Russia Special Air Group in trouble. Air Force One marred by corruption 

 Russia Special Air Group in trouble. Air Force One marred by corruption
Stowaways on board are not the worst problem of the presidential air group Photo: The CrimeRussia

The air squadron number one in Russia ended up in the center of yet another scandal. It turned out that its special purpose aircraft are used, in addition to the national leaders, by outsiders. Uninvited passengers travel, stay in best hotels, and dine in deluxe restaurants at the budget expense. In fact, the discovery of stowaways on board is not the first scandal involving Russia Special Air Group that has been in distress for almost three years already. Why cannot the supreme FSB commanders using the official airplanes along with the Russian President sort out this mess?

The Accounts Chamber of the Russian Federation has carried out an audit and identified numerous violations involving misuse and ineffective use of public funds allocated to Russia Special Air Group in 2016–2017. It turned out inter alia that not only the country leaders fly by ‘presidential’ aircraft – but ordinary people having no right to such a privilege do so as well. Furthermore, all expenses of the stowaways are covered at the public expense, including long-distance flights, dining in expensive restaurants, and accommodation in elite hotels. 

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Sometimes, outsiders get aboard Air Force One together with the Russian President. For instance, during the last trip of Vladimir Putin to the People's Republic of China, A.V. Markina, an ambulance station paramedic at Russia Special Air Group Federal State Budgetary Institution, has visited Beijing together with him. The lady was not a crew member – however, a crew ID has been issued to her. According to it, she is an inspector. With such an ID, Markina has easily passed through the strict control zone of Vnukovo 2 Governmental Terminal. Interestingly, her pass to VIP flights has been issued until September 30, 2021.  

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The visit of the health worker of Russia Special Air Group to China was not properly supported documentarily – the paramedic had no business trip certificate and, therefore, was not entitled to the daily allowance. However, nobody has paid attention to such formalities. All costs associated with Markina’s trip have been covered on the taxpayer dime. 

The undocumented companion of Putin has shown excellent taste in the accommodation selection. In China, the paramedic had stayed in five-star Kuntai Royal Hotel. 108 thousand rubles ($1.6 thousand) have been paid from the Russian budget for her accommodation there on May 13–15, 2017. Food expenses of the medical worker amounted to 36 thousand rubles ($541).

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Kuntai Royal Hotel

The other 23 crew members of the presidential airliner had also stayed in the elegant hotel for sophisticated travelers. In total, the taxpayers have paid 2.4 million rubles ($36.1 thousand) for their accommodation in the historic center of Beijing. It is necessary to note that the law does not stipulate the accommodation of crew members in such deluxe establishments: during flight missions, they are not allowed to stay in four- and five-star hotels. 

The trip to Beijing is the most outrageous – but hardly the only – such example. In fact, outsiders use presidential airliners as frequently as Vladimir Putin himself. The Accounts Chamber identified a large number of such violations. For instance, in February 2017, four persons who were not crew members – D.B. Borshch, A.A. Kravtsov, V.Yu. Tolmachev, and L.I. Chebotarev – have made the following trip: Vnukovo 2–Phnom Penh–Manila–Davao–Vnukovo 2. In total, 196 thousand rubles ($2.9 thousand) have been paid from the state budget for their food and accommodation. In November 2017, another stowaway – some A.A. Kuz’menkov – has visited Dubai, Bangkok, Chiang Rai, and Tehran. His Asian tour had cost 47.3 thousand rubles ($711) to the taxpayers. In July, Yu.V. Kucherov has taken a European cruise at the budget expense. The cost of his tour to Vienna, Brussels, and Berlin has reached 76.3 thousand rubles ($1.1 thousand), including food and accommodation. The number of such violations uncovered by the Accounts Chamber was pretty large – the volume of the audit report exceeds 200 pages.

Our
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Russia Special Air Group Federal State Budgetary Institution has been created in 2009 on the basis of the governmental air group separated from Rossiya (Russia) State Transport Company Federal State Unitary Enterprise. It is subordinate to the Presidential Executive Office; its base is Vnukovo 2 Governmental Terminal. Russia Special Air Group is responsible for the air transportation of the Russian President, Prime Minister, Speakers of the Council of the Federation and State Duma, Chairpersons of the Constitutional and Supreme Courts, Prosecutor General, Chairman of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation (ICR), Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and supreme governmental delegations. The passengers of Russia Special Air Group include Valentina Matvienko, Speaker of the Council of the Federation; Vyacheslav Volodin, Speaker of the State Duma; Valery Zor’kin, Chairman of the Constitutional Court; Vyacheslav Lebedev, Chairman of the Supreme Court; ICR Chairman Alexander Bastyrkin; Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika; Anton Vaino, Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office; and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Its air fleet consists of domestically produced aircraft, including Il-96-300/400, An-148-100, Tu-154M, Tu-204/214, and Sukhoi Superjet 100.

However, stowaways on board are not the worst problem of the special air group. In February 2018, it became known that its airplanes transport not only illegal passengers – but much more dangerous cargoes as well. A new Il-96 belonging to the special air group was involved in the high-profile ‘cocaine case' pertaining to cocaine shipments from Argentina to Russia. The scandal has escalated after the publication of pictures taken by Policía Federal Argentina and showing the aircraft loaded with bags full of flour substituting the drug. Journalists have noticed that the tail number of the ‘cocaine airliner' – 96023 – matches the number of an Il-96 belonging to Russia Special Air Group that has made its maiden flight in August 2016.

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Elena Krylova, Press Secretary of the Presidential Executive Office, confirmed that a governmental Il-96 aircraft has indeed made a trip to Argentina. However, according to Krylova, it has just delivered a Russian delegation to Buenos Aires, and media reports linking it with the ‘cocaine case’ are not consistent with the reality. Later, Alexander Kolpakov, Head of the Presidential Property Management Directorate – the parent organization of Russia Special Air Group, – provided the following comment: “We transport passengers, not cargoes”. However, this strong argument has neither convinced the Argentine police nor Russian public. 

Taking the growing traffic of unauthorized passengers and cargoes, it is not surprising that the maintenance costs of Russia Special Air Group are continuously growing. According to the Accounts Chamber, the funding of the air group has been unreasonably increased in 2016 by almost 2 billion rubles ($30.1 million) and in 2017 – by 2.8 billion rubles ($42.1 million). Furthermore, nearly 6 billion rubles ($90.2 million) have been spent on inappropriate flights having nothing to do with the primary objective of the air unit. 

Russia Special Air Group suffers from a chronic shortage of money – and additional funding is provided to it. In October 2018, it became known that over 20.8 billion rubles ($312.8 million) will be included into the federal budget for the year of 2018 for renewal and modernization of the Russia Special Air Group’s fleet. Interfax news agency has reported this citing a memorandum to draft amendments to the current budget. The number and types of aircraft to be purchased using the additional funds were not specified in the memo. The Press Service of the Presidential Executive Office refused to comment on this information for confidentiality reasons. However, according to the document, Rostec State Corporation chaired by Sergey Chemezov is the recipient of the subsidies allocated for the air fleet renewal.

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Sergey Chemezov

Of course, the stowaways and drug traffickers – definitely, not the country leaders – must be blamed for huge expenses associated with repairs of VIP cabins of the governmental airliners. For instance, on December 6, 2018, Voronezh Aircraft Production Association (VASO) had to announce a tender to rectify defects in the interior of Il-96-300VIP № 96018 belonging to Russia Special Air Group. The enterprise is ready to pay 33.6 million rubles (505.3 thousand) to whip the elite aircraft into shape. The contractor has to restore SIRIUS Information and Entertainment System, replace carpeting in the business and economy class cabins, replace chair cases and stuffing, replace a faucet, and rectify some other deficiencies. 

Apparently, illegal passengers have no respect not only to the state property – but to crew members as well. Therefore, Russia Special Air Group has to compensate them the rigors of service with regular bonuses. Auditors of the Accounts Chamber found out that in the last two years, salaries of the air group personnel have been unreasonably increased by 2 million rubles ($30.1 thousand) in total. A similar sum has been paid to the staff as bonuses without any official justification. 

Not only Aleksei Kudrin, Chairman of the Accounts Chamber, is displeased with the performance of Russia Special Air Group – but the Prosecutor General, another passenger of the special aircraft, as well. The primary concern of Yuri Chaika is not the stowaways issue – but the flight safety. In summer 2018, the Prosecutor General’s Office has checked the repair works performed for Russia Special Air Group by the United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) responsible for the aircraft maintenance. It turned out that the presidential airplanes were repaired neither in time nor in full. In some cases, the repairs had been commenced prior to the contract signing, while the control over the works was insufficient. The Prosecutor General’s Office also has claims against the UAC in relation to the flight safety control system. In addition, it was found that the cost of a governmental contract to replace foreign parts awarded by Russia Special Air Group to an enterprise subordinate to the UAC was overcharged: the contract had stipulated the installation of navigation systems that could not be used on the same airplane. 

According to some sources, Yuri Chaika has personally presented the audit results to the main interested party – Russian President. On October 11, Sergei Gerasimov, UAC Vice-President for Special-Purpose State Aviation, has been arrested, charged with swindling, and remanded in custody by the court. Vitaly Romanyk, General Director of Vemina Aviaprestige company developing the interior design and producing equipment for the special aircraft, and Sergei Davydov, Executive Director of Vemina Aviaprestige, have also been charged in the framework of this criminal case. 

All the three suspects have been charged under part 4 of Article 159 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (swindling on an especially large scale). The total damages sustained by the budget are estimated at 174 million rubles ($2.6 million). According to the investigation, the UAC has unreasonably overcharged the cost of interiors produced for three Yak-43 aircraft intended for the presidential air unit. However, experts believe that it is impossible to estimate the real cost of these works because of their exclusiveness. For the last 20 years, Vemina Aviaprestige has been implementing contracts having no analogs, including design and production of interiors for the aircraft used by Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski. Therefore, it is hard to say whether the cost of the works performed for the Russian President was indeed overcharged or not.

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Products of Vemina Aviaprestige

But apparently, the investigation managed to answer this difficult question. On October 10, in the framework of the inquest into machinations committed in the course of the development, production, and installation of aviation interiors, operatives of the ICR and Federal Security Service (FSB) of the Russian Federation, have carried out searches and seized documents at a dozen locations, including the apartment and office of Gerasimov and residences of several businessmen having contracts with the UAC and Russia Special Air Group. On October 24, the Russian President signed an order transferring state-owned 92.3% of shares in the UAC Public Joint Stock Company to Rostec State Corporation. Perhaps, Chemezov manages to sort out the mess at the UAC. However, he has to deal with the financial issues first. In late November, it became known that the Ministry of Defense has filed a lawsuit with the Moscow Arbitration Court to recover 5.4 billion rubles ($81.2 million) from the UAC. 

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Chemezov has to demonstrate outstanding organizing skills because the air unit transporting the national leaders is marred by corruption. For almost three years, arrests have been continuing at Russia Special Air Group. The first embezzlement case was instituted in March 2016 following an audit carried out by the FSB. The operatives found out that the aircraft maintenance costs had been overcharged on a regular basis. For instance, the cost of the maintenance of conditioning systems on Tu-204, Tu-214, and Il-96 aircraft was inflated almost twice – from 50 to 96.1 million rubles ($752 thousand – $1.4 million). Over 30 million rubles ($451.2 thousand) have been embezzled through dummy companies. The list of suspects in that case included Yaroslav Odintsev, ex-Head of Russia Special Air Group; six his subordinates, including Igor Kovalenko, Head of the Acquisitions Service; Dmitry Pozdnyakov, a member of the tender commission; and engineer Sergei Chernukin; and representatives of Aviapribor Servis: its General Director Igor Shchetinin, his deputies Vladimir Latyshev and Yulia Bubnova, and minor shareholder Aleksei Menitsky. Odintsev was charged under part 1 of Article 285 (abuse of official powers), while the rest of the suspects – under part 4 of Article 159 (swindling on an especially large scale) of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. 

In December 2017, the Tverskoy District Court of Moscow has delivered sentences to the 11 defendants. All of them were found guilty of signing aircraft maintenance contracts at artificially high prices. Although only a few of the convicted criminals had admitted their guilt, all the defendants, including Yaroslav Odintsev, have been sentenced to conditional terms varying from 2 to 4 years behind bars. 

In spring 2017, FSB major general Anatoly Tyukov has been appointed the Head of the Transport Division of the Department of Presidential Affairs supervising the special air squadron. Tyukov used to serve in war-torn areas and has experience in negotiations with terrorists. One of the tasks assigned to him was to deal with the mess in the air unit serving the national leaders.

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FSB major general Anatoly Tyukov

A few months after the appointment of Tyukov, in the midst of the trial of Odintsev and his accomplices, another corruption scandal has broken out in relation to the presidential air squadron. Andrei Tyurin, Deputy General Director of Russia Special Air Group, and Aleksander Reikhtman, Manufacturing Director of its Aviation and Technical Base, have been arrested and charged under part 4 of Article 159 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (swindling on an especially large scale). According to the investigation, instead of a new Russian testing stand for aircraft hydro systems, they have acquired, jointly with top managers of Airport Ground Support Services (Aero-SNO) Limited Liability Company, a used Dutch analog at a price overcharged by 32 million rubles ($481.3 thousand).    

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Andrei Tyurin, Deputy General Director of Russia Special Air Group

In spring 2018, journalists have carried out their own investigation and found out that the cleaning of the Augean stables – i.e. Russia Special Air Group – was not really successful. Two women – convicted, together with Odintsev, to conditional prisons terms for frauds related to the maintenance of conditioning systems of the special aircraft – continued working at the same positions as if nothing were wrong. Olga Dorozhko and Elena Ivanova still remain members of the tender commission and acquire parts for presidential airliners at even higher prices than prior to the scandal. In November 2015, auxiliary power systems were purchased at €232 thousand, while in June 2017 – at €257,594. 

Furthermore, Russia Special Air Group continues making acquisitions it has no right to do. From year to year, Aeroflot–Russian Airlines Public Joint Stock Company provides to the special air unit services falling within the scope of its main responsibilities. Since 2015, Russia Special Air Group has spent almost 12 billion rubles ($180.5 million) on works it had to perform itself. And on November 22, the special air squadron has announced yet another tender to transport passengers, luggage, and cargoes worth 30 million rubles ($451.2 thousand). 

If the main duties of the presidential air unit are fulfilled by other contractors, what is the point of spending billions of budget rubles on the maintenance of Russia Special Air Group? Especially taking the corruption scandals marring it. Perhaps, Chaika, Kurdin, Tyurin, and Chemezov should combine their efforts to sort out this mess. The elite air squadron seems to be riddled with corruption, and no one can root it out alone.

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