Gennady Timchenko has long been the invisible man in Russia's ruling elite -- the Keyser Soze of the "collective Putin."
He's a Finnish citizen. He lives in Switzerland. And he denies that he even knows President Vladimir Putin all that well.
But Timchenko, who left Russia two decades ago, owns Gunvor, the world's fourth largest oil trading company. At its peak, Gunvor handled approximately a third of Russia's seaborne oil exports, making Timchenko a key player in the country's political-energy complex.
And despite his protestations to the contrary, Timchenko is widely rumored to have a KGB past and a long association with Putin. His name shows up on virtually every list of the top officials believed to be part of Putin's informal "politburo."
And now, according to Russian media reports, he's coming home. And this has led to a lot of speculation about why, and why now. Explanations from Russian officials, to say the least, were unconvincing.
Aleksandr Ryazanov, a former deputy chief executive of Gazprom, told the daily "Vedomosti" that since his "kids are grown up," Timchenko decided to return to Russia and "invest in manufacturing."
Russian Railways chief Vladimir Yakunin, who is close to Timchenko, offered a similarly opaque explanation. "Sometimes in business, to maximize legal convenience you find that people even change their citizenship, but they keep their roots," he said. "For those like him, a time comes when it's necessary to determine what's more important. He made his decision to return to Russia, and I support that decision."
In an interview in the upcoming Russian-language edition of "Forbes" -- the first he's ever given to the Russian media -- Timchenko said he planned to form a construction holding company.
But this being Russia, there is a much more interesting backstory.
As John Helmer has meticulously chronicled on his blog "Dancing With Bears," reports that Swiss authorities were targeting Gunvor began surfacing back in July. The latest reports say Swiss investigators are looking into whether Gunvor paid bribes to win Congolese oil contracts and laundered the money through Swiss banks (read Helmer's exhaustive account here).
And it isn't only Swiss law enforcement that is reportedly causing headaches for Timchenko.
According to the "Vedomosti" report, a number of energy insiders say the U.S. Justice Department is investigating Timchenko and Gunvor for manipulating the price of oil. The case investigation is reportedly looking into allegations of price manipulation made in an article by the British weekly "The Economist" in May.
Gunvor officials deny this and, when contacted by "Vedomosti," the Justice Department would neither confirm nor deny the rumors.
But if the United States is indeed going after Timchenko -- admittedly a very big if at this point -- it would not be the first time U.S. law enforcement targeted Russian interests in a strategic sector.
Just weeks ago, on October 3, the Justice Department announced that it had indicted 11 alleged Russian agents on charges of illegally exporting sensitive microelectronics for use by military and intelligence agencies through a Texas-based company.
In a recent commentary, defense analyst Aleksandr Golts argued that spy networks like this -- as well as the sleeper network the U.S. broke up back in 2010, making Anna Chapman a household name -- are as much about acquiring intelligence and technology as they are about helping top Russian officials line their pockets (read the whole piece in Russian here and in English here):
The way Russia tries to obtain intelligence and technology says much about the country. More than anything else, the use of sleeper agents showed that the Kremlin and its intelligence agencies were still stuck in 1950s-era thinking, despite the fact that the existence of nuclear weapons made it clear by the 1960s that this type of reconnaissance was unnecessary.
Perhaps, however, there is a better explanation: The intelligence network was set up to launder money for a group of senior Moscow officials. Thus, the illegal network was either set up to satisfy the wildly Cold War-era imperial aspirations of Russia's top brass, or else it was an illegal means of personal enrichment for powerful Russian officials.
It is, of course, much too early to say whether the United States is targeting Russia's shadowy networks -- be they in intelligence or energy. We don't even know for sure whether there is even an investigation into Timchenko and Gunvor yet. But the trend is, nevertheless, worth watching.
Whatever Timchenko's reasons for returning to Russia, his presence will likely be felt soon enough on the body politic.
He reportedly recently met with Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin to try to resolve a simmering dispute. And news of his return comes as Sechin, a partner and rival of Timchenko in the energy sphere, scored a major victory with Rosneft acquiring 100 percent of the shares in BP-TNK.
It's going to take a little while to unpack all this. But while Timchenko is no longer the invisible man of the Russian elite (his picture is on the cover of "Forbes" this week, after all), he will certainly be a player.
"Timchenko has been investing in Russian companies. He has resources here, and it's clear to him how decisions are made, that competitors will think five times before crossing an acquaintance of Putin," an unidentified former Russian official with close ties to Timchenko told "Vedomosti,"
"There is a line forming in front of Timchenko, like in front of the mausoleum, of entrepreneurs ready to do business with him."
-- Brian Whitmore