How Lukashenka’s oil baron hiding from sanctions

Belarusian oligarch Mikalai Varabei (Nikolay Vorobey) may have his oil pipeline taken away from Ukraine. Security forces are checking how the 1.4-kilometer-long strategic facility turned out to be in private hands.

While the investigation is underway, the property is under arrest. This was reported by Artem Dekhtyarenko, speaker of the Security Service of Ukraine or SBU:

«The Supreme Anti-Corruption Court of Ukraine has seized part of the main oil pipeline »Samara – Western direction«. The decision was made on the basis of evidence gathered by the SBU in cooperation with other law enforcement agencies. All the property of the strategic object, including infrastructure and facilities located in Ukraine, has been arrested. This property will be transferred from the commercial entity to the National Agency for Detection, Search and Management of Assets Obtained from Corruption and Other Crimes. The Security Service of Ukraine and the National Anti-Corruption Bureau are taking measures to transfer the oil pipeline under the control of the state joint-stock company Ukrtransneft.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Viktor Medvedchuk attend a meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia October 6, 2020. Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin

The Samara-Western route oil pipeline runs through western Ukraine and belongs to Prykarpatzahadtrans. It is used to pump diesel fuel from Russia and Belarus to Ukraine and Europe. The «pipe» was built in the Soviet times. After the collapse of the USSR, it was to become the property of Ukraine, but it did not happen. For a long time, the oil main belonged to Russiaʼs Transneft, and later came under the control of Viktor Medvedchuk and Mikalai Varabei. This was confirmed by Sergei Kuyun, director of the consulting group A-95:

«It’s really such a long-suffering object. It was built during the Soviet era. And, unlike, for example, the Druzhba oil pipeline, the oil mains that became the property of Ukraine, this oil pipeline remained the property of the Russian Transneft. This process has been going on since 1995, some working groups would get together, there were lawsuits, but until 2015 this pipeline still remained the property of Transneft. And, essentially, it has already been sold to the company International Trading Partners with the beneficiary Anatoly Schefer. I haven’t met people who knew him. But speculations link this acquisition and the beginning of the oil mainʼs active work in 2016 with the name of the pro-Russian politician Viktor Medvedchuk. He is essentially the leader of the pro-Russian movement, of the Russian parliamentary faction, the leader of the party »opposition platform «For Life», Putinʼs daughterʼs godfather.»

Experts consider the nationalization of the oil pipeline a strategy of the authorities to put pressure on the lobbyist of Russian interests in Ukraine Viktor Medvedchuk. Recently, three TV channelsʼ broadcasting, owned by his associate Taras Kozak, was stopped in Ukraine. The purchase of these channels was carried out, including through Varabeiʼs Absolubank. From the same bank Medvedchuk received a fee of 2.3 million hryvnia. Sergei Kuyun, director of the A-95 consulting group, talks about Medvedchukʼs ties:

«For example, none of the companies involved in the operation and supply of diesel fuel from Russia through the pipe and without the pipe, through Rosneft – thereʼs no Medvedchuk anywhere. But, for example, I often remember what preceded Varabeiʼs purchasing the pipe – it was several visits of Medvedchuk to Lukashenko. In Ukraine, too, in business circles, in political circles, they understand that Mikalai Varabei probably wouldnʼt have made such a decision without the blessing of the President. There is a full understanding that such projects, tied to the policy and interests of the Russian Federation, are still not a private initiative.»

Prykarpatzahadtrans called the actions of the Ukrainian authorities an attempt to seize the company illegally. The owners said they did not violate the law and intended to protect their property from raiding under the slogan of »fair Bolshevik« nationalization. Prykarpatzahadtrans commented on the situation:

Sharikov-style intention to seize property from «bad» private owners and give it to »good« heads of state is obvious. The 1917 slogan »take away and divide« is gaining popularity again.

According to Radio Svaboda, oil products transportation via the pipeline has been stopped since February 15. But the lack of pumping through Prykarpatzahadtrans should not cause destabilization in the Ukrainian fuel market, as it is as diversified as possible. Alexander Sirenko, an analyst at UPECO, spoke in this regard:

«At the same time, when this oil pipeline is not working, which has happened before, and nothing happened in Ukraine: not with the prices, our agricultural workers continued to work in the fields. Of course, we noticed its absence, but we lived for a year and a half – from 2014 – 2015 and, in fact, in Ukraine, nothing so global happened in the market. On the contrary, new directions opened up for us. We began to look at maritime supplies differently. And actually the bet is on them now».

Diesel fuel supply is not the only Varabeiʼs business in Ukraine. He supplies our southern neighbors with road bitumen. According to A-95, last year the Petroleum Bitumen Plant supplied almost 60,000 tons of bitumen. Compared to 2019, it is an increase of 74%. The companyʼs share in total consumption was about 7%. Alexander Sirenko, UPECO analyst, talks about the quality of Belarusian bitumen:

«Belarusian bitumen is of good quality. The bitumen plant has the capability of adding emulsions that are in the production range. These emulsions improve the quality. Itʼs difficult to say that they play a dominant role there, because there were other volumes from other plants, from other areas. Including directly from Mazyr – from the Mazyr Oil Refinery.»

In Belarus, one of Mikalai Varabeiʼs key assets is a large oil trader Interservice, located in Navapolatsk. Varabei became its owner in the early 2000s. Interservice was suspected of duty-free purchases of Russian oil products and their resale to EU countries under the guise of solvents and thinners. This multibillion-dollar scheme lasted a year and a half, from early 2011 to mid-2012. Russian authorities suspended it a few months after a journalistic investigation into the scheme was published by the Belarusian portal and Russiaʼs Novaya Gazeta. Also, according to, Belarusian re-exporters sold Russian oil products to the West at significantly lower prices, leaving a major part of the profits from this scheme abroad. This was confirmed by Tatsiana Manionak (Tatiana Manionok), economic observer, energy expert:

«In fact, it was a re-export of Russian oil products. Not only Belarusian businessmen took part, but also Russian and Kazakh ones – it was such a business, which, of course, was on the verge of some legislative violations».

Belarusian oligarch Mikalai Varabei.

In 2012, Interservice acquired the state-owned company EmulBit Village (Vioska EmulBit) for US$4.5 million. The company was renamed to Bitumen Plant. Now it is the leading bitumen producer in Belarus. This company was spotted in gray schemes with the re-export of Russian oil products in 2018. Unlike in 2011 and 2012, when gasoline and diesel were re-exported from Belarus under the guise of chemical products, this time the oil products themselves were not hidden, but simply documented as though made in Belarus. This was confirmed by Tatsiana Manionak (Tatiana Manionok), economic observer, energy expert:

«Russia knew about it and then, in fact, from 2018, at the end, it was decided to set quotas on imports of Russian oil products to ban the export of sublimated oil products».

Last year, Varabeiʼs Interservice became the founder of the New Oil Company. According to market sources, the company owns 75% of the shares. The remaining 25% belong to the Belarusian Railways and the Development Bank. The New Oil Company has become the exclusive supplier of oil products from Belarusian plants. Previously, only the state-owned Belarusian Oil Company was involved in this. Belarus earned US$2.7 billion from oil trade in 2020, and US$5.2 billion in 2019. This was confirmed by Aliaksandr Zaiats (Alexander Zayats), economic commentator:

«There was a story that the Belarusian Oil Company was a monopolist. Thereʼs been a lot of criticism towards them. And there came the idea: letʼs look at another company for BOC to show its effectiveness. At least, thatʼs the story I heard. And then there was a proposal to create the New Oil Company to see which of them could sell petroleum products better and more efficiently.»

The New Oil Company is selling fuel oil from the Mazyr Oil Refinery and Naftan from Navapolatsk. Deliveries are offered through the ports of the Baltic States. In Riga, Varabeiʼs partner Alexei Chulets owns the BLB Baltijas Terminals. Chulets also owns the Estonian company NT Marine, which owns two vessels and offers petroleum products transportation service by sea. Aliaksandr Zaiats (Alexander Zayats), an economic commentator, tells more:

«They took shipments of dark oil products through Latvia. He has a partner there, Estonian. And they traded quite well back in the days of Interservice with Latvia. They have their own terminal there. »

In addition to the assets in the oil sector, Varabei owns the Krasny Bor hunting farm, the Interforest wood processing company, the BelKazTrans freight forwarder, and the aforementioned Absolutbank. He is also a co-owner of Bremina Group, which is building a large logistics complex on the border with Russia. Lukashenko created a tax offshore in the Orsha district for this project. Varabeiʼs partners in the logistics business are Aliaksei Aleksin (Alexey Oleksin) and Aliaksandr Zaitsau (Alexander Zaitsev). These three are now considered the most influential businessmen in Belarus. Ihar Illiash (Igor Ilyash), an investigative journalist, tells us about them:

«Today Varabei, together with Zaitsau and Aleksin, are the most influential oligarchs closest to Lukashenka. In recent years, they have gained privileges and monopolies in various areas of business. In particular, they are all involved in the mega-project Bremina Group.

The full text of the investigation is available in pdf, mobi, epub formats.