By RFE RL
By Heorhiy Shabayev, Natalie Sedletska and Kyrylo Ovsyaniy
(RFE/RL) — On June 10, Albina Abayeva posted a short remark on the social network VK: “Gazprom zp has come,” it said in Russian.
Cryptic, but in context the meaning was clear: Her husband, who was fighting in Russia’s war against Ukraine, had received his wages from the military, and they came through Gazprombank.
The bank connected to state-controlled natural gas monopoly Gazprom is the third-biggest in Russia, after Sberbank and VTB. And it’s the only one of the three that has not been hit with the harshest kind of sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United States — an exception that results from the fact that EU countries pay Russia for natural gas, a major source of revenue for the assault on Ukraine, through Gazprombank.
A new report by Schemes, an investigative unit of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, documents a wide range of evidence showing that a substantial number of the Russian soldiers and security-force members who have been deployed to Ukraine have received their regular military pay and combat bonuses via Gazprombank.
There is Abayeva, whose husband, Vadim Abayev, has indicated on his page on the Russian social network Odnoklassniki that he serves in the 6th Separate Tank Brigade.
Reached on the phone by Schemes, Abayeva confirmed her husband had received salary money and combat pay through Gazprombank, saying the bank does not provide a breakdown between the two. She later changed the name she uses on the social network.
Among several others, there is also Lyudmila Reshetnikova, who reported in the same VK forum that combat pay had come in via Gazprombank. On her page, she identified her husband as Aleksandr Reshetnikov and indicated that he is at war. As of 2020, he served in a radiation, chemical, and biological protection brigade in the Russian military.
After Schemes journalists expressed interest in the payment of military wages through Gazprombank, the moderator deleted about 14 pages of discussions.
It is not clear what proportion of Russian military personnel, or of Russian soldiers, receive payments via Gazprombank. Several other banks are also authorized to process military pay, including Sberbank and VTB.
And there is no evidence that if the United States and the EU were to impose tough sanctions on Gazprombank, these payments would dry up. While sanctioned banks such VTB and Sberbank are frozen out of dollar and euro transactions and and cut off from the SWIFT global payments messaging system, Russia has its own system, and domestic ruble transactions are generally unaffected by the sanctions Western states have imposed on Russia over its aggression against Ukraine – which began in 2014 and was massively escalated on February 24, when President Vladimir Putin launched a large-scale invasion that has killed tens of thousands of people, forced more than 12 million to flee their homes, and turned a number of cities and towns in the north and east to rubble.
Conduit For Payments
Sanctions are “highly unlikely to affect domestic payments in rubles. Such payments would generally be outside the reach of U.S. sanctions,” Brian O’Toole, a former senior adviser at the U.S. Treasury Department and an analyst at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, told RFE/RL.
But for many in Ukraine, the fact that a bank that has escaped severe sanctions is the conduit for payments to the soldiers who are killing and maiming their compatriots is particularly unpalatable.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has called on the EU to impose the toughest form of sanctions on all Russian banks without exception.
“This applies first of all to Gazprombank — one of the main wallets financing the anti-European policy of the Russian Federation,” Zelenskiy said on June 11. “And, of course, for its own benefit, the EU must work much faster to completely abandon Russian energy resources. This is a fundamental security issue.”
But while the West has imposed milder “sectoral” sanctions on Gazprombank, and the EU is seeking to slash its dependence on Russian energy supplies, there is no indication that the bloc is as about to impose more severe sanctions on the bank.
“Sanctions on Gazprombank would be equal to an embargo on Russian gas, which is now not in the cards,” Simone Tagliapietra, a senior fellow at Bruegel, a Belgium-based think tank focusing on Europe’s economy, told NBC News earlier in June.
Britain, which is no longer in the EU and is less reliant on Russian energy exports than other European nations, has imposed tough sanctions on Gazprombank.
Zelenskiy’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, told NBC News that the United States and the EU “should sanction Gazprombank, not just for its role in helping Russia accrue revenue from its energy sales, but because Gazprombank is directly involved in supporting Russia’s military, state-owned companies, and other institutions that are sustaining the invasion of Ukraine.”
While other Russian banks are also being used to pay the soldiers fighting in Ukraine, there is concern in Kyiv that Gazprombank’s avoidance of sanctions is making it stronger and more financially robust.
“There is a problem that Gazprombank is functional, continues to receive huge revenues, and more and more customers of other Russian banks, affected by sanctions, are switching to it. That is, it is such a haven to avoid sanctions on the financial system,” Tetyana Shevchuk, legal counsel for the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Ukraine, told Schemes.
In May, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s intelligence department said that the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, has intensified international settlements through Gazprombank.
Meanwhile, evidence gathered by Schemes shows that Gazprombank, which in 2016 reported issuing a bank card bearing a star symbol and the words Army of Russia, has ties with the military that go deeper than the payment of wages and combat bonuses.
Since the February invasion of Ukraine, Gazprombank representatives have attended ceremonies held by military units around Russia marking the anniversary of their formation and other milestones.
In April, an officer of the bank met with the wives of servicemen from a military unit based in Naro-Fominsk, outside Moscow, some of whom have been part of the invasion force. The topic was social support for military families, the repayment of loans, and the registration of debt deferrals.
Moreover, Gazprombank may also be in use as a conduit for payments for military equipment used by Russian forces in the assault on Ukraine.
The Ukrainian defense intelligence department said in April that payments for military equipment purchased for the 47th Guards Tank Division, a Russian unit that is involved in the fighting, were made through two banks, one of which was Gazprombank.
Gazprombank did not respond to a request for comment from Schemes on the bank’s cooperation with The Russian Defense Ministry.
Written by Steve Gutterman based on reporting by Heorhiy Shabayev, Natalie Sedletska, and Kyrylo Ovsyaniy. Todd Prince contributed to this report.
- Heorhiy Shabayev is a journalist with Schemes (Skhemy), an investigative news project run by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service. He is a graduate of the Institute of Journalism at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv and the author of a dozen investigations into corruption in the government, the construction industry, and in large state-owned enterprises.
- Natalie Sedletska is a journalist with Schemes, an investigative unit of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service.
- Kyrylo Ovsyaniy is an investigative journalist with Schemes (Skhemy), an investigative news project run by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service. Since 2021 he has worked on the Corruption In Detail program, after beginning in 2019 with a regional project. Born in Odesa, he has worked as a journalist there since 2018.