Revealed: Russian army’s football club channelling cash through London
The Russian army’s football club has been channelling cash through a London-based owner, openDemocracy can reveal.
It comes days after CSKA Moscow, formerly the official football team of the Russian military, was hit with US sanctions in response to the invasion of Ukraine.
Its Russian holding company was placed under sanctions last week. But an investigation by openDemocracy and SourceMaterial has found 22% of shares in the team are held by a firm registered in east London called Bluecastle Enterprises Limited – which has not been placed under any sanctions and is still listed as “active” on the UK’s business register
Although some of its directors are British, records show the UK company is controlled by CSKA’s president, Evgeny Giner, who is the business partner of one of Vladimir Putin’s key political allies.
The remaining shares are owned by Russia’s VEB bank, which the US has accused of helping to prop up the country’s defence capability, and which was also placed under US sanctions last week.
It comes after repeated warnings that the UK’s opaque company laws are ripe for abuse by those connected to Putin to stash assets.
Experts have already warned that CSKA could dodge the sanctions by switching owners.
The news about the role of a British business comes amid renewed calls for Boris Johnson’s government to tighten the rules on oligarchs channelling money through the UK.
Last week, openDemocracy revealed that more than 600 British companies set up in the past year are actually being controlled from Russia.
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Every Russian football club has now been banned by FIFA and UEFA, in light of the Ukraine conflict, while UEFA has also ended its sponsorship deal with Gazprom, the Russian energy company.
Reports say that Bluecastle Enterprises Limited originally bought its stake in CSKA Moscow from Russia’s Ministry of Defence. It was first incorporated more than 20 years ago and has an address near Old Street in east London’s tech hub.
Giner is a former business partner of Alexander Babakov, a senior Russian politician who was personally appointed by Putin to be his special representative. Babakov was personally placed under sanctions by the EU in 2014, after he voted in favour of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Until 2020, Bluecastle Enterprises Limited owned CSKA Moscow outright, running all of its financial operations through London. This only changed when the Russian VEB bank acquired the majority of shares in the club.
Company accounts show that Bluecastle Enterprises Limited was used to pay UEFA for the club’s participation in European competitions. Giner also personally borrowed $7m from the company.
As well as controlling Bluecastle Enterprises Limited, Giner also owns a separate British firm, Kilworth Trading Limited. It is registered at a farm in Hampshire, but documents show Giner’s country of residence is Russia.
There is no suggestion that either of the British companies has broken the law – but their control by senior Russian officials will renew pressure to tighten UK company regulations.
“I do not consider it possible to continue playing for the Russian army club”
The football club is one of several sports teams at CSKA Moscow, which also has basketball, ice hockey and volleyball squads – although Bluecastle Enterprises is linked only to the football team.
The CSKA clubs have received support from Russia’s state-owned oil company, Rosneft, which announced in 2020 that it was working with the country’s Ministry of Defence to build a new sports complex. The project, for CSKA’s hockey team, included two skating rinks and an arena in the centre of Moscow.
Putin had encouraged Rosneft’s involvement in CSKA, saying he “agreed with Rosneft that they must, no, may support the ice hockey club”.
Rosneft’s chief executive, Igor Sechin, also holds a position as chair of CSKA’s Supervisory Board. The ex-KGB agent has been described as “Russia’s most powerful oligarch” and is a close ally of Putin’s.
Rosneft had teamed up with British oil giant BP for its Arctic exploration, which has faced heavy criticism from environmental campaigners. But after pressure from Boris Johnson’s government, BP announced on Sunday it would offload its $14bn stake in the Russian company.
“BP has operated in Russia for over 30 years, working with brilliant Russian colleagues,” a BP spokesperson said. “However, this military action represents a fundamental change.”
On top of the financial impact on CSKA Moscow, the invasion of Ukraine has also sparked protests among some of the clubs’ players. At the weekend, the Russian basketball star Tornike Shengelia announced he would be walking out on CSKA Moscow in protest against the invasion of Ukraine.
“I do not consider it possible to continue playing for the Russian army club,” he said, adding that he was leaving Moscow to join his family in Spain.
Image: CSKA Moscow fans in full voice for Man City clash