By RFE RL
By Mike Eckel
(RFE/RL) — The Russian general overseeing the war against Ukraine benefited from lucrative deals that involved his wife’s businesses, Syrian phosphate mines, and shady payments from a Kremlin-connected businessman, a new investigation has found.
The conclusions, by investigators from the organization of jailed opposition activist Aleksei Navalny, add to the public picture of General Sergei Surovikin, who commanded Russia’s operations in Syria in the late 2010s and who has earned the nickname “General Armageddon” for his reputation for brutality there.
President Vladimir Putin appointed Surovikin the overall commander of Russian forces in Ukraine on October 8, in a bid by the Kremlin and Defense Ministry to put the war effort back on track after numerous setbacks.
On November 9, Surovikin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced a retreat from the west bank of the Dnieper River in the Kherson region, the latest in a series of major battlefield losses that have emboldened Ukrainian troops.
The investigation, released on November 10, highlights the continuing efforts of Navalny’s associates, who have pushed ahead with his trademark projects even after his imprisonment last year. An organization he founded, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, has produced several investigative reports digging into the origins of wealth and property among people close to Putin. It was declared “extremist” by the state and outlawed in Russia, also last year.
Many of those associates have been forced to flee Russia either before or after the February 24 invasion of Ukraine.
The new investigation says Surovikin may have benefited financially during and after his time commanding Russian forces in Syria, due to a complicated arrangement involving Gennady Timchenko, a Kremlin-connected businessman who made billions in oil and energy trading through a company called Gunvor.
Timchenko’s businesses “have been directly linked to Putin,” according to the U.S. Treasury Department, and “Putin has investments in Gunvor and may have access to Gunvor funds.”
Under the arrangement detailed by Navalny’s investigators, a Timchenko-owned construction company called Stroytransgaz gained access to two Syrian phosphate mining operations near Palmyra called Al-Sharqiya and Khneifis.
Stroytransgaz began extracting phosphates — which are used in fertilizers, among other things — in the summer of 2017, about two years after Russia stepped up its military intervention in Syria to bolster the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad.
That same December, Surovikin, who assumed overall command of Russia’s Syrian campaign in early 2017, was shown on Russian TV briefing Putin on the liberation of Al-Sharqiya and Khneifis as Putin made an unannounced visit to Syria.
Surovikin left his command of the Syrian campaign not long afterward, when Putin appointed him commander-in-chief of Russia’s aerospace forces, which includes the air force.
According to Navalny’s investigators, a subsidiary of Stroytransgaz called STG Logistika paid 104 million rubles in loans to a lumber company called Argus SFK in 2020-21 — about $2 million based on exchange rates at the time. The company, which is based in Russia’s Sverdlovsk region, was co-founded by Surovikin’s wife, along with the daughter of a man who served as the regional governor, Aleksandr Misharin.
Additionally, according to the investigation, the wife of a top manager at Stroytransgaz also gave Argus SFK a 25 million-ruble loan (about $412,000).
The Navalny team alleges that the loan served as payment intended for Surovikin for business conducted during the Syrian operation.
Neither the Russian Defense Ministry, nor Stroytransgaz or Timchenko’s holding companies responded to requests for comment.
The findings by Navalny investigators appear to be based in large part on company and real estate records.
Earlier this month, Russia’s national property registry abruptly restricted access to records of Surovikin’s family and relatives, declaring them classified.
Navalny himself was arrested in Moscow in January 2021 upon his return from Germany, where he was treated for exposure to a Soviet-era nerve agent that nearly killed him. He says evidence shows the poisoning was carried out by Federal Security Service operatives acting at Putin’s behest.
Navalny was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for violating the terms of an earlier parole during his convalescence abroad. In March 2022, he was sentenced in a separate case to nine years on embezzlement and contempt charges. He and his supporters contend that those charges and earlier cases against him are absurd and politically motivated.
He is being held in a prison in central Russia.
- 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.