This past weekend, a press story out of Moscow raised considerably more attention in the West than in the Russian media. Russian police announced the arrest of Vladimir Nekrasov, the owner of the Russian cosmetics chain Arbat Prestige. That got significant play in the Russian press, but was less important for the Western media than a small detail in the Russian report: seized along with him was a business consultant named Sergei Schnaider. That was a pseudonym of Semyon Mogilevich, perhaps the most mysterious, darkest and most feared of the Russian organized crime kingpins. Mogilevich’s mug is not well known (below, courtesy of the FBI), but he weighs in near 300 pounds and is 5’6”.
Steve LeVine gives some flavor surrounding Mogilevich’s latest exploits:
Mogilevich, who has been on the FBI most-wanted list for years, was arrested last Thursday on tax charges in Moscow. Russian authorities said they had long been looking for Mogilevich, who has lived for years in plain sight in the Russian capital. There is much conjecture on why he was arrested just now. Some of it involves supposed efforts to unwind the shadowy natural gas trade between Russia and Ukraine, in which Mogilevich appeared to have a role.
Quite a number of people have tried to track Mogilevich’s dealings with respect to the Russian-Ukrainian energy deal for good reason. His name crops up at every turn, always buried down deep under many layers of shell companies and foreign lawyers with powers of attorney. And Mogilevich is famous for reacting violently—very violently—when people attempt to research him. For instance, the Village Voice’s Robert Friedman worked extensively on a series of pieces tracking Mogilevich’s operations, and his penetration of the U.S. market, and came under attack by Mogilevich in return. The CIA claims that Mogilevich tried to assassinate Friedman. Another figure who has spent much of his career studying Mogilevich, former FBI agent Robert Levinson, has gone missing under mysterious circumstances.
Last April, the Wall Street Journal reported that Mogilevich had tapped high priced public relations agents and lawyers to help him stop the pending criminal proceedings in the United States.
Apart from Mogilevich’s assumed role in it, the Russian-Ukrainian energy deal has been one of the most politically charged commercial dealings in recent memory. It has played a pivotal role in relations between the two largest Soviet successor states, and to call it an “irritant” would be a gross understatement. The question that the political opposition in Ukraine (which has now formed the government there) long put was simple: how could one of the world’s most feared organized crime kingpins find himself right at the center of the most important commercial transaction between two sovereign states?
Throughout this period, as LeVine notes, Mogilevich moved about freely and was seen at glitzy watering holes in Moscow, Kiev, Budapest and in Israel—notwithstanding the outstanding FBI arrest warrant and Interpol requests. This suggests rather strongly that he had protectors within the Russian Government at a minimum. But his arrest and the charges brought against him suggest that the winds are now blowing from another direction. It might suggest that Mogilevich’s Russian government protectors are now on the outs, or it might just be that the Kremlin has decided that the path to better relations with Ukraine (and possibly also Britain) involves putting Mogilevich in a jail cell.