Business as usual: Russian jets fly on German-supplied fuel

Photos: Wintershall GmbH CC BY-SA 4.0, Mykhaylo Palinchak/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

A joint venture of the German company Wintershall Dea delivered gas condensate to Kremlin-controlled Gazprom, which in turn provided aviation fuel to two military bases believed to be behind air strikes against civilian targets in Ukraine that have been internationally criticised as possible war crimes.

Wintershall Dea is a German company involved in a joint venture with a Gazprom subsidiary. Gazprom, the Kremlin-controlled natural gas distributor, is also Russia's main producer of aviation fuel. According to an investigation carried out by the German Der Spiegel weekly and the ZDF public TV channel, Wintershall Dea is, jointly with Gazprom, extracting gas from West Siberian gas fields and selling gas condensate, a byproduct of extracting natural gas and one of the basic materials used in the production of jet fuel, to Russian jet fuel manufacturers.

Wintershall Dea responded to this by saying that they are selling the gas condensate to Gazprom, and because the issue is related to a joint venture, it is not possible for them to suspend deliveries to Gazprom on its own, nor does it have any influence on production.

That reasoning will probably console many Ukrainian widows and orphans.

Wintershall Dea also ruled out the suspension of production in Russia, even though they do have the option of withdrawing from the joint venture entirely, but will not do so, as it would lose them a lot of money in the process.

This comes eight months after a news show produced by German public broadcaster ZDF revealed that the fighter jets that flew the attack on Chernihiv, a city northwest of Kyiv and an important cultural centre, have likely been fueled with fuel from Gazprom.

Wintershall Dea, a company that is majority-owned by German chemical giant BASF, questions whether there is a direct link between the gas condensate production in question and the Russian attacks. As the company has also stated, it could not guarantee the gas condensate extracted by Wintershall Dea would not be used for military purposes, as it is “further processed into many different petrochemical products”.

They also said that the gas condensate is sold “directly from the well” to Gazprom and that “How it is further used is entirely up to Gazprom”.

Which according to them probably makes it alright.

Or not. Even the company's very own spokesperson, when condemning the Russian attack on Ukraine, said that corporations must own up to their social responsibility.

They probably should, considering how the joint investigation by Der Spiegel and ZDF found traces of several Gazprom deliveries to Russian military bases near the Ukrainian border, not only ones that were used to launch a deadly attack on Chernihiv, but also the attack on the theatre in Mariupol in March, which killed hundreds of people, including numerous children.

“Every company supporting Putin's war crimes is guilty of these crimes itself,” said the economic adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Oleg Ustenko, adding that Wintershall Dea will be held accountable at the end of the war. If not before.

This assessment was seconded by one from NGO Global Witness, which stated that “Any company that supplies Gazprom in Russia risks fueling the war and undermining Europe's support for Ukraine.”

Wintershall Dea calls itself “Europe's leading independent natural gas and oil company”. This “independent company” gets most of its commodities from Russia’s West Siberian gas fields.

While other companies such as Shell, Exxon, and Eni announced their withdrawal from Russia shortly after the February 24 invasion began, Wintershall Dea stayed in Russia to continue with their blood-money dealings. As the company’s CEO, Mario Mehren, said a few weeks after the Russian attack on Ukraine, the management board has “decided to maintain participation in existing projects in Russia”.

The company also said that it would not make any new investments in Russia, which they probably consider to be to their credit.

Ukrainian Deputy Justice Minister Iryna Mudra did not mince words when she spoke to Der Spiegel and ZDF about companies that continue to reap profits in the Russian market.

“Earning profits from Russia, paying taxes in Russia, maintaining the Russian economy is nothing else but participating in the war,” said Ms Mudra. “It is the same as being guilty of murdering children, women or torturing civilians. The same as destroying their homes.”

Wintershall Dea and its subsidiaries have made massive contributions to Putin's war chest: EUR 320 mln in CIT during the first three quarters of 2022 alone, and some EUR 400 mln is so-called subsidy taxes during the same period. During the same period, Wintershall Dea reaped a pretty penny: EUR 1.5 bn of income before interest, taxes, depreciation, and exploration costs.

As previously mentioned, Wintershall DEA is owned by BASF. The Ludwigshafen-based chemicals corporation owns 72.7 percent of the company, making them the primary shareholder.

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While many western companies withdrew from Russia, Wintershall Dea is not the only one that did not. French TotalEnergies has also been implicated in similar dealings, and these and other cases raise the question of the accountability of Western companies supplying the Russian state for the war crimes it commits.

Fact is, as the article in Der Spiegel points out, that any company that continues business in Russia could also be compelled by Putin's government to help in the war against Ukraine, Janis Kluge, a Russia expert with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) told the weekly. Supplying certain goods or helping with the “partial mobilisation” are some examples he mentions.

“The only way to avoid that and share responsibility for this war, is to withdraw from Russia,” said Kluge.

Wintershall Dea's dealings with Russia are not merely a matter of purely theoretical legal speculation. An indictment from the International Criminal Court is a possibility, as former International Criminal Court (ICC) chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo told Der Spiegel, with the caveat that it would have to be proven that Wintershall Dea continued supplying Gazprom with the gas condensate with the intent of enabling war crimes.

Then again, if the heads of Wintershall Dea had the knowledge of how their commodities were used and continued to supply them to Gazprom, continuing dealing in the gas condensate while ignoring the readily apparent ends to which it was used is no different than willingly enabling the war crimes.

Just to earn a pretty penny. Or perhaps “ein Heller und ein Batzen”.