The Poisoning of BP’s CEO and Oxford’s failed due diligence
Robert Dudley at a meeting with Putin and Sechin in Kremlin. Photo by Kremlin.ru
Written by Ilya Zaslavskiy
This case is part of a broader study by Free Russia Foundation and its partners into Russia’s interference in the rule of law in the West. Today Free Russia published a set of cases in a big ground breaking report “Misrule of Law: How the Kremlin Uses Western Institutions to Undermine the West”. Due to space limitation in the report which is already big, sensitivity of the issues around oligarchs and other legal caution some cases are published separately as is the case with the story below. As I had a personal entanglement in the revival of the the story about Dudley’s poisoning in global media in 2018, I publish this important account on my own website but intend to talk about it in all our presentations of the above report. The story below is published at my sole responsibility.
In 2006, as we now know from the findings of the report by UK Judge Sir Robert Owen released in 2016, exiled ex-Russian FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko was killed by two Russian agents by radioactive substance. These agents were acting on behalf of the Russian FSB secret service in an operation authorized by Russian leadership. This was the first incident in post-Cold War era when a naturalized British citizen was killed on UK soil with total impunity. It took an invasion into Ukraine and worsening of relations between the West and Russia for UK government to authorize this 2016 report.
Then in 2018 global news networks were overwhelmed with findings about Skripal poisoning (when another Russian ex- FSB officer exiled in the UK along with his daughter almost lost their lives, see a case on this report by Free Russia Foundation in Part 2 https://www.4freerussia.org/misrule-of-law).
However, in between those two poisonings there was another major incident in 2008, involving US citizen who was a top manager of a major corporation, namely Robert Dudley, CEO of TNK-BP then, and now CEO of BP. That poisoning incident went largely beyond the public purview and parliamentary or judicial enquiry either in the UK or US. However, arguably it is no less significant than poisoning of Litvenenko and Skripal.
In 2008-9 TNK-BP, an oil company owned 50% by BP and 50% by Russian oligarchs from AAR consortium that have been traditionally close to Russian security services and the government, went through a vicious corporate conflict. Essentially, AAR oligarchs (Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven, German Khan, Viktor Vekselberg and Len Blavatnik) joined forced with Russian security services, Immigration Agency, Tax Ministry and other government bodies to attack Anglo-American leadership of TNK-BP headed by Dudley and oust them out of the country away from operative control of cash flows.
Dudley would not leave the country despite massive pressure, naively believing that Russian and international law and legal system would stand on the side of his team. When he did not understand various intimidation signals from the Russian side (that included harassment of western managers, people being followed and their cell phones bugged, unlawful break-ins into private apartments, multiple searches under the pretext of a fabricated spy case that gained private and commercial information that was used by AAR to put leverage over western managers, etc.), he suddenly started to feel badly and had to abruptly leave Russia. He could not even work from BP’s London office but had to operate the company from an undisclosed secret location in Europe. This means that he did not even feel secure in the country where BP has headquarters!
In 2014, New Yorker magazine revealed that the reason for that was slow poisoning: “On a trip out of Russia, according to three people close to BP, he had his blood tested, and poison was found in his bloodstream. He stopped eating food provided by the company and began to feel better. Finally, one day in July, Dudley learned that the police were coming for him the next morning. He went out the back door of his apartment to a waiting car and left the country.”
However, this news was never followed up neither in 2008 nor in 2014 when it was first made public neither by MI6 or FBI, nor by BP itself. All sides decided to sweep it under the carpet in order to continue lucrative relations that BP then started to have with Rosneft. Arguably, this sent an even bigger signal of impunity and appeasement to the Kremlin than the poisoning of Litvinenko.
After all, if a senior top executive can be harassed in that way and no western government takes any public measures in defense, instead allowing lucrative deals to compensate for such blatant violation of the rule of law, then it is no surprise that Kremlin leaders took it as a green light to continue with their methods.
After Skripal affair got into the news cycle and Western governments finally decided to act against poisoning with wide scale sanctions (also driven by Russian interference in the Brexit referendum and in US presidential elections in 2016), the (old) news about Dudley got again into global headlines and this time much wider in spring 2018. By this moment there were three witnesses of this from New Yorker investigation and an additional one from The Daily Telegraph.
Neither BP nor Dudley himself went for a proper formal and clear-cut denial but instead resorted to staying silent or downplaying it with ambiguous messages. In 2014 Dudley chafed at these allegations in a way that was not straightforward and that left the observers doubting it:
“I don’t know why people write that kind of thing. There was obviously a conflict there and I needed to leave or I wasn’t going to be in — in legal with my work permits and my residency status. And so I did have to leave and worked to manage the company from outside of Russia. But I don’t know. There’s a lot of wild things said about that period.”
In 2018, Dudley jokingly told reporters they should ‘stay away from Russia’ and did not say anything else, while BP declined to comment on the story since news appeared.
Then Brian Gilvary, CFO of BP, who was not part of the press service of the company nor was part of the 2008 incident denied the poisoning. He was the only person from BP to say anything on the allegation. "I think it is a complete urban myth and there is absolutely no substance to that story that we're aware of within the company," Gilvary told CNBC. Indeed, may be he and his new circle in BP have been unaware but not Dudley and the old team.
In any case, the fact that there was no formal rebuttal from any government body nor BP, while at the same time it is a fact that there was a massive and brutal harassment campaign against all accepted corporate norms, that Dudley indeed fled Russia abruptly and had to fear for his physical security – he did not even feel safe to stay in BP’s own office in London – and had to stay for months in a secret secure location, adds to the high probability that Dudley was indeed urged by Russians to leave the country by way of poisoning.
What is also strange is that Brian Gilvary is saying one thing and BP's communications team are saying something different in 2018. Apart from what they told the Daily Telegraph, here is what they also told Vice: “These rumours have been around for some time and we have not commented, and I’m afraid we do not intend to comment now,” BP spokesman Chris Reynolds wrote in an email.
While it is impossible to prove that AAR shareholders or their security people participated or facilitated the poisoning, it is quite reasonable to ask if they they did, given that it has been proved that they participated in other parts of the abrasive harassment campaign against BP managers in 2008. In the ideal world where rule of law prevails, these questions should be asked by Western security services, not by me. What can be easily proven, though, is that AAR shareholders personally and excessively benefited from the outcome of TNK-BP raiding.
They got operative control of the company and its cashflows in Russia and prepared the company for one of the most corrupt deals in the Russian corporate history, sale of the TNK-BP to Rosneft in 2012-13. Despite rhetoric for the need to move Russian economy out of dependence in offshore accounts (de-offshorization), Putin personally micromanaged a deal in which Russian state via Rosneft paid AAR shareholders around $30bn in cash for their stake in TNK-BP. This was highly unexplained generosity given that the market value of the stake was about $20bn.
AAR shareholders immediately moved most of the money out of the country and started to invest in various strategic assets and academic and cultural entities that could give them reputation laundering while at the same time providing useful avenues of influence for Kremlin narratives and policy. Given total absence of any public investigation into BP’s harassment in Russia and Dudley’s poisoning in 2008, this process took place without any hindrance from Western governments or societies.
In 2010, Oxford University accepted a donation of £75 million from one of the AAR oligarchs Len Blavatnik for the Blavatnik School of Government, which opened the same year. In 2015, a group of Russian and Western scholars, journalists and civic activists published a public petition to Oxford University urging it to review cooperation with Len Blavatnik and his associates from AAR and to investigate Blavatnik's and his partners’ activity. The protestors urged Oxford University to “stop selling its … prestige to Putin’s associates … and carry out a new and independent due-diligence investigation with clearly defined ethical norms”.
A spokesman for the university responded that Oxford University had a thorough and robust scrutiny process in place with regard to philanthropic giving and that its Committee to Review Donations (CRD) conducted appropriate due diligence based on publicly available information. However, the activists met with outright censorship efforts from Oxford’s administration and found out that the Committee had not relied on independent experts or Russian language sources. Meanwhile, two external members of the CRD - Sir Victor Blank and Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones - had been heavily criticized for failures in due diligence in their main professions and exposed by UK press around the same time when they were part of CRD.
The Blavatnik School ignores the crimes of the Russian government and invites Putin cronies as guest speakers, while Blavatnik, Vekselberg, Fridman and Aven have become suspects in Robert Mueller investigation on various aspects of collusion between Russian and the Trump campaign during the last presidential elections. In April 2018 Blavatnik’s close business partners Oleg Deripaska and Viktor Vekselberg were also placed under U.S. Treasury sanctions for their ties with the corrupt Russian government.
While it is beyond the scope of this study, Oxford is not the only case in question. In our last year’s report on Kremlin’s Hybrid Analytica we also outline how apart from Oxford, AAR shareholders got reputation laundering, praise and whitewashing at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Hudson Institute, Kennan Institute and many other academic institutions.
 See https://www.spymuseum.org/multimedia/spycast/episode/the-corrupted-state-an-interview-with-ilya-zaslavskiy/, and a detailed interview in Russian https://www.svoboda.org/a/27349843.html
 Luke Harding, “Oxford University criticised for accepting oligarch's £75m donation,” The Guardian, November 3, 2015,
 Christopher Leake and Mark Hollingsworth, “MI5 'vetoed Security Minister over links to Ukrainian oligarchs'”, The Daily Mail, August,
14, 2010, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1303215/MI5-vetoed-Security-Minister-Baroness-Pauline-Neville-Jones-links-Ukrainian-oligarchs.html; Peter Oborne, “Sir Victor Blank: The crony with a gift for disaster,” The Daily Mail, February 16, 2009, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-1146069/PETER-OBORNE-Lloyds-TSB-boss-Victor-Blank--crony-gift-disaster.html#ixzz40ISHI5mK
 https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/exclusive-special-counsel-probing-donations-foreign-connections-trump/story?id=55054482; https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/10/15/was-there-a-connection-between-a-russian-bank-and-the-trump-campaign; https://www.thedailybeast.com/is-muellers-eye-on-some-russian-oligarchs