Russian law enforcement officers play a key role in the industrial-scale theft of oil from the country's network of pipelines, an illicit business that robs the public coffers of hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and wreaks damage on the environment, a new RFE/RL investigation shows.
The investigation, published on March 22 by RFE/RL's Russian Service, known locally as Radio Svoboda, focuses on the energy-rich Khanty-Mansi Autonomous District in western Siberia, though multiple sources said that oil-theft schemes in other Russian regions operate in a similar fashion.
Organized crime groups siphon off untold amounts of oil using illegal taps and hoses to pump the liquid loot from pipelines into waiting tanker trucks or river barges, while police and security officers provide protection and logistical assistance in exchange for a cut of the illicit profits, the investigation found.
The investigation is based on interviews with numerous sources in the Khanty-Mansi region, a sprawling area that is bigger than Spain and is centered some 2,000 kilometers east of Moscow. They include current and former law enforcement officials, private security contractors, security specialists at oil companies, and people close to organized crime groups in the region.
All of these sources requested anonymity, citing fears of retribution from officials or criminal organizations. But the portrait they paint of tight collaboration between law enforcement and organized crime is also reflected in records related to individuals who claim they were targeted with prosecution for fighting the systematic heist of hydrocarbons.
Radio Svoboda obtained access to a trove of documents linked to criminal cases against local ecologist Mikhail Karateyev and a former district police chief named Sergei Zinchenko, both of whom implicated police and Federal Security Service (FSB) officers in oil-theft schemes.
Radio Svoboda also obtained a copy of an archive of materials -- including official records, interviews, and other evidence -- amassed by Eduard Shmonin, a local journalist specializing in "kompromat", or compromising materials.
Shmonin, who admits to having taken money to refrain from publishing "kompromat", links a wave of criminal charges he was hit with to a documentary, titled Criminal Oil, that his TV channel aired about oil theft and corruption in the region.
Violent turf wars occasionally erupt over access to the illegal pipeline taps, and oil companies that combat theft regularly face pushback from authorities, while those who are caught stealing oil often receive lax punishment if the cases make it to trial.
"A vast majority of the criminals are handed suspended sentences and, as a rule, return to criminal business," a spokesman for Transneft, the state-controlled oil pipeline company that is the world’s largest, said in January.
In total, Transneft has uncovered 566 illegal pipeline taps over the past three years, the spokesman said.
That may be just the tip of the iceberg.
The full scope of the losses to Russian oil companies and the state budget due to oil theft remains unclear. State-owned investment bank VTB Capital estimated in 2013 that oil companies at the time were losing the ruble equivalent of $1.8 billion to $3.5 billion annually due to oil theft. It estimated the losses to the Russian budget at $632 million to $1.2 billion.
But none of the sources who spoke to Radio Svoboda could even give an estimate of the total amount of oil that is stolen in any particular district of the Khanty-Mansi region, much less nationwide.
Oil in Russia is stolen at every stage from extraction to refining, according to sources who spoke with Radio Svoboda and records reviewed by this reporter. The main methods are illegal pipeline taps and theft during production and transport.
The pipeline tapping is carried out by organized crime groups. These outfits are often involved in theft during production and transport as well, typically with the help of insiders at oil companies or subcontractors.
In almost all cases, the oil thieves operate under the protection of law enforcement officers from agencies including the regular police, traffic police, and FSB, multiple sources told Radio Svoboda.
Employees in security departments of oil companies and the private security firms they hire to guard pipelines also frequently play key roles, the sources said. Judges and officials from the powerful Investigative Committee, the Russian equivalent of the U.S. FBI, can also be bribed for protection.
A 2020 study by Russian energy-sector analysts came to a similar conclusion: In numerous regions, it said, “powerful criminal groups with strong ties to the Interior Ministry, prosecutors, and courts have formed around the theft of fuel.”
The sources told Radio Svoboda that up to half of a truckload of crude oil can be stolen during transport.
Organized crime groups also steal gas condensate. The substance, which forms in natural-gas pipelines, is mixed with gasoline and sold at gas stations in the region.
Exploiting illegal pipeline taps, criminal groups deploy a range of schemes to siphon off the oil with hoses.
Organized crime groups typically insert the taps with the complicity of employees of private security firms and oil companies, sources said. Contractors who lay pipelines sometimes insert taps themselves and sell the geographical coordinates to interested parties for about 200,000 to 250,000 rubles ($2,700 to $3,400).
The head of a pipeline section or a mechanic working at a booster station can also recommend efficient locations for illegal taps -- and turn a blind eye to pressure drops in the pipeline as oil is secretly siphoned out.
The theft itself is often carried out under cover of darkness and may involve roughly seven to 15 people, including tanker-truck drivers and lookouts stationed to watch the roads nearby.
The illegal taps are frequently outfitted with motion-sensor cameras that feed footage to police and FSB officers involved in the theft, sources said, allowing them to monitor the operation and keep an eye out for interlopers.
Traffic police may also be looped in, providing safe passage for trucks toting stolen oil -- some of which is taken to local mini-refineries known as “samovars,” after the traditional Russian teakettle, and some of which is sent to be loaded into railway tankers.
According to sources who spoke to Radio Svoboda, it is not unusual for a gang of thieves to make off with four to six 25.5-metric-ton tanker truckloads of oil each night, a haul worth between 1.8 million and 2.7 million rubles ($24,600 and $40,000).
The bribes add up to roughly 2 million rubles ($27,400) per week, according to sources, a total that is broken down into 300,000-ruble ($4,100) payments to alleged recipients: local FSB officers; FSB headquarters in Tyumen; police investigations units; the police chief of a city or district; the regional Interior Ministry headquarters in Khanty-Mansiisk; and an oil company's security department.
Additional bribes are paid to traffic police and security guards, they said. A former traffic cop in the Khanty-Mansi region’s Nizhnevartovsk district confirmed that his colleagues oversaw a “green corridor” used by trucks carrying stolen oil.
A 2014 police report obtained by Radio Svoboda states that one criminal group earned 60 million rubles (around $1.7 million at the time) selling stolen oil in July of that year alone. The report said that while police were aware of 18 taps on Lukoil and Transneft pipelines, no one was arrested in connection with the illegal inserts.
Formally, the stolen oil is purchased by one fly-by-night company from another, slapping on a veneer of legality as it makes its way to the end buyer.
Because the stolen oil ends up in the hands of the thieves with no record of its extraction, the scheme evades Russia’s mineral extraction tax. It is subject to a value-added tax, though most of the related transactions are conducted in cash, and the shell companies often acquire tax debts and file for bankruptcy before paying them.
The end buyers include both large and small oil refineries across Russia. The stolen oil can be bought at a price that is 30 to 50 percent cheaper than its legal counterpart, according to sources. A worker with the internal-security department of a large Russian oil firm told Radio Svoboda that the end buyers can even include oil companies that have extraction licenses but don’t have their own extraction operations. These companies simply sell the stolen oil into the Transneft network, declaring it as extracted oil and pocketing the price difference as profit.
Transneft did not respond to a request for comment.
The illegal tapping of pipelines also presents ecological problems. Thieves have little motivation to clean up spills that result from the practice. Spills from illegal taps go largely unnoticed by local residents and environmental inspectors, and no real restoration is carried out. The spilled oil is either left on the ground or buried.
“Criminal [pipeline] taps last year caused more than 60 percent of incidents linked to spills of oil and petroleum products,” Transneft spokesman Igor Dyomin said in January.
The Khanty-Mansi region is the source of around 40 percent of all the oil produced in Russia. Sources told Radio Svoboda that oil theft on an industrial scale emerged in the region in the early 2000s.
Interviews with sources, as well as criminal-case records and police communications reviewed by Radio Svoboda, indicate that both FSB and police officers are key beneficiaries of oil-theft schemes in the region -- even as both organizations are tasked with investigating these crimes and regularly release information about arrests.
Tight ties between criminals and the state are not limited to the oil industry, though its lucrative nature makes it particularly attractive. Kremlin critics say state authorities have built illicit partnerships with organized crime groups operating in a variety of sectors under President Vladimir Putin, a longtime Soviet KGB officer and former FSB chief who came to power in 2000. He has brought numerous members of security and law enforcement agencies into top positions, and has used police and the FSB as a tool to maintain control and quash dissent.
Illegal pipeline taps can operate for years, but if one gets exposed, authorities use the opportunity to demonstrate they are fighting oil theft, one source said. Often only the tanker-truck driver and others on the ground are arrested -- and charged with stealing only the oil in their possession at the time -- while the gang leaders and their protectors in law enforcement remain untouched.
A 2020 analysis by a Moscow-based energy-research institute concluded that “major organized-crime groups” involved in oil theft had set up shop in numerous Russian regions and enjoy “strong connections with police, prosecutors, and courts.”
Multiple sources told Radio Svoboda that oil theft in the Khanty-Mansi region flourished during the tenure of Vadim Pyatiletov as head of the FSB branch in the Tyumen Oblast, which formally includes the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous District, from 2011-17. The Samara region was seen as a hotspot for oil theft as well when Pyatiletov, who has never been charged with a crime, served as the deputy regional FSB chief there.
Pyatiletov was dismissed as head of the Tyumen Oblast’s FSB branch in 2017 following a scandal in which FSB officers in the region were implicated in contract killings. After his dismissal, he went on to work as a director for a Lukoil subsidiary specializing in security for oil and petroleum products.
Occasionally FSB officers themselves end up charged with oil theft, though several sources said this is often the result of infighting with colleagues over access to the profits from illegal pipeline taps.
In February 2020, a court in the Khanty-Mansi region city of Nizhnevartovsk sentenced former FSB officer Vladimir Chernakov to six years in prison after convicting him of abuse of office and the theft of oil together with a criminal group.
The criminal counts against Chernakov involved oil heists from tapped pipelines in 2017. But the previous October, a source from a private security firm had told Shmonin, the Nizhnevartovsk-based journalist behind the Criminal Oil documentary, about an FSB officer named Chernakov who intervened after the firm’s guards and traffic police stopped a tanker truck with suspicious documents.
“This guy named Chernakov shows up from the FSB,” the source told Shmonin, according to a copy obtained by Radio Svoboda. “...He shows up, looks around, [and says]: ‘OK, traffic cops, stand down. Security guards, stand down. These guys can drive on.’”
The source said they later found a pipeline tap at the base where the tanker was leaving from. But by then the tanker was long gone. “And this isn’t an isolated case. It’s just an example,” he said.
In comments to Radio Svoboda, a source with links to organized crime in the region claimed that Chernakov’s conviction was retribution for allegedly pocketing some of the criminal money he was supposed to pass to the regional FSB in the Tyumen Oblast and for implicating participants in the scheme to investigators.
This claim could not be independently corroborated. But the source did provide a copy of a surreptitiously recorded conversation with a man he identified as Chernakov, who discusses oil theft in the region. The source also provided a handwritten diagram allegedly provided by Chernakov showing the names of law enforcement officials purportedly involved in oil theft.
The audio recording suggests that the man identified as Chernakov is writing down names, and he and his interlocutor are heard discussing several names listed on the handwritten note obtained by Radio Svoboda.
Both the alleged Chernakov note and audio mention the Khanty-Mansi region city of Raduzhny in connection with oil theft. In 2018, Raduzhny’s police chief was arrested on suspicion of trying to bribe an FSB officer for information about operations to crack down on oil theft. He was subsequently convicted and sentenced to 8 ½ years in prison.
Radio Svoboda was unable to contact Chernakov, who is serving a prison sentence and facing additional oil-theft charges along with another former FSB officer. But the diagram he allegedly wrote includes the names of four individuals that independent sources alleged to Radio Svoboda were involved in oil theft -- among them, two FSB officers.
One day in July 2014, the Nizhnevartovsk-based environmental activist Mikhail Karateyev and a group of volunteers were working on an enterprise he had launched: dismantling abandoned oil pipelines in the Khanty-Mansi region, some of which had remained since Soviet times, and selling them off as scrap.
They were working near an illegal pipeline tap when a group of masked men arrived and assaulted his team, Karateyev told the journalist Shmonin, according to a recording of a conversation that was reviewed by Radio Svoboda. The only assailant not wearing a mask, according to Karateyev, was an FSB officer named Aleksei Terenichev.
“After that [Terenichev] called me and said: ‘Now do you know who the boss is around here?’” Karateyev recalled to Shmonin. “He says: ‘If you want to do something in this district, you have to coordinate with us.’”
Karateyev told Shmonin that Terenichev, who worked for the FSB branch in the the city of Langepas, 100 kilometers from Nizhnevartovsk, was merely a pawn carrying out the orders of superiors, including an FSB officer named Yevgeny Zhilin.
Terenichev and Zhilin have both served on counternarcotics commissions. But they have something else in common: On the handwritten note allegedly penned by the convicted FSB officer Chernakov, and in the secretly recorded conversation purportedly featuring Chernakov, both men are alleged to be involved in oil theft in the Khanty-Mansi region.
The note obtained by Radio Svoboda lists more than a dozen names of individuals allegedly involved in this systematic theft, categorizing them as officers with the FSB or various police units.
Several other sources for both Radio Svoboda and the journalist Shmonin identify Terenichev and Zhilin as active in the illicit-oil business there.
Karateyev subsequently traveled to Moscow, where he claims he passed along information about widespread oil theft in the Khanty-Mansi region to law enforcement officials, including to an FSB official named Andrei Izmailov.
Upon his return to Nizhnevartovsk, Karateyev learned that instead of opening a criminal case in connection with the alleged attack on his team of volunteers, police were charging him with theft of pipelines belonging to oil giants Lukoil and Rosneft, as well as other energy companies.
Karateyev claims that during the investigation, he was threatened with torture by Zhilin, the FSB officer mentioned in the handwritten note alleging bribes related to oil theft.
“He threatened that they would put me in the sweatbox...and that there would be problems for my family and children, and that in the end they would let me out of pretrial detention and kill me,” Karateyev told Shmonin.
Both Zhilin and Terenichev also surfaced in the investigation and trial of Karateyev.
Zhilin signed off on a transcript of secret surveillance audio in court records from Karateyev’s case reviewed by Radio Svoboda. Terenichev, meanwhile, testified as a witness in Karateyev’s trial, confirming that he was at the scene of the alleged attack on Kareteyev’s team but claimed no one was assaulted, according to court records.
During the trial, Karateyev said that Terenichev claimed to be the “boss” of the area and suggested that Terenichev had threatened him by invoking an uncle who worked for the FSB in Moscow. Terenichev denied making such claims or threatening Karateyev, accusing the defendant himself of issuing threats that the FSB officer would be fired and jailed.
“I told [Terenichev] that he would be convicted for the fact that oil is being stolen under their protection,” Karateyev told the judge, according to court transcripts. Terenichev repeatedly denied Karateyev’s accusations of wrongdoing, the transcripts show.
The judge in Karateyev’s trial, Ivan Milayev, rejected his request to verify that the pipelines he allegedly stole remained untouched, according to court documents.
Karateyev, who argued in court that he and his team did everything by the book, was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison. He was released in 2018 and says he is having a hard time finding work.
The FSB branches for the Tyumen Oblast and the Khanty-Mansi region have not responded to requests for comment about allegations of corruption and abuses among their officers, including Zhilin and Terenichev.
Three separate sources with direct knowledge of oil-theft schemes in the Khanty-Mansi region alleged to Radio Svoboda that from the police side, protection for these operations was ultimately provided by Vasily Romanitsa, who served as head of the regional Interior Ministry branch from 2011 until October 2020.
There is no indication that Romanitsa, who is currently a deputy head of the Interior Ministry’s transportation directorate in Moscow, has ever been charged with a crime. He has spoken publicly about the importance of cracking down on oil theft.
But in May 2015, a Nizhnevartovsk district police chief named Sergei Zinchenko wrote a complaint addressed to a senior internal-affairs official at the Interior Ministry alleging that a criminal group with a “highly profitable criminal oil-theft business” was operating in his district with the help of “cronies in various law enforcement agencies” at the local, regional, and federal level.
These entities included the Interior Ministry, the FSB, prosecutors, and the Investigative Committee, Zinchenko wrote, according to a draft of the complaint obtained by Radio Svoboda.
And in his complaint, he said that Romanitsa had attacked his work and shipped him off on a six-month assignment to Daghestan, in the North Caucasus. Zinchenko claimed to have information that a leader of the main criminal group involved in oil theft in the Khanty-Mansi region had paid an FSB officer 9 million rubles ($123,000) “to take care of this issue” in order to keep him from investigating pipeline tapping.
Zinchenko alleged to Shmonin that Romanitsa was the ultimate recipient of this money. A source close to organized crime claimed to Radio Svoboda that the alleged payment in question totaled 12 million rubles ($164,000).
A second source alleged that Romanitsa demanded money from Zinchenko but decided to pressure oil thieves protected by the FSB because Zinchenko wasn’t bringing in enough. Zinchenko told Shmonin that his bosses demanded oil-theft arrests from him in order to force more bribe money out of organized crime groups.
Zinchenko declined to comment for this report. The Interior Ministry’s internal-affairs department did not respond to a request for comment on whether it received the complaint. Romanitsa did not respond to a request for comment sent to the press office of the Interior Ministry’s main transportation directorate, where he currently works.
Zinchenko’s complaint also criticizes Milayev -- the Nizhnevartovsk District Court judge who sentenced the ecologist Karateyev to four years in prison -- for repeatedly releasing oil-theft suspects on bail.
Court documents from Karateyev’s criminal case reviewed by Radio Svoboda include a transcript of a conversation between the ecologist’s brother and Zinchenko secretly recorded by the FSB. In the conversion, Zinchenko and another witness in Karateyev’s case discuss bribe money that Milayev allegedly received in connection with his release of suspected oil thieves on bail.
Milayev, who retired in October 2020, has never been charged with corruption. The Nizhnevartovsk District Court did not respond to a request for comment sent to the court’s press office.
In October 2014, three of Zinchenko’s subordinates attempted to detain a group of suspected oil thieves. A group of men armed with baseball bats and led by a local crime boss arrived at the scene and attacked Zinchenko’s team, two of whom were hospitalized with serious injuries.
Milayev convicted only one person in connection with the attack, sentencing him to five years in prison. That sentence was later reduced to one year by a court that ruled the assailant did not know he was attacking a police officer.
One regional news outlet cited an anonymous law enforcement official as suggesting that Zinchenko himself was involved in illegal oil tapping.
Zinchenko was fired in May 2015 and charged with abuse of office for allegedly allowing third parties to steal pipelines removed from the ground. He was convicted and sentenced but freed in an amnesty.
Zinchenko’s unit focusing on illegal oil taps was disbanded after his departure, according to Zinchenko’s account and a former unit member who spoke to Radio Svoboda.
In 2017, Zinchenko’s home burned down in what he called a revenge attack for speaking with Shmonin.
The man Zinchenko identified as the source of the bribe to have him sidelined is Renat Mansurov. According to Interior Ministry records obtained by Radio Svoboda, Mansurov and a former pipeline operator named Stanislav Sukhov were the leaders of crime groups involved in oil theft in the Khanty-Mansi region. In December 2020, Mansurov was convicted of stealing oil in the Chelyabinsk region and sentenced to four years in prison. Sukhov was arrested in 2018 in Russia’s Komi Republic and charged with organizing a crime group, theft, and money laundering. His case is ongoing.
Several sources told Radio Svoboda that other oil thieves are now operating in the Khanty-Mansi region under the protection of the same law enforcement officials. Radio Svoboda is aware of the names of these alleged crime group members but is not publishing them due to a lack of corroboration from other sources.
“Everyone knows who they are,” a source close to organized crime told Radio Svoboda. “Every FSB officer knows them, and it would cost nothing to detain and question them. But no one is doing it.”
Radio Svoboda spoke with an active FSB officer who painted a rosier picture of the battle against illegal pipeline taps. The officer, who had previously conducted operations against oil thieves, said the peak of pipeline tapping in the Khanty-Mansi region came at the beginning of the previous decade, and that organized crime groups working in this sphere had been largely reined in by 2015. The officer said that neither Vadim Pyatiletov, the former FSB head in the Tyumen Oblast, nor Romanitsa was involved in the theft of oil, in contrast to accounts from multiple sources who spoke with Radio Svoboda. He claimed that those allegations were part of a “smear campaign.”
In November 2016, Shmonin released his documentary Criminal Oil revealing details about the schemes and players in the illicit oil business in the Khanty-Mansi region.
The film, which aired on his TV channel, Yugra Public Television, implicated law enforcement officials, including officers of the FSB, in these schemes.
Shmonin, a burly 50-year-old with a shaved head and a black beard, acknowledges that he took money from politicians and businesspeople either to publish dirt on their rivals, or keep dirt that he had gathered out of the press.
“I understood at the time that the job of a journalist is to get paid for what he doesn’t write,” Shmonin told RFE/RL’s Russian Service, though he claimed everything he published was backed up by evidence.
After the release of Criminal Oil, four individuals mentioned in the documentary filed libel lawsuits against Shmonin. All four worked in security for a Rosneft subsidiary, Samotlorneftegaz. One is a retired FSB general, and the other is a former FSB officer.
As he was preparing a follow-up to the documentary, Shmonin was arrested in April 2017 and hit with a range of criminal charges including libel, blackmail, and illegal distribution of pornography.
The sequel never aired.
Shmonin was held for 11 months in pretrial detention. His website, where he also published kompromat-filled stories, ceased operations, as did his TV channel. Investigators seized his archive related to his investigations, including information from new sources who had contacted him after the release of Criminal Oil.
He claims that during his detention, two FSB interrogators from Moscow told him he had three choices: reveal the name of whoever ordered the documentary and have the charges dropped; plead guilty, be released on bail, and then leave the country; or be carried out of jail “feet first.”
“‘I did it all on my own,’” Shmonin recalls telling them about the genesis of the film. He alleges that one of his interrogators responded by wrapping a plastic bag over his head while the other tased him.
Radio Svoboda was unable to independently corroborate Shmonin’s claims of torture.
The main evidence in the Criminal Oil documentary was based on information from three former employees of a Rosneft-owned security company, RN-Okhrana Nizhnevartovsk, who were no longer working for the firm by the time they began helping Shmonin with the film. They located two illegal pipeline taps for Shmonin and gave on-camera interviews with their faces covered and their voices altered.
Radio Svoboda obtained an internal company memo written in 2015 by one of these sources in which he accuses two of the men who filed criminal libel complaints against Shmonin -- including the retired FSB general, Igor Verstakov -- of providing protection for the illicit-oil schemes of Vladimir Chernakov, the FSB officer whose alleged handwritten note implicating other law enforcement officers was obtained by this reporter.
But under questioning by the regional Investigative Committee’s department for high-profile cases, Shmonin’s sources claimed to have no information about oil theft, according to investigative materials reviewed by Radio Svoboda. They claimed they participated in Shmonin’s film in exchange for money.
The sources’ testimony to investigators is contradicted by recordings of their conversations with Shmonin, also reviewed by Radio Svoboda, in which they discuss details of oil-theft schemes in the region.
Shmonin was later moved to house arrest but then released pending trial. In addition to the criminal libel charges, he is being tried on several charges that are not directly related to his reporting on oil theft -- including blackmail and pornography charges linked to a video he published in 2016 showing a Nizhnevartovsk city lawmaker in a same-sex tryst with another man.
Hearings in his case began in August 2019 and continue to this day. They have been closed to the media and public, formally because of the sexual nature of the alleged blackmail video. At the first hearing, the judge offered Shmonin a broad plea deal, which he rejected.
In March 2020, it emerged that investigators had allegedly lost a trove of evidence in the case: hundreds of CDs with an archive of materials, flash drives, and mobile phones. Shmonin claims that these lost records contain evidence exonerating him. Some of the materials were later recovered. In August 2020, hearings in his case began again, though witnesses repeatedly failed to appear.
One of the four individuals who filed the criminal libel complaint against Shmonin -- former FSB officer Roman Chernogor, who worked for the security department of Rosneft subsidiary Samotlorneftegaz when he filed the complaint in December 2016 -- has since been arrested.
Chernogor and his co-defendant, former FSB officer Chernakov, have been charged with theft and illegally tapping into oil pipelines.
Translated and adapted from the original Russian by Carl Schreck