2 February 2024 in Dossier Powder Keg Russia, Finance, Home


One of the surest ways to avoid being hit by economic sanctions, as Germany already demonstrated almost a century ago, is to set up financial holdings abroad, conceal the origin of the shareholders as far as possible, and use that holding to acquire holdings and buy products in ‘enemy’ territory, thus contributing to the procurement of valuable currency[1] . If these operations are planned carefully and in advance, it is difficult to unmask them during wartime events – unless one of the partners commits an imprudence.

In the case of the Norwegian hotel group Wenaas, this imprudence was the decision to sell, almost free of charge, the important assets the group owned in Russia, and to hand them over to a group of entrepreneurs who are not only very close to Putin, but are also important and infamous organised crime figures. The lack of transparency of the entire operation brings to light a whole series of circumstances that give rise to fears that the infiltration of the Russian mafia went much further than has been disclosed – and that it would also have bought assets located in the European Union. A suspicion that the Norwegian judiciary would do well to check.

The Wenaas Group is headquartered in Måndalen, on the shore of an imposing fjord halfway between Trondheim and Bergen[2] , has an annual turnover of around 15 billion kroner (1.3 billion euros), almost all of which is earned in the hotel sector, not only in Norway but everywhere in Europe, as far as the Swiss Alps, and is a family-run empire headed by Lars Wenaas, who became famous for investing in some impressive installations that allow tourists to enjoy spectacular views of Norway, such as the Rampestreken ramp[3] , and for being one of the richest men in his country[4] .

The group was founded by his grandfather, also called Lars, who started out as a clothing shop in 1931 selling the products made in the basement of his house by his wife and children who, after the founder’s death, invested the strength of the next generation in the company, until in 1975, when they moved out of the basement and into a large factory[5] , the Wenaas became the largest manufacturers of overalls in the country and, instead of selling to middlemen, invested the proceeds of the factory in building a distribution network[6] .

In the 1990s, Wenaas AS went public, bought out its Danish competitors and landed in the rest of Europe[7] . With his share, Lars Jr. decides to invest in the hotel sector: between 1990 and 2020, Wenaasgruppen buys and develops 58 hotels, including the Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel in Oslo, three Radisson hotels in Copenhagen and the largest hotel in Northern Europe, the Park Inn by Radisson Pribaltiyskaya Hotel, in St. Petersburg[8] . Lars loves the jet-set, and invests in several ski resorts in Norway, including those where the Alpine Ski World Cup stops[9] .

Lars is an old-fashioned entrepreneur: no stock market speculation, and great care is taken to avoid excessive leverage with the banks, preferring to sell bonds to customers with a safe return, and no risky products[10] . When something goes wrong, Lars sells – as in the case of the maritime logistics business, which started in 2004 and was liquidated as early as 2010, when the Group sold off many of its interests in transport and distribution: too expensive to run such a large company from countries with the taxation and labour costs of rich Norway[11] .

The tragic retreat from Russia

Vladimir Putin and his friend Vladimir Potanin, majority shareholder of Interros Capital, escaped sanctions because of the strategic value of its refineries for western industrial production[12]

The subsidiary Wenaas Nordic AS changes direction, and acquires ten small and medium-sized companies in the sports and leisure equipment sector and. in 2016, achieves an annual turnover of 370 million kroner[13] . But then comes the pandemic, and the gyms and hotels are faced with a nightmare – a problem increased by the fact that many of the group’s best hotels are located in Russia and, therefore, closed to international tourism from February 2022 onwards[14] .

The assets of Wenaas in Russia are controlled by Wenaas Hotel Russia AS, which, after the invasion of Ukraine, is in great difficulty. Nevertheless, on 26 January 2023, it announced that it had entered into an agreement with the Russian Cosmos Hotel Group, controlled by AFK Sistema, a company linked to Vladimir Petrovich Yevtushenkov[15] , a Russian oligarch who, despite having close ties to the central government in Moscow, is strangely forgotten when drawing up the list of companies affected by American and European sanctions, and is only on the black list of Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Ukraine[16] .

As a result of this agreement, Wenaas is selling its ten Russian hotels[17] at prices ‘appropriate to existing conditions’, a sale that took place on 9 March 2023[18] . Six of the hotels are located in St. Petersburg (the Park Inn by Radisson Pribaltiyskaya, the Park Inn by Radisson Pulkovskaya, the Park Inn by Radisson Nevsky, the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, the Park Inn by Radisson Pulkovo and the Olympia Garden Hotel), two at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport (the Park Inn by Radisson Sheremetyevo and the Radisson Blu Sheremetyevo Airport), one in Murmansk (the Park Inn by Radisson Murmansk) and one in Ekaterinburg (the Park Inn by Radisson Ekaterinburg): 4078 rooms spread over a total area of 264,000 square metres[19] .

The revenue, officially, is 203 million euro[20] . A bargain, despite the obvious disappointment of having to put an end to 15 years of investment in the (until a few years before) flourishing Russian hotel sector, and after all, his partners and the banks he was working with had been clamouring for a withdrawal from Russia, both for political reasons and for reasons of business opportunity: the war has crushed the sector’s legs, which from 6.2 billion roubles in 2019 has fallen to 4.3 billion roubles in 2021 and a current figure close to zero[21] .

This is why the agreed figure, which is lower than the hotels’ original value, is a great bargain, also considering the fact that, as explained by the company advising on the sale, RBC RosBiznesConsulting, the regulations in force in Russia concerning the acquisition of ‘hostile’ assets stipulate that they must accept either payment in instalments or the transfer of part of the amount to the federal budget – a discount of at least 50% of the market value[22] .

Among the hostile countries are, of course, all those that are NATO members, and they have two options: close or sell out at a price set by a special commission of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Trade[23] . In June 2022, Alexander Shokhin, President of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, and Anton Siluanov, Minister of Finance, announced that the hostile countries are selling off en masse, and at a price around 30% of the initial value[24] . Experts estimate that, as a result of this blackmail, the losses of foreign companies that have suspended or announced their withdrawal from the Russian market amount to approximately USD 240 billion[25] .

RTI Systems’ Voronezh radar, manufactured by AFK Sistema, the group that bought the Wenaas hotels[26]

Putin’s strategy is understandable: at the moment of greatest sanctions pressure, Russia’s trade balance is rebalanced with sales in roubles (and at bargain prices) of goods hitherto valued in western currencies, and which in their bellies, in Russia and abroad, still have significant amounts in euros, dollars and pounds. This measure supports (in the medium term) the rouble, because the sanctions, especially during the first year of the war, affected the Europeans much more than the Russians. The long payment instalments allowed the Russians to amortise their acquisitions.

One example out of many: the British mechanical parts distribution company Inchcape was convinced to sell its business to management at a loss of $294 million – and the money for the purchase, the managers took it from the company’s bank accounts[27] . It was worse for the French banking and insurance giant Société Générale, which was persuaded to sell its Rosbank to the Russian holding company Interros Capital, forfeiting EUR 3.1 billion in assets and contracts, as well as a ruble-euro conversion decided by the state and, therefore, totally off the market[28] . Interros belongs to the oligarch Vladimir Potanin, a great friend of Putin, who cannot be blacklisted because his companies (Norilsk Nickel) control the production of 15% of the world’s nickel and 40% of the world’s palladium – irreplaceable elements for the production of semiconductors[29] .

In cases where the Kremlin or its managers do not have enough cash to complete acquisitions, the Moscow government has found an ingenious solution, also applied in the case of Wenaas: a political, commercial and military alliance with organised crime[30] . In this sense, that of Wenaas is a worrying example. At the time of the divestiture, the Scandinavian market reacted well: the need to divest is clear for all to see, and Wenaasgruppen is not left high and dry, but owns 18 hotels in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic and Spain, totalling 7800 rooms – and closed 2022 with a reassuring balance sheet and a growing turnover[31] .

What is astonishing is the buyer: Vladmir Yevtushenkov is the majority shareholder of AFK Sistema, and has resigned from corporate office after being hit by the British sanctions, but continues to control 49.2% of the share package[32] . AFK Sistema owns RTI Systems, a company specialising in the development of military equipment (such as Voronezh model radar stations, designed to track ballistic missiles and drones), as well as Krondstadt, which has been producing military drones since 2021: a circumstance that makes the lack of sanctions by the EU and the US inexplicable, given that AFK Sistema’s products are used on a daily basis in the Ukraine war[33] .

Bad friendships

Drones produced by AFK Sistema used in the war in Ukraine[34]

Yevtushenkov’s name appeared in a money laundering investigation, linked to the illegal acquisition of a controlling stake in the oil company Bashneft, and he was sentenced to house arrest[35] . Subsequently, the government sold the shares in Bashneft to Rosneft and three years later, in December 2017, the AFK Sistema was ordered to pay a fine of 100 billion roubles (EUR 1.2 billion)[36] . This fine almost brought the oligarch to his knees, who from then on started to do business with criminal groups linked to former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, with whom, in 2017, he was implicated in an investigation into the Russian mafia in Spain along with the likes of Oleg Kuznetsov, Sergey Dozhdev, Alexander Grinberg and seven other people, including Arnold Spivakovskyi (aka Viktor Tamm, or Arnosha, one of the bosses of the Solntsevskaya gang[37] ), who serves as deputy director of the Beijing Hotel in Moscow, owned by AFK Sistema, and other companies of the same group[38] .

In the investigation report drawn up by the Guardia Civil, Arnold Tamm is listed as the third most important member of the Solntsevskaya gang after Sergei Mikhailov (‘Mikhas’) and Viktor Averin (‘Avera’): released in February 2018 on bail of EUR 750,000, Spivakovsky died, aged 51, in Spain while awaiting trial, in mysterious circumstances[39] . According to the investigations into the activities of the Solntsevskaya gang, its links with the AFK Sistema date back to the 1990s and continue to this day – links that the Spanish investigation has also extended to the FSB secret service[40] (as claimed by the United States on the basis also of a cable that emerged at the time of the Wikileaks scandal[41] ), Putin’s party (United Russia) and many oligarchs[42] .

The same criminal context includes the operation whereby Delta Bank transferred USD 150 million of illicit origin through the correspondence account of Yevtushenkov’s Luxembourg bank, East-West United Bank, using the so-called back-to-back scheme usually used for money laundering[43] . With regard to East-West United Bank, of which AFK Sistema acquired 49% in February 2005 and assumed full control as of 2018[44] , it should be noted that this was founded in June 1974 as a ‘daughter’ bank of the Central Bank of Russia for the procurement of foreign currency, as part of the VTB Vneshtorgbank system[45] , the Russian Foreign Trade Bank.

Following the sanctions of February and March 2022 against VTB and its subsidiaries, which include the former daughter banks of the State Bank of the Soviet Union Gosbank and later the Central Bank of Russia, the Luxembourg-based East-West United Bank has become the largest Russian overseas bank in Europe after the liquidation of Gazprombank[46] and it is striking that, at least until the end of March 2023, neither AFK Sistema nor East-West United Bank were affected by the sanctions[47] : a sign of the great power that this structure halfway between the state and the mafia enjoys, and which allows them to purchase in the West the mechanical parts for the production of drones used in the war in Ukraine[48] .

A group of friends at dinner: the bosses of the bloodthirsty Russian criminal gang Solntsevskaya[49]

AFK Sistema is present in 25 countries and owns: Telecom MTS – 49.94%; the forest holding company Segezha Group – 62.2%; the online shop OZON – 31.8%; the development company Group “Etalon” – 29.8%; the private medical clinic network Medsi – 95.5%; Agroholding “Step” – 91.3%; the pharmaceutical company Binnopharm Group – 75.3%; the hotel management company Cosmos Hotel Group – 100%; clothing sales company Concept Group – 42.9%; real estate rental company Business-Real Estate – 100%; power grid company Bashkir BESK – 91%; server, satellite, smartwatch and IoT developer Sitronics Group – 100%; biotechnology company Sistema Biotech – 99%; Luxembourg-based East-West United Bank – 100%; and two other companies: Element – a joint venture in microelectronics; and Aeromax which is a drone operator[50] .

On closer inspection, starting with the buying and selling of hotel assets, one realises that today’s Russia is in the grip of a mad mixture of political and criminal interests coordinated and wanted by Putin. Organised crime has always been prepared to create liquidity and make it disappear in defiance of the authorities, and thus becomes a key ally at a time of heavy international sanctions. These organisations, within which Russian and Ukrainian bandits collaborate without any problems, manage the trafficking of drugs, arms, human organs, black labour and the exploitation of prostitution in Eastern countries and, in the last twenty years, also, and increasingly, in the European Union.

Criminologist Vincenzo Musacchio argues: ‘The economy ascribable to organised crime is certainly able to influence, in part, global balances, not only economic, but also financial, security and geopolitical. However, mafias are not yet able to determine conflicts or wars such as the one currently underway. Transnational organised crime can, however, affect the geopolitical balances that will be determined in the future. The links between transnational mafia organisations with other subjects holding various positions of international power have the nature of global relations closely linked to the main factors of geopolitics: political, economic and financial systems, public and private institutions, the environment, communications, transport, information’[51] .

Secret friendships

Lars Wenaas’s Danish partner, Tommy El-Ayouty, visits the HQ of the Thai army, to whom he has just sold French-made weapons[52]

So far it is a bad story, but a reasonable one. For the Norwegian group, staying in Russia doesn’t make sense, and if you have to sell under blackmail from the local government, you sell to those whom the powers-that-be indicate to you as buyers. If they are criminals, it is unseemly, but out of Lars Wenaas’ control. In the sea of somersaults and deals made by Putin to stay in power and continue waging war, this is one among many. If there is anything the Russian president can no longer compromise, it is his own reputation. As far as agreements between the state and organised crime are concerned, unfortunately, neither Italians nor Americans can lecture anyone.

But if we take a closer look at the changes in the Wenaas group’s overall shareholding picture, we realise that the lack of transparency may give rise to suspicion. As is the case with many multinational groups, Wenaas has a series of Luxembourg holding companies that control hotels all over the world, at the top of which is Wenaas Dammtor SA, which, a few months ago, sold a shareholding (apparently 10%) to an investor whose name is not disclosed[53] . Ninety per cent remains in the hands of Azure Hotel Investment SA Luxembourg, which is fully controlled by Lars Wenaas[54] .

Over the past three years, Azure Hotel Investment has sold major stakes in several companies, each controlling a minority percentage of a few hotels in the EU territory – and sold them at a ridiculous price, around EUR 50,000 each, despite being worth millions – to whom, this is not disclosed[55] . Digging through the maze of companies linked to the group, one eventually finds one, the oldest, Wenaas Dammtor SA, which claims a minority shareholder: Tommy El-Ayuoty[56] . He has a past as an intelligence officer in Iraq, who at the end of the war chose Danish citizenship and became a salesman for the arms of the French company Thales[57] , which – it has to be said in all fairness – is one of the companies supplying the Ukrainian army.

Who are the new shareholders of Lars Wenaas? Do they have any relation to those who bought the assets in Russia for a few liras, and now support the Norwegian group’s major losses with an injection of fresh money? Is it possible that the Wenaas group is the Russians’ ticket into Scandinavia’s paradise? Why is it that the only known partner of a large hotel group is a former military man now involved in the international arms trade? At the end of World War II, an office appointed by the US federal government (OMGUS) spent years trying to untangle the network of German corporate holdings in the Allied territories. One has the feeling that once the war in Ukraine is over, as it was in Iraq, figuring out who did what, and with whom, will be very difficult to discover, but will have lasting consequences on the world economy.


[1] https://web.archive.org/web/20050310170333/http://www.time.com/time/archive/preview/0,10987,853144,00.html

[2] https://www.wenaasgruppen.no/contact/

[3] https://www.visitnorway.com/places-to-go/fjord-norway/northwest/listings-northwest/hike-to-rampestreken/234050/

[4] https://www.finansavisen.no/naeringseiendom/2023/02/02/7982227/wenaas-ut-av-russland-selger-hotellene?zephr_sso_ott=AfIdhO ; https://www.kapital.no/kapital-index/norges-400-rikeste?zephr_sso_ott=5uUd9a

[5] https://www.wenaasgruppen.no/history/

[6] https://www.wenaasgruppen.no/history/

[7] https://www.wenaasgruppen.no/history/

[8] https://www.wenaasgruppen.no/history/

[9] https://www.wenaasgruppen.no/history/

[10] https://www.wenaasgruppen.no/asset-management/

[11] https://www.wenaasgruppen.no/history/

[12] https://edition.cnn.com/2022/03/11/business/russia-potanin-putin-warning/index.html

[13] https://www.wenaasgruppen.no/history/

[14] https://www.wenaasgruppen.no/history/

[15] https://ruscrime.com/an-incident-at-the-construction-site-of-the-afk-sistema-company-the-body-of-the-builder-of-the-omsk-cosmos-hotel-was-found-without-signs-of-life/amp/

[16] https://sanctions.nazk.gov.ua/en/sanction-person/2090/

[17] https://www.finansavisen.no/naeringseiendom/2023/02/02/7982227/wenaas-ut-av-russland-selger-hotellene?zephr_sso_ott=AfIdhO

[18] https://markets.ft.com/data/announce/detail?dockey=600-202303091100DGAP____UKPR_____UK_Regulatory_1578885-1

[19] https://www.finansavisen.no/naeringseiendom/2023/02/02/7982227/wenaas-ut-av-russland-selger-hotellene?zephr_sso_ott=AfIdhO ; https://www.tadviser.ru/index.php/%D0%9A%D0%BE%D0%BC%D0%BF%D0%B0%D0%BD%D0%B8%D1%8F:Wenaasgruppen

[20] https://www.finansavisen.no/naeringseiendom/2023/02/02/7982227/wenaas-ut-av-russland-selger-hotellene?zephr_sso_ott=AfIdhO ; https://www.tadviser.ru/index.php/%D0%9A%D0%BE%D0%BC%D0%BF%D0%B0%D0%BD%D0%B8%D1%8F:Wenaasgruppen ; https://markets.ft.com/data/announce/detail?dockey=600-202303091100DGAP____UKPR_____UK_Regulatory_1578885-1

[21] https://www.finansavisen.no/naeringseiendom/2023/02/02/7982227/wenaas-ut-av-russland-selger-hotellene?zephr_sso_ott=AfIdhO ; https://www.tadviser.ru/index.php/%D0%9A%D0%BE%D0%BCNello %D0%BF%D0%B0%D0%BD%D0%B8%D1%8F:Wenaasgruppen

[22] https://www.rbc.ru/economics/21/12/2022/63a1ae3d9a79479cb3d0b5fc ; https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/5435839

[23] https://www.rbc.ru/economics/21/12/2022/63a1ae3d9a79479cb3d0b5fc

[24] https://www.rbc.ru/economics/21/12/2022/63a1ae3d9a79479cb3d0b5fc

[25] https://www.rbc.ru/economics/07/10/2022/633e94809a79475aa5d84f00?from=article_body

[26] https://mil.today/2016/Weapons28/

[27] https://it.marketscreener.com/notizie/ultimo/Le-aziende-vendono-le-loro-attivita-in-Russia–40279340/

[28] https://www.euromoney.com/article/29ycdy7kob74zok3cfugw/banking/societe-generale-makes-a-costly-exit-from-russia ; https://it.marketscreener.com/notizie/ultimo/Le-aziende-vendono-le-loro-attivita-in-Russia–40279340/

[29] https://www.ilmessaggero.it/persone/vladimir_potanin_chi_e_oligarca_russo_putin_nichel-6738078.html?refresh_ce

[30] https://it.marketscreener.com/notizie/ultimo/Le-aziende-vendono-le-loro-attivita-in-Russia–40279340/ r

[31] https://www.finansavisen.no/naeringseiendom/2023/02/02/7982227/wenaas-ut-av-russland-selger-hotellene?zephr_sso_ott=AfIdhO

[32] https://www.interfax.ru/business/834804

[33] https://sanctions.nazk.gov.ua/en/sanction-person/2090/

[34] https://www.dreamstime.com/august-zhukovsky-russia-russian-multi-purpose-heavy-class-unmanned-aerial-vehicle-uav-developed-company-kronstadt-afk-sistema-image171911163

[35] https://www.spisok-putina.org/en/personas/evtushenkov-2/

[36] https://www.spisok-putina.org/en/personas/evtushenkov-2/

[37] https://tbcarchives.org/arnold-tamm-solntsevskaya-spain/ ; https://tbcarchives.org/wp-content/uploads/20180122_Informe_an%C3%A1lisis_parcial_1_t%C3%A9lefono_sujeto_detenido-00000002.pdf

[38] https://www.spisok-putina.org/en/personas/evtushenkov-2/ ; https://www.molfar.global/en-blog/yevtushenkov ;

https://tbcarchives.org/arnold-tamm-solntsevskaya-spain/ ; https://tbcarchives.org/wp-content/uploads/20180122_Informe_an%C3%A1lisis_parcial_1_t%C3%A9lefono_sujeto_detenido-00000002.pdf

[39] https://theins.ru/en/uncategorized/149860

[40] https://www.theguardian.com/world/1999/aug/09/russia.marktran1 ; https://it.insideover.com/schede/politica/fsb-il-guardiano-della-russia.html ; https://www.ilgazzettino.it/esteri/putin_mafia_russa_attacca_europa_cosa_succede-7034473.html

[41] https://www.theguardian.com/world/us-embassy-cables-documents/248674

[42] https://theins.ru/en/uncategorized/149860

[43] https://www.molfar.global/en-blog/yevtushenkov

[44] https://web.archive.org/web/20210427053840/https:/www.ewub.lu/-Our-history-?lang=ru ; https://www.ewub.lu/-Authorized-Management-40-?lang=ru

[45] https://www.ewub.lu/-Authorized-Management-40-?lang=ru ; https://web.archive.org/web/20050313182643/https:/ko.ru/document.asp?d_no=11319&p=1 ; https://paperjam.lu/article/45-annees-presence-au-luxembou?index=0 ; https://www.ewub.lu/East-West-United-Bank-celebrated-its-45th-anniversary?lang=en ; https://paperjam.lu/article/etienne-schneider-elu-administ ; note (b) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sistema

[46] https://delano.lu/article/east-west-united-bank-is-in-th

[47] https://delano.lu/article/east-west-united-bank-is-in-th ; https://www.reuters.com/markets/europe/how-western-sanctions-will-target-russia-2022-02-24/ ;

[48] https://www.eureporter.co/world/russia/2022/03/23/russian-oligarch-who-makes-drone-bombers-to-destroy-ukraine-still-not-sanctioned/

[49] https://theins.ru/en/uncategorized/149860

[50] https://www.molfar.global/en-blog/yevtushenkov

[51] https://www.rainews.it/articoli/2022/03/il-ruolo-delle-mafie-nella-guerra-tra-russia-e-ucraina-il-parere-di-vincenzo-musacchio-798f14d4-d26e-45a9-b17d-b2aed3a722d8.html

[52] https://www.navy.mi.th/index.php/main/detail/content_id/1888

[53] 2023.03.07 Wenaas Dammtor SA Luxembourg

[54] 2022.04.19 Azure Hotel Investment SA Luxembourg

[55] 2019.04.24 Azure Hotel Investment SA Luxembourg

[56] 2015.05.29 Wenaas Dammtor SA Luxembourg

[57] https://borsen.dk/ledelse/ledelse-organisation/artikel/han-var-efterretningsofficer-under-krigen-i-irak-og-er-nu-topchef-for-1100-medarbejdere-principperne-for-god-ledelse-holder-i-alle-situationer

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