Accessibility links

Breaking News
Russia Invades Ukraine

An Austrian Company Once Oversaw Russian Oil Giant Rosneft’s Corporate Jets. No More.

A passenger, believed to be Igor Sechin, boarding a Rosneft-operated Bombardier 6000 aircraft with tail number M-YOIL at Palma de Mallorca airport in 2018
A passenger, believed to be Igor Sechin, boarding a Rosneft-operated Bombardier 6000 aircraft with tail number M-YOIL at Palma de Mallorca airport in 2018

For years, Igor Sechin, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s oldest confidants and CEO of the state-run oil giant Rosneft, globe-trotted to fancy destinations around Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere aboard luxury private jets.

There was little accountability or transparency about who operated the jets, how they were paid for, when and where they flew, and whether Russian taxpayers were footing the bill.

A 2019 Reuters investigation found dozens of flights by Rosneft jets during Russian holidays and weekends over a four-year period, some of them going to posh vacation destinations like the Maldives. That was then.

This is now: Amid the global fallout from Russia’s war on Ukraine and the punitive sanctions Western nations have imposed on Moscow in response, private jet companies that for years thrived by offering elite flying services to powerful Russians like Sechin have had their wings clipped.

Dozens of companies have been forced to mothball their jets and wind down their operations.

That includes Art Aviation, the company that operated many of Rosneft’s corporate jets, including the plane identified as frequently used by Sechin.

Rosneft oil giant CEO Igor Sechin talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin aboard a private jet in 2018.
Rosneft oil giant CEO Igor Sechin talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin aboard a private jet in 2018.

A joint investigation by RFE/RL and the Austrian news site ZackZack pulls back the curtain on the secretive world of private jet management companies catering to powerful Russians -- in particular firms based in Austria, which has long been an attractive destination for powerful Russians to park their money and escape scrutiny.

In addition to the idling of its jets, the downfall of Art Aviation coincided with a more serious development: the death of the British-born CEO, whose body was found on a road below a highway overpass bridge outside of Vienna in early March. Austrian police say they do not suspect foul play; the company’s new CEO says the British man, Timothy Hurworth, died by suicide.

The company’s demise comes amid a wider crackdown by Western governments on the luxurious properties, offshore havens, and secret assets of Russian tycoons and Kremlin insiders.

“Art Aviation was the in-house aviation company of Igor Sechin,” said one executive who worked in the Austrian private jet industry and who asked to remain anonymous so as not to jeopardize existing business relationships. “They didn’t act like a normal company on the market.”

“They always have been below the radar, but everybody knows that they are connected to Rosneft and Sechin, in particular,” another jet industry executive said on condition of anonymity.

Like Champagne And Caviar

Established in 2012, Art Aviation was founded by Mikhail Alenkin, a Russian whose name drew attention in the massive leak of secret legal records and corporate registry documents known as the Paradise Papers.

The focus of the 2017 leak was a multinational law firm called Appleby that specialized in providing offshore services -- essentially a way to hide, sometimes illegally, assets and cash flows, from governments, regulators, or public scrutiny.

A Rosneft-operated Bombardier 6000 aircraft -- with tail number M-YOIL -- believed to be carrying Sechin takes off at Palma de Mallorca airport in August 2018.
A Rosneft-operated Bombardier 6000 aircraft -- with tail number M-YOIL -- believed to be carrying Sechin takes off at Palma de Mallorca airport in August 2018.

According to the Paradise Papers, Alenkin was the ultimate beneficiary owner of a Cyprus-registered company called Sunburst Aircraft Leasing Limited.

Alenkin’s name also surfaced in news reports in 2018, connected to Rosneft’s purchase of 160 helicopters from Italian manufacturer AgustaWestland. Alenkin utilized Appleby’s legal services to arrange receipt of a commission he received from AgustaWestland’s Russian distributor, apparently for brokering the sale, according to a report by the British magazine Private Eye.

In an article published in February 2020 by a newsletter called Corporate Jet Investor, Alenkin explained part of the reason offshore companies like Art Aviation were so popular among the Russian elite: “taxes, VAT, a complicated registration process, and law regulations” made it prohibitively difficult, and expensive, to register jets in Russia.

He said the growth in “gray charters” -- privately registered aircraft that make commercial flights within Russia -- had prompted a crackdown from Russian regulators.

He also lamented the growing number of sanctions imposed on Russia in punishment for, among other things, its actions in Ukraine and election meddling in Western countries.

“Economic stagnation [and] sanctions against Russian individuals have impacted the number of business jet sales and acquisitions deals. Having said that, and our European colleagues will agree with me, a very large proportion of private jets operated in [the] EU belong to Russian citizens,” he was quoted as saying.

In 2014, Alenkin founded another private jet brokerage company based in Dubai called ArcosJet.

In an August 2021 Russian-language interview that was translated into English and republished on ArcosJet’s website, Alenkin described what he said was his vision of the private jet industry, calling it “a necessity, a means of transportation for business.”

“Business aviation is often seen as indispensable as champagne and black caviar, but [that is] not the most important part; above all, it’s a very effective means of transportation,” he said.

In an e-mail response to questions from RFE/RL and ZackZack, Alenkin said Art Aviation had “always followed and complied with all applicable mandatory and industry rules and regulations, including respective sanctions and related restrictions and designations, no violations of which or any other laws have ever been committed by the Company.”

“Neither the Company, nor any of its management or shareholders have provided any services to persons or companies subject to any sanctions or designations,” he said.

Alenkin also said Art Aviation provided aircraft management and operation services to aircraft owners.

“The Company never owned, or leased, or somehow affiliated to any aircraft on behalf of any clients,” he said in the English-language e-mail. “Neither mentioned by you Rosneft, nor Mr. Igor Sechin, or any other executive from Rosneft specifically has had any direct or indirect ownership, control, economic interest in or any role/relation to the Company.”

Who Is Mr. Sechin?

Industry experts say demand for private jets and the services of jet management companies like Art Aviation exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic -- in Russia and elsewhere -- as people feared flying on commercial jets and airlines drastically reduced services.

According to Forbes magazine, private jet traffic, particularly in the United States and Europe, broke records in 2021. Russian companies and individuals bought a record 40 business jets in 2021, four times the number purchased the previous year.

For wealthy Russians, that crashed to earth with the invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

On March 5, the European Union imposed sanctions on dozens of top Russian officials and business leaders in response to the invasion of Ukraine, then in its 10th day. Sechin was among them.

President Vladimir Putin (left) talks with Sechin during a signing ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow in 2013.
President Vladimir Putin (left) talks with Sechin during a signing ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow in 2013.

“He is one of Vladimir Putin’s most trusted and closest advisers, as well as his personal friend,” the EU announcement said. “He has been in contact with the Russian president on a daily basis.”

Like Putin, Sechin, 61, is a veteran of Russia’s intelligence agencies. He is believed to have worked as a translator for the KGB or military intelligence in Africa in the 1970s, and he has been at Putin’s side from the start of his political career more than 30 years ago.

In the early 1990s, when Putin worked in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office, Sechin was his top aide. Sechin continued to hold high-level posts when Putin moved to Moscow, where he became prime minister in 1999, and he served as deputy chief of staff throughout Putin’s first two terms as president in 2000-2008.

In the 2000s, Yukos, then the country’s largest oil company, was dismantled by the government in a series of dubious court decisions and shadowy auctions. Rosneft ended up acquiring Yukos’s main assets, turning it overnight into Russia’s largest oil company.

Long-imprisoned Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky accused Sechin, who became Rosneft’s chairman in 2004, of orchestrating the seizure.

A superyacht linked to Sechin that was seized by French authorities in March as it sat docked in the Mediterranean resort of La Ciotat.
A superyacht linked to Sechin that was seized by French authorities in March as it sat docked in the Mediterranean resort of La Ciotat.

After serving as Putin’s deputy prime minister in 2008-2012, Sechin was appointed CEO of Rosneft, and he expanded the company’s operations with deals with major international oil companies.

'Utter Loyalty'

In April 2014, Sechin was among the Kremlin insiders who were targeted by the United States in response to Russia’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula -- the first of several rounds of sanctions that have targeted Sechin or Rosneft.

Sechin “has shown utter loyalty to Vladimir Putin, a key component to his current standing,” the U.S. Treasury Department said in announcing the sanctions.

In 2019, utilizing flight-tracking databases, Reuters identified dozens of flights by Rosneft jets over a four-year period that flew during Russian holidays or weekends. At least 13 flights went to Mallorca, Ibiza, Sardinia, and the Maldives when Sechin or his associates were vacationing.

The jet that Sechin is widely believed to have used -- perhaps exclusively -- was a Bombardier Global Express 6000, which carries up to 13 passengers and a crew of four. This model, which is used by private individuals as well as by companies such as FedEx and even some militaries, costs around $62 million.

A Rosneft-operated Bombardier 6000 aircraft with tail number M-YOIL believed to be carrying Sechin parks at Palma de Mallorca airport in 2018.
A Rosneft-operated Bombardier 6000 aircraft with tail number M-YOIL believed to be carrying Sechin parks at Palma de Mallorca airport in 2018.

This particular jet had a tail number reading M-YOIL and, according to the European aviation regulator Eurocontrol, was operated by a Singapore-registered company called AV Asia Developments Pte Ltd.

A 2016 financial report for AV Asia Developments, which in the past was 100 percent controlled by Rosneft, stated that the company received $1.86 million for the charter of the sole jet it operated at the time, according to the Reuters report. It also paid more than $2 million for services related to that plane.

Among AV Asia Development’s board members: Andrei Bychenko, whose LinkedIn profile identified him as the managing director of Rosneft Trade Limited. Previously, he held a senior executive position at Rosneft's main corporate offices.

In March, as Western nations ratcheted up sanctions against Russia over the invasion of Ukraine, the United States and a growing number of European countries began seizing assets linked to Kremlin insiders and powerful business leaders. The French government confiscated a luxury yacht owned by a company linked to Sechin.

The sanctions also resulted in European and other offshore havens -- whose registries have long been favored by wealthy elites -- kicking such aircraft off those registries, all but grounding them.

Putin and Sechin visit Konevets Island in the Leningrad region in August 2021.
Putin and Sechin visit Konevets Island in the Leningrad region in August 2021.

Bermuda, for example, on March 12 said its aircraft registry had suspended certificates of airworthiness for 740 Russian-operated aircraft, meaning they can no longer fly.

Private jet management companies scrambled to find places to park their jets where they could still be flown and were less at risk of being seized, like the Gulf state of Dubai -- or Moscow. Others found their jets stuck at European airports including Geneva and Zurich.

Dozens of private jets connected to Russia’s wealthy were parked at an airport in Dubai at the beginning of April, according to The Wall Street Journal. And as of the middle of May, around a dozen private jets that were connected to Russian individuals were stranded at Swiss airports, Switzerland's civil aviation authority told ZackZack and RFE/RL.

A report by the Swiss consultant company WINGX provided to RFE/RL and ZackZack said that “the Russian market for business jets is evaporating” and showed a sharp increase in private jets registered in Russia leaving the country following the February invasion.

It also showed a sharp drop-off in flight activity among jets known to be linked to oligarchs аs well as among jets that are based outside of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus but spend significant amounts of time in those three countries.

Fate Of The Jets

Austria’s reputation as a hub for legal espionage and shadowy business practices and as a haven for the elite, including wealthy Russians, dates to the decades following World War II -- a function of opaque corporate regulations and generous tax laws, not to mention Vienna’s draw for spies and foreign intelligence services. That atmosphere persists to this day.

Many of Austria’s major private jet management companies -- including IJM, Sparefell, and MJet -- base their operations in Schwechat, the Vienna suburb where the city’s main international airport is located.

Art Aviation’s offices, however, are located in a fashionable old building in Vienna’s Alsergrund district.

The company ended its operations in mid-March; the jets it oversaw were deleted from the official ownership register of Austria’s aviation agency, and the company was delisted from Austrian business registries.

In an interview with ZackZack, Bernhard Prokop, who took over as CEO in March and is now in charge of winding down the business completely, said the jets that Art Aviation owned or operated are now in Moscow.

Putin and Sechin meet for talks in 2012.
Putin and Sechin meet for talks in 2012.

Just before it went dormant, the company oversaw five jets, Prokop said, though the numbers had been higher in the past. The figure of five was backed up by documents obtained by ZackZack and RFE/RL.

“I simply don’t know what will happen with the jets,” he said in the interview at the company’s offices. But he confirmed that Sechin frequently traveled on aircraft managed by Art Aviation and that the company was closing because of EU sanctions.

Prokop denied that Rosneft or Sechin were shareholders or indirectly in charge of Art Aviation.

In fact, Austrian corporate records show Alenkin was one of two direct beneficiary owners of the company, along with Timothy Hurworth, the British CEO who died in March.

An indirect beneficiary for the company is listed as Andreas Staribacher, a former Austrian finance minister, a former member of Vienna international airport’s supervisory board, and an investor in dozens of aviation-related businesses in Austria.

Staribacher did not respond to queries from ZackZack and RFE/RL seeking comment.

Documents obtained by ZackZack and RFE/RL showed at least two of the jets operated by Art Aviation were purchased from a Cypriot company called Shelf Support Shiphold Limited, which is one of two currently known aircraft-operating subsidiaries of Rosneft. The other is Skyline Asset Management Limited, based in the British Virgin Islands.

Corporate documents show that as of 2021, Shelf Support was the registered owner of M-YOIL, the Bombardier jet earlier identified by Reuters and linked to Sechin.

Rosneft did not provide answers to a detailed list of questions submitted by ZackZack and RFE/RL.

Instead, the company responded with a statement accusing RFE/RL of being “an instrument of anti-Soviet and anti-Russian subversive propaganda.”

“Rosneft's corporate practices are in exact accordance with the corporate practices of major American companies such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, etc.,” Rosneft said. “We earnestly ask you not to trouble yourself with further requests to the Company on any grounds whatsoever.”

Death Of A CEO

Another Austrian-registered corporation that shares extensive overlap with Art Aviation is a company called Jetology, with offices in Vienna. Prokop is listed as a director of Jetology. Until recently, Timothy Hurworth was, as well.

On March 8, just before dawn, Austrian police were called to a highway overpass about 10 kilometers outside of Vienna to investigate a report of a body found next to a bridge.

The body was later identified as Hurworth’s. He was 46.

Austria’s public prosecutor told RFE/RL and ZackZack that a police investigation showed no signs of any “third-party involvement. Accordingly, an autopsy was not ordered.”

Prokop also said Hurworth’s death was a suicide and that Hurworth had been distraught about the company being shut down in the wake of the European sanctions.

Jetology also had a British affiliate, whose corporate offices were at an airport in the East Midlands, in England. The company’s principal direct beneficiary was listed as Elisabeth Hurworth, a 36-year-old Austrian citizen and Hurworth’s widow. She could not be reached for comment.

Asked about Hurworth’s death, Alenkin responded: “Mr. Timothy Hurworth was great Friend and business partner of mine. With respect to him and his family and loved ones, I do not find [it] appropriate to comment on the reasons or circumstances of his [death],” he said. “It is a grievous loss both personally for me and for the industry.”

Weiser, editor in chief of the Austrian news site ZackZack, reported from Vienna. Eckel, senior correspondent with RFЕ/RL, reported from Prague.
  • 16x9 Image

    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.