aircraft of Russian oligarchs close to Putin, has gathered more than 400,000 followers and growing.

It’s a simple concept. Take a random oligarch like Roman Abramovich, currently trying to offload Chelsea football club in a hurry. His commercial-sized Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner – one of only two privately-owned Dreamliners in the world – departed from Moscow about a week ago and five hours later, landed near Jebel Ali, Dubai. Three days later, it flew back to Russia then took off again for Dubai.

It’s just raw movement information, using data from ADS-B Exchange, but it arouses a healthy curiosity.

We can establish that the price of a Dreamliner is about $250 million (€229 million) plus another $100 million (€91 million) reportedly for Abramovich’s bespoke equipment. We can also estimate those two return journeys alone burned an estimated 130,000 litres of fuel and cost about €230,000.

At minimum, Sweeney's posts may lead to puzzlement about the origins of the oligarchs' extreme wealth

Meanwhile, a Gulfstream G650 jet also belonging to Abramovich took a return trip to Baku, a round trip calculated at about €11,000 for fuel and 24 tonnes of CO2 emissions.

Next day it departed for Istanbul and Ankara for which the return flights alone probably cost more than €20,000 for fuel and 44 tonnes of CO2 emissions.

During those days, Abramovich’s Isle of Man-registered helicopter was tootling between Caribbean islands, probably from a base on one of Abramovich’s mega yachts – either the billion-euro 163m Eclipse with its own submarine, or the 140m Solaris equipped with a radar-controlled missile-detection system.

We know about the yacht because Jack Sweeney, the 19-year old Florida student who runs the @RUOligarchJets account has also set up @RussianYachts, a selection that includes Graceful, a 270ft super yacht reportedly owned by Vladimir Putin, which left Germany abruptly, mid-repair, in February.

Not everyone is applauding Sweeney’s initiative. Colby Howard, the president of Paragon Intel, told Bloomberg that Sweeney’s Twitter accounts are the “People Magazine version” of corporate aviation intelligence: “People are obsessed with wealth more than ever. It’s almost a form of paparazzi, that’s why this is popular.”

It’s a peculiarly sweeping take on a lot of “people” and their presumed focus while a monstrous, asymmetric war sears their eyes on 24/7 news feeds. “Obsessed with wealth” might also be translated as “people developing a lively curiosity about some of the men who fund Putin’s war chest” – reputed to be about €580 billion if he can access it – for an invasion reckoned to be costing more than €18.3 billion a day.

And still accountants and lawyers from prestige western firms carried on devising their ingenious tax shelters and stoutly defending their oligarchs

At minimum, Sweeney’s posts may lead to puzzlement about the origins of the oligarchs’ extreme wealth and about the identity of their little helpers in so-called rule-of-law jurisdictions in the West where they prefer to secure their money.

In 2014, the year Putin annexed Crimea, French economist Gabriel Zucman estimated that a staggering 52 per cent of Russian wealth was held offshore. Those murky origins never deterred the western enablers, nor did the assassinations of journalists such as Anna Politkovskaya (one of 20 who have died on Putin’s watch) nor of opposition politicians such as Boris Nemtsov, nor the nerve poisonings of the Skripals and Alexander Litvinenko on British soil, nor of Alexei Navalny. The enablers knew precisely who Putin was, long ago. “We knew [after the Litvinenko assassination in 2006] that he was planning other assassinations in Britain”, former British prime minister Gordon Brown told Channel 4 news, “we knew he was directing them personally, and we knew that he [needed to understand] that we would fight back on those things... Vladimir Putin only understands strength”.

And still accountants and lawyers from prestige western firms carried on devising their ingenious tax shelters and stoutly defending their oligarchs when courageous journalists and dissidents attempted to join the dots.

The enablers’ great achievement was not merely to “shelter” the cash but to facilitate the flood of unexplained wealth into highly influential channels while apparently remaining within the law. Lubov Chernukhin, whose husband was a minister under Putin, donated more than £2 million (€2.4 million) to the Tory party over 10 years. In 2014, she paid £160,000 (€192,000) to play tennis with then London mayor Boris Johnson. Leaked files from the Pandora Papers revealed that the Chernukhins’ extraordinary reliance on the offshore facilities included such minutiae as the quad bikes, beehives and chicken house on their Oxfordshire estate.

It is true that Sweeney’s oligarch-tracking accounts will not save a single Ukrainian life today. But they will contribute to the kind of social media movement that reveals another small, factual piece of a vast, sinister jigsaw and inspire people to seek out more. Yesterday, a soccer-mad teenager paused his football scrolling to ask what the word “kleptocrat” meant. Eventually his reading might extend to Mohammed bin Salman and how the Saudi prince couldn’t buy Newcastle United but the Saudi sovereign wealth fund could, at which point our young football fan might spot a link to a man called Jamal Khashoggi.

In Siberia as the first bodies of young conscripts arrive back, grieving parents accuse the Kremlin of using their sons as “cannon fodder” but cannot use the word “war” for fear of a 15-year jail sentence. And in Dublin, responding to an attack on the Russian embassy’s gate in which no Russian fingers were grazed, the ambassador had this to say: “We believe that no people of sound mind could support such senseless and barbaric actions.”

Irony is truly dead.

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