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By John Helmer, Moscow

What’s the truth of how Putin rules Russia?  

The longest-serving foreign correspondent in Russia has followed Putin since their first meeting in St Petersburg in November 1991. This is the Putin story which has taken more than thirty years to prepare. It’s the story which the western and Russian media have missed.

Based on thousands of pages of court testimony in London and Moscow;  76 days of cross-examination of witnesses, including the only Russian minister of state ever to go into the High Court witness box; and the findings of fact and law by thirteen British judges up to the UK Supreme Court, this is the only book to investigate the truth.  

And to reveal how it bears no resemblance to US and NATO war propaganda.

Sovcomplot is the story of Russia’s dominant shipping company, with the largest oil and gas tanker fleet in the world. It is a lifeline for Russia’s most important exports, and also of the world’s energy consumers. In the war to destroy Russia’s economy, Sovcomflot is a strategic line which must be defended at all costs.  State owned since its creation in the Soviet Union, Sovcomflot has also been the target of privatisation and privateering schemes for twenty years. US banks, oligarchs, Russian government officials, oilers, traders, and mariners have all played their part in what they hoped would be a four billion-dollar payoff.

The London court case was brought by Sovcomflot and chief executive Sergei Frank against two former executives and a leading Russian ship charterer who were accused of multi-million dollar fraud. The verdicts of the courts took sixteen years, 2005-2021, and cost more than $200 million in fees and penalties. The accused were vindicated; the Sovcomflot men were condemned for dishonesty, perjury, abuse of power, vindictiveness.

The plot itself is reported for shipping industry experts who have never before had the opportunity to open Russian state secrets like these. The book is also for rival oil and gas trade and tanker company executives.  It’s for readers who want to watch Putin up close and personal as he’s not been seen before.

From the Preface
This is a story of piracy on the high seas, in the Kremlin, and in the London courts where lawyers, buccaneers in pinstriped suits, have fought for more than a decade. But the pirate captain is almost invisible. He rules without an iron fist; he wears no iron hook; his hand in this tale is a hidden one. It belongs to Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president. To understand the way Putin rules Russia, and will continue to rule, it is this tale you should read.

The tales told to you by the Anglo-American media, as well as by the think tanks and universities belonging to the NATO alliance, and by the military and intelligence agencies of their governments, mislead and deceive you quite deliberately. This is because they are at war with Russia; their objective is to change the regime in the Kremlin and remove Putin from power. Targeting Putin, as you know, intensified after the US Government arranged the putsch in Kiev of February 21, 2014, starting a civil war in eastern Ukraine, losing Crimea, and commencing the sanctions war. The sanctions in particular have pushed Russians individually, along with their private, commercial and state corporations into a degree of secrecy not seen since the Soviet Union ended. This secrecy is a wartime necessity. It removes the evidence of how Russia is run.

The tale of the Sovcomplot is unique because the evidence has been produced in hundreds of thousands of papers and seventy-six days of witness testimony and cross-examination recorded by court reporters, and then judged for their truthfulness, firstly in the High Court of Justice in London, then in the Court of Appeal, and finally in the Supreme Court – altogether by thirteen judges. Such a thing is unprecedented; it cannot happen again.

This evidence reveals not only how Putin’s invisible hand operates, but also how wrong the Anglo-American narrative of his rule turns out to be. Grand strategy based on such mistakes is bound to produce ignominious failure. The proof of that is in the telling of the tale and at the finish of this book.

At that point, the individual victims of the Sovcomplot shall have deserved public vindication of their names and restoration of their reputations from the damage done to their credit and capital by the pirates.

The Russian state also requires rehabilitation, according to the English court judgements already issued, and after costs and compensation of almost $200 million in state money have been paid out. The future of Russia’s shipping fleet depends on the record of what happened being understood – precisely, comprehensively, and also simply for the non-maritime reader. Until this moment, the story of Sovcomflot – Современный коммерческий флот, Modern Commercial Fleet, SCF – Russia’s largest shipping company, has been regarded as a saga of such complexity it could not be understood outside the maritime industry. A near-total blackout of Russian media coverage, the manipulation of the maritime news media based in London and Oslo, and a campaign of personal threats and intimidation by London lawyers have buried the story. Until now.

As this book was being prepared, command of Russia’s state shipping and oil and gas transportation was once again approaching reorganisation. A fresh order, decided by Putin in secret in August and September of 2019, removed Sergei Frank as chief executive of Sovcomflot; he has been given the post of chairman of the board of directors. He is the figure who began the Sovcomplot by persuading Putin to do to his predecessors, also in the months of August and September, what has just been done to Frank himself.

This is much more than an honourable discharge. On February 10, 2021, Frank was awarded the title of “Director of the Year” at a Moscow ceremony arranged by the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs and the Independent Directors Association, sponsored by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the international accountancy, the state Sberbank, and the Moscow Stock Exchange. In advance, according to a Sovcomflot press release, the experts judging the award “adhe[red] to the principles and values of corporate governance”.

“The corporate governance system of Sovcomflot has been developing for years,” Frank said at the awards ceremony, “and meets the best Russian and international standards”. About the role of the company’s board of directors and his own role, Frank added that they have “let the company stand out for its unwavering drive to innovate and embrace sustainable business practices, helping Sovcomflot to become one of the world leaders in the low carbon shipping.”

The idea of this book developed over many years of reporting on the business, not only of Sovcomflot, but of the entire Russian maritime sector. All sorts of evidence have come to me, before, during and after the High Court case in London. This book aims to bring all of this material together, and to give it a narrative form for the reader who is not from the shipping business, as well as for the maritime experts.

Of course, I acknowledge that no documentary like this can pretend to cover the subject of Russian shipping as fully as some readers may wish. Other documents may exist which give a different nuance to the interpretation of the facts presented in this story. There are contrary and conflicting opinions, not only among the main characters in the story, but also among the lawyers and judges who have been engaged in the litigation of what the facts mean, and what the law says.

Let’s be clear: the documents, witness testimony, and evidence reported in the chapters to follow exist in the publicly accessible record which the diligent reader can examine for himself or herself, regardless of whether the materials are true in the forensic sense or false. The conclusions which aren’t those of the court judges but are mine I have come to after years of acquaintance with and research upon almost everybody in the tale that is about to be told.

But my interpretation is just that and no more.

This tale has also been sent to each of the main characters, in advance of publication with an invitation for them to add their corrections of fact or interpretation, to be added to the publication as their afterword if they answer within a reasonable interval. If they don’t, they have understood their silence will also be noted.

Since this book is published in the US by an American publisher, the language is naturally English. But many of the words written down or said aloud were in Russian. The citations I have made of them were thus translated to the best of my ability, and that of the High Court interpreters in London. I am obliged to point out that if misinterpretation arises from inaccurate translation I am not responsible; those whose words may have been mistranslated have been given every opportunity to say so.

Sergei Frank has been given the opportunity to open the story with the Forewords; and to put his own conclusion in the Afterwords. That also brings the story of the company up to date, as the other stern judges of the value of this tale, the international stock exchanges of Moscow, New York, and Oslo, put a price on Sovcomflot’s shares first offered for sale in October 2020, and recalculate its market capitalisation by comparison with its international shipping company peers.

Frank is no Long John Silver, the unforgettable lead in the original tale of Treasure Island. About Silver, the narrator wrote on his very last page, “we have heard no more. That formidable seafaring man with one leg has at last gone clean out of my life.” Perhaps, he added, Silver “still lives in comfort…It is to be hoped so, I suppose, for his chances of comfort in another world are very small.”

Of Frank, it may also be repeated, we shall hear no more. Though not yet.

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