Two little-known Russian companies that were awarded state contracts for oil and gas exploration in Syria last month have ties to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a secretive businessman and personal friend of President Vladimir Putin, a new investigative report by Novaya Gazeta has revealed.
Syria’s parliament last week approved the contracts for oil exploration with two Russian companies, Mercury and Velada. Syria’s oil minister had said that the three blocs in the contracts each contain at least 250 billion cubic meters of gas.
Mercury and Velada have ties to Kremlin-linked catering magnate Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is often referred to as “Putin’s chef” and was indicted by the U.S. on suspicion of election meddling, according to Novaya Gazeta’s investigation.
Mercury apparently changed its profile from catering to geological surveying sometime in or prior to 2017, Novaya Gazeta reported, citing its former managing director’s publicly available resume. In 2016, the Russian-language U.S. broadcaster Current Time spoke with an unnamed Mercury helicopter pilot who said his task was to transport Prigozhin or his wife to remote parts of St. Petersburg.
Velada’s chief executive between 2015-2018 reportedly ran the one-person company while also working as an assistant manager at Prigozhin’s Concord Management and Consulting company.
Prigozhin, whose catering business is thriving under state contracts in Russia, is also believed to be behind the Wagner Group, a shadowy mercenary organization suspected of fighting on behalf of the Russian government in Syria, eastern Ukraine, Libya, and sub-Saharan Africa.
“The choice of a partner was obvious for Syria: The exploration and development contract goes to those who recapture the oilfields and protect them with their own armed forces,” Novaya Gazeta wrote.
The news outlet estimated that Prigozhin’s companies extracted $20 million worth of natural resources in Syria per month in 2018.
The businessman’s press service said Velada and Mercury have “no relation” to the businessman’s conglomerate.