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Death of Russian oil exec highlights suspicious ends met by those who crossed the Kremlin

“There has been a remarkable number of suspicious deaths in recent months of senior executives connected with the oil and gas industry,” one expert said.
Ravil Maganov with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in 2019.Mikhail Klimentyev / AFP - Getty Images file

The mysterious death of a major Russian oil executive has left as many questions as it has brought answers. 

Lukoil, Russia’s largest private oil company, said its chairman Ravil Maganov “passed away following a severe illness,” Thursday at age 67.

But citing two sources familiar with his death, Reuters reported that he died after falling from the window of the Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow. Several Russian media outlets, citing sources from law enforcement agencies, have also suggested that he was trying to smoke when he plunged to his death.

NBC News has not verified how he died and Maganov’s family has remained silent on the matter. The hospital and police declined to comment, and Russia’s Investigative Committee did not return requests for comment.

However, several Western commentators have noted that Lukoil, the country’s second largest oil producer, came out against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war a few days after his forces invaded Ukraine, calling for it to end. 

And while no political link to Maganov’s death has been established, several people who have chosen to cross the Kremlin have died suddenly and in unexplained circumstances. 

Risky business

“There has been a remarkable number of suspicious deaths in recent months of senior executives connected with the oil and gas industry,” John Lough, an associate fellow at London’s Chatham House think tank, told NBC News via email Thursday. 

“It is reminiscent of the banditry of the 1990s in Russia during the first phase of privatization after the collapse of the USSR,” added Lough, who specializes in Russian affairs.

Maganov’s death follows the passing of seven other senior Russian energy executives since the start of the year. Among them was his former top Lukoil executive Alexander Subbotin, whose body was discovered in the basement of a country house in the Moscow region in May, police in the city said.

Other senior executives from natural gas giants Gazprom and Novatek, as well as Vladislav Avayev, the former vice president of Russia’ third largest bank Gazprombank, have also died.    

“This suggests there is some serious infighting taking place in the sector connected to access to financial flows,” Lough said. 

Olga Oliker, the program director for Europe and Central Asia at the International Crisis Group in Brussels, said that “trend” was the wrong word to describe the deaths She said there were enough incidents to argue that Russian state policy either allows for political assassinations or that it lacks control over its security services and does not have the capacity to prevent them.

“There are enough incidents that those who run afoul of Russian leadership, or appear to, may well worry about potential threats to their lives,” she said. 

Kremlin critics

Former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov was gunned down on a bridge near the Kremlin in February 2015, police said, a day before a planned protest against Putin’s rule. 

Nemtsov was a sharp critic of Putin, assailing his government’s inefficiency, rampant corruption and the Kremlin’s policy on Ukraine. A report he was working on about Russia’s military involvement in the war in eastern Ukraine and in the annexation of Crimea was released after his death. 

Mourners March After Russian Opposition Politician Boris Nemtsov Shot Dead
People march in memory of Russian opposition leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov on March 1, 2015 in central Moscow.Epsilon / Getty Images file

Five men were found guilty and jailed for his murder, but Nemtsov’s death left the country’s opposition without a central figure and ignited fury among critics who assailed the Kremlin for creating an atmosphere of intolerance of any dissent and called the killing an assassination. 

His death was likened by Kremlin critics and Western commentators to that of the prominent investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot to death in October 2006.

Known for her critical coverage of the war in Chechnya, despite numerous acts of intimidation and violence, Politkovskaya had written a critical book about Putin and his campaign in the region, documenting widespread abuse of civilians by government troops.

Police investigated her death as a murder, but it remains unsolved and the Kremlin has denied any connection to both her death and that of Nemtsov. 

Just over a month after Politkovskaya’s killing, former Russian spy turned dissident Alexander Litvinenko suffered an agonizing death in London in 2006 after drinking tea laced with an extremely rare radioactive substance called “polonium-210,” British police said. 

The haunting image of Litvinenko in his hospital bed became world famous as the face of tortured suffering. After about three weeks of misery, he lapsed into a coma and died, at age 43, after claiming on his deathbed that Putin likely ordered his killing.

A decorated KGB and FSB officer, Litvinenko defected from Russia in 2000 and settled in the United Kingdom, where he became an outspoken critic of the Kremlin and Putin. 

Former Russian Agent Poisoned In London
Alexander Litvinenko is pictured at the Intensive Care Unit of University College Hospital on Nov. 20, 2006 in London.Natasja Weitsz / Getty Images file

British investigators believe that he was killed by two Russians, Andrei Lugovoi, and Dmitry Kovtun, who poisoned him during a meeting at London’s Millennium Hotel. Both have denied involvement, and Moscow refused to extradite them although international arrest warrants are still in place.

In 2016, a British judge ruled that he was murdered on the orders of Russia’s FSB security agency — and that the action was “probably approved” by Putin. The European Court of Human Rights also ruled last year that Russia was responsible. 

Novichok poisonings 

The poisonings of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and former spy Sergei Skripal made headlines around the world. 

Skripal, a 66-year-old former military intelligence officer, was convicted of spying for Britain before he was freed as part of a spy swap. Having settled in the English city of Salisbury, he was poisoned in March 2018 with the Novichok nerve agent, along with his daughter Yulia, 33, who had traveled from Russia to visit him, British police said. 

Both survived, but British citizen Dawn Sturgess, 44, died after she was exposed to a perfume bottle containing Novichok, investigators said.

Alexei Navalny
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny stands in the Babuskinsky District Court in Moscow on Feb. 20, 2021. Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP file

Two years later, Navalny was poisoned with the same substance as he flew back from Siberia. He narrowly survived after he was airlifted to Germany for treatment. There, medics found traces of the nerve agent in his system.    

Although he was offered asylum, Navalny, who blamed Putin directly for ordering the poisoning, decided to return to Russia where he was immediately arrested.

He has since been jailed on charges he rejects as politically motivated. 

The Kremlin has denied responsibility for either attack. 

Infighting or irritation? 

Nemtsov, Litvinenko, Skripal and Navalny all “caused irritation at the highest level,” Lough of Chatham House said.  

“The same can’t be said of Maganov and the other business executives who have died recently,” he added. 

While the infighting between business leaders “appears to have become particularly vicious since the start of the war in Ukraine, the reasons for this are not clear at this stage,” he said.