National Security News

Reporting the facts on national security

National Security News

Africa Russia Sanctions

A Sanctioned Airline and it’s Shadowy Founder: Savelyev’s Aviation Empire Raises Red Flags for the West

In the midst of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) conflict, the spotlight falls on Aviacon Zitotrans, a Russian cargo airline entangled in controversy. Steering this entity is Valery Savelyev, a figure with a complex past intertwining business, politics, and alleged ties to Russia’s intelligence networks.

As the head of AVS Group, the umbrella corporation encompassing Aviacon Zitotrans, Savelyev’s image as a philanthropist contradicts a murky history. Formerly associated with Russia’s ruling party, United Russia, he faces accusations linking him to the FSB and organised crime.

Savelyev’s intricate web of aviation enterprises, with Aviacon Zitotrans at its core, sparks concerns for Western interests. The company’s role in ferrying military personnel and equipment to conflict zones threatens regional stability while potentially bolstering Russian influence. Moreover, Savelyev’s utilisation of a UAE-registered company, like Deek Aviation, raises red flags, hinting at potential manoeuvres to circumvent sanctions or exploit regulatory loopholes.

Aviacon Zitotrans

Aviacon Zitotrans, part of the AVS Group, initially gained prominence as a cargo airline, boasting Russia’s largest fleet of Il-76 heavy transport aircraft. However, its operations have come under scrutiny due to its involvement in transporting military equipment and personnel to conflict zones worldwide, including sanctioned defence entities of the Russian Federation.

RA-76846 Aviacon Zitotrans Ilyushin Il-76TD (Source: Dmitry, Flickr)

NSN recently reported that South Africa contracted aircraft from Aviacon Zitotrans to transport troops and equipment to eastern DRC in support of an offensive against the M23 rebel group.

Examining the flight history of specific aircraft, like RA-76842, reveals a recent trip from Goma (DRC) to Upington (South Africa) on May 6th, 2024. RA-76846 then followed a similar route between these locations on May 7th-8th.

Flight history for RA-76846. (Source: Flightradar24)

The U.S. sanctioned Aviacon Zitotrans in 2023 due to its extensive involvement in Russia’s defence and aerospace sectors. This includes transporting military equipment like missiles, warheads, and helicopter parts, globally. For instance, Aviacon Zitotrans has delivered such equipment to Venezuela, Africa, and other regions. Further demonstrating its role, the company attempted (as of September 2022) to use a Turkish firm and diplomats to facilitate arms sales for Rosoboroneksport, Russia’s state-owned defence entity, which is also sanctioned by the U.S.

Ukraine added the company to its sanctions list in October 2022 for its role in distributing military equipment.

The Man Behind the Curtain

At the wheel of Aviacon Zitotrans stands Valery Borisovich Savelyev, a wealthy businessman with a history of political engagement via the United Russia party, and alleged ties to organised crime.

Savelyev’s journey began in the 1990s, a period of upheaval in Russia. He transitioned from a factory worker to a prominent figure in the commercial sector, reportedly starting with hats and then moving on to consumer goods and alcohol.

However, his ventures were not without controversy, as Kompromat publications allege how he became embroiled in dealings with organised crime groups, purportedly facilitating money laundering and arms trading.

Valery Borisovich Savelyev

Connection to the FSB

Savelyev reportedly developed ties with the FSB, Russia’s Federal Security Service.  Kompromat reports claim this relationship began with the FSB offering protection from his former “partners” in organised crime. This “security advisor” role was allegedly filled by a former FSB officer, Vyacheslav Chislov. Savelyev’s relationship with the FSB evolved into active cooperation, providing him with a shield against accusations and threats. This alliance paved the way for Savelyev’s expansion into various sectors, including the aviation industry with Aviacon Zitotrans.

The exact nature of Savelyev’s relationship with the FSB remains unclear.  Did the FSB merely offer protection, or is there a deeper collaboration at play? 

Savelyev’s Aviation Empire

Aviacon Zitotrans isn’t Savelyev’s only aviation venture. Deek Aviation, registered in the UAE, is co-owned by Savelyev and another Russian national, Oleg Vladimirovich Sergeev, who owned Ukrainian carrier Zetavia.

Deek Aviation is the parent company of Fly Sky Airlines, which consisted of a Ukrainian branch and a Kyrgyz branch. It is alleged that Fly Sky transported arms to Libya on behalf of the UAE government. The airline was also reportedly expanding into the Central African Republic and Eritrea by establishing a new African company to operate more discreetly.

Ilyushin Il-76TD cargo flights from the UAE to Entebbe, Central Uganda, which continues to an unknown destination northwest, June 2023 (Source: Gerjon)

Ukrainian authorities revoked Fly Sky’s Air Operator Certificate (AOC) in 2021, due to concerns about cargo transportation, effectively grounding the airline.  Following this, Russian media reported Fly Sky’s intention to launch a branch in Russia.

Savelyev’s web of aviation companies, including the sanctioned Aviacon Zitotrans, raises serious concerns for Western interests. His involvement in transporting military equipment and potentially fuelling conflicts contradicts efforts to promote stability in those regions. Additionally, Deek Aviation’s registration in the UAE, a country with complex relationships with the West, suggests Savelyev might be attempting to subvert sanctions or exploit loopholes to continue his operations. This network of companies could be used to facilitate the movement of weapons or military equipment in support of conflicts that run counter to Western goals.