In broad daylight law-enforcement officials detain an “underground oiler” right near the illegal storage tank.
A Gentlemen of Fortune (a Soviet film) character named Vasily Alibaba who got caught for fraud associated with fuel and lubricant materials was sent to the scorching sun and sands of the Karakum Desert to expiate his guilt before the state in a high-security prison. The inevitability of punishment caused no doubt back then. Should the same story happen nowadays, Mr. Alibaba would most likely get off lightly like most criminals who finance themselves through stealing crude oil and petroleum products from strategic pipelines, thus inflicting the damage worth hundreds of millions. Every year, out of 150-200 criminal tapping cases very few go to court, while the likelihood of fuel thieves to be put behind bars is even less, estimated at about 5%. More often the culprits get off with suspended sentences or hilarious fines. Has our state become indeed more tolerant towards oil tappers 40 years after the legendary comedy premiere?
Meanwhile the unwillingness to put an end to fuel crimes is not only fraught with huge damage, but also opens the floodgates of disastrous consequences for our society. A KP reporter tries to untangle this mess.
A private case from common practice
At the beginning of December, last year, everyday life in the village of Timofeevo in Petsovsky District of Novgorod Region was stirred by the news: 1 km away from the settlement puddles of diesel fuel were discovered. It turned out that diesel was not surfaced by itself. A criminal offshoot, which the oil tappers laid from the fuel trunk pipeline to utility structures on the village’s outskirts, suddenly burst. As usual, the diesel spill was eliminated by the pipeline owner while the police filed a criminal case.
The villagers who witnessed a trench being dug right under their fences did not blink when they asserted they did not know anything about a secret fuel storage tank. The smell of diesel and the roaring of tank trucks did not seem to rouse the district police officer to action either. They knew but kept silent. Why? Stealing from the state is not objectionable any more, is it? Or were they scared to speak because they were intimidated by the local criminal community, being hostages to the rules of the underworld? A story in Kushchevka immediately comes to mind: there local gangsters substituted local authorities and held their fellow villagers at bay for years. In this situation, one has to presume that the law destroyed by corruption has been ousted from Timofeevo. Is this why “unidentified persons” are still mentioned in the criminal case investigating this illegal tapping?
Officials have already figured that the perpetrators caused harm to the environment estimated at RUB 17 million. Will the culprits, who are guilty of this environmental ravage, ever be found? We have to admit that the prospects of this criminal case are nebulous in spite of it being under control of public authorities. Law-enforcement officials say these are cold cases, although in most cases you do not have to be Sherlock Holmes to solve them.
Is mafia immortal?
It is technically not possible to carry out illegal tapping into the pipeline alone. People, money, equipment and special devices are needed to back this criminal activity. Such crimes are committed by organised groups where each member plays a clearly defined role. Why do then all these “refulgent Dons” so seldom find themselves in the dock or are put on trial? Our legal system actually “hits tails”, punishing cogs in the machine, while real masterminds remain unseen and are very rarely detained. Responsibility for a crime perpetrated is normally assumed only by one of its participants - this “minor” is promised money and a fast release for this self-sacrifice.
This is how systematic thefts continued to occur...
Oddly enough, this scheme does not benefit criminals alone. A tacit bail exists among law-enforcement officers as well. What is the point in untangling a long criminal chain if it’s possible to put one bander in the wrong and report on a triumphant dismissal of a criminal case, thereby solving one more crime? The crime clearance rate system is still alive! Other accomplices are labelled as unknown persons at that. Derailing the investigation is not a good option after the public prosecutor has signed up. And sending a case off for reinvestigation means setting an investigator up for censure for failure to drop the file on time.
Furthermore, corruption always underpins any illegal tapping. People with shoulder straps or high-ranked officials increasingly often mastermind and instigate fuel crimes. Head of Fourth Section of Economic Security Office at the Nizhny Novgorod Directorate, Ministry of the Interior, Mr. Kislov was caught red-handed by the FSS. He was a bribery intermediary, covering up a criminal group that had stolen fuel from trunk pipelines, worth over RUB 20 million. More case studies. The Investigation Committee of Samara Region, inquiring into the criminal case of stealing crude oil from the pipeline near the Chagra station, got on the track of a sitting local MP. “Road guards” are often involved as well: GIBDD officers actually provided a crime-sponsored cover for the criminal traffic of stolen fuel on highways in Krasnoyarsk Territory and Ulyanovsk Region. Another absolutely egregious case. To fight tappers, the Ministry of the Interior established specialised units in different regions. The one in Leningrad Region was the first one. As a result, the number of tie-ins has gone down by 10 times since 2016. The success of this unit has been proudly trumpeted from all departmental grandstands. Yet this loud triumph did not last long. Last October, Police Lieutenant Mr. Antonov and Major Mr. Grechishin were arrested. The former spearheaded the section supervising the fuel and energy sector of the Economic Security Directorate at the Main Directorate of the Ministry of the Interior. The latter was his subordinate. They are suspected of collusion with the tappers who stole fuel from the oil pipelines in Vsevolozhsk District of Leningrad Region.
Corruption seems to strike everyone touching it like leprosy.
Pursuant to the statistics of Prosecutor General’s Office of Russia, about nine out of ten murder, rape and robbery cases are put on trial with malefactors getting what they deserve for offences against person. This is not the case with fuel stealth and corruption crimes. Out of nearly 200,000 corruption crimes, only 5% have come to trial. Same proportions are typical of fuel stealth crimes.
What does this lead to? The answer is not far to seek. A certain E. Antonov was sentenced to a suspended term for illegal tapping in Tyumen Region last January. This did not knock any sense into him and he walked into the same trap. Just half a year later the court passed a suspended sentence on him once again and let him go to all four corners of the earth. Most likely, to drill new holes in the pipe. They caught 13 perpetrators in Chelyabinsk Region, who had stolen 250 tonnes of crude. At the December trial, only three of them were sentenced to prison terms while most got off with suspended sentences. No wonder, oil tappers are not afraid of law or trials, openly mocking the justice which listlessly capitulates to shadow fixers, and they know it too well.
Holes in the System?
The organised nature of these crimes seems obvious, but the court needs rock-solid evidence which is too bothersome to gather. In the upshot investigative authorities seldom incriminate the involvement in organised crime, giving preference to trivial theft articles, whereas members of criminal groups are often penalised with suspended sentences and fines.
Investigative jurisdiction is another important point. Since 2018, it is the Investigative Committee that tackles investigations falling under Parts 2-5 of Article 215.3 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (damage done to a pipeline). But when similar crimes are treated under Article 30 and 158 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (attempted pilferage), this is already the Ministry of the Interior’s jurisdiction. As a result, various law-enforcement structures got a chance to redirect cases to each other or, to put it in plainer terms, to switch criminal cases from person to person, instead of cracking them.
Who Covers the Banquet Costs?
Meanwhile the pipe owners pay taxes. And they are also stakeholders of a public contract between state and society, enjoying equal rights. The contract whereby the government also undertakes to provide medical, educational and security services for citizens, putting their tax money to good use. Companies obediently transferring decent money into the treasury in the form of taxes and dividends are entitled to adequate services from the state and law-enforcement authorities, in the first place. Then why do courts and the Ministry of the Interior actually leave owners one-on-one with a host of criminals who do huge damage to the state, estimated at many millions of rubles?
The same question can be addressed to Russia’s environmental watchdog, a public oversight agency. Obviously, it is illegal tapping crimes that most often result in spills. According to Interfax, in the last year only criminal tapping caused almost two thirds of crude oil and petroleum product spills. The paradox is that the government forces the pipeline owners to recompense this damage, although the latter are seen as the victim party in such criminal cases. Meanwhile thieves guilty of fuel spills never paid for the environmental damage inflicted. On the contrary, they try to shift responsibility for oil spills caused by illegal tapping and for environmental ravage onto the pipeline company. This is to give a runaround, to put it bluntly. Why chasing a shadow, when the pipe owner is close at hand? Even if they catch criminals, this does not mean the latter have money. On the other hand, the pipe managing company definitely has lots of money. There’s no need to catch anybody. A recent example. On demand of the officialdom, the oil company paid RUB 60 million rubles for environmental ravage dome by a criminal gang in Orenburg Region. Whereas those guilty of tapping were never found. This is what was stated at the court: the oil pipeline operator allegedly failed to meet the environmental requirements, which caused an offshoot from the illegal tapping to depressurise and oil-water sludge to spill. In plain words, the operator was to carefully guard the criminal tapping to preclude a disaster. Nobody seems to be concerned that it is the stolen product that is spilled and often rather far from the pipe, to boot. In other words, if scumbags steal your car, tear half of the city to pieces while they driving it, you would be the one to pay. The environmental watchdog keeps brandishing its retributive sword as it follows the “beat the dog before the lion” maxim.
...and here is a storage tank
No One is Safe
One must not fool themselves, thinking that stealing from the pipe is just a scrape between police and criminals. Law-enforcement officials have to face the same fact over and over again: oil thieves are no noble criminals. Dealing stolen fuel under the counter, they do not hesitate to doctor it up to make extra profits, diluting it or adding toxic additives thereto. Eventually the buyers of cheap ersatz fuel do not just pay decent money for this rubbish: they later have to spend thousands of rubles on the overhaul of their engines.
Perpetrators have learned to convert aviation kerosene into an ersatz known as “heating fuel” used to heat private homes. Using this low-quality stuff, people cause irreparable damage to their health - above all, to their respiratory system. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the exudation of hazardous combustion products in the process of burning this fuel may threaten human lives and lead to tragic consequences.
Eyes Wide Shut
As reported by The Fuels and Energy Technology Development Institute, counterfeit fuel annually sold in Russia is estimated at over USD 6 billion. The revenue from fuel crimes is comparable with turnovers of arms, drugs and prostitution trafficking. The difference is that drugs trafficking or illegal guns are punished with real prison terms while oil tappers are released from custody.
It comes out that pocket thieves can be incarcerated in this country, whereas those who implement criminal schemes causing multimillion damage to the state evade responsibility. Here is just one of the examples: in three recent years, the courts of Leningrad Region have reached 21 verdicts condemning fuel crimes. Of 31 convicted only six were sentenced to real prison terms, but many have already got out of jail with clear conscience, since the relatively “comfortable” conditions of their confinement during the time of investigation were counted part of the punishment. In three recent years, the Company has exposed the total of 556 cases of illegal tapping into its trunk pipelines, committed in Russia. In the meantime, only 116 criminal cases have been heard at courts in three years with only 168 criminals sentenced to real prison terms. Most criminals receive suspended sentences and usually get back to their criminal business.
The number of criminal tie-ins into pipelines has gone down during the past year. Their number stood at 213 in 2019, with 115 suspects detained. In 2020, the number of tie-ins has dropped to 141, with 113 culprits detained by law enforcement bodies. Yet the damage from illegal tapping has grown out of all proportion. According to Interfax agency, direct and indirect losses of the pipeline owner from criminal tapping exceeded RUB 600 million last year, while for three recent years, the damage done has come close to RUB 2 billion.
As of today, the government has not yet developed a consistent concept of fighting fuel crimes. Judges read out their sentences scattered in their severity, whereas law enforcement officials cannot make up their minds about the investigative jurisdiction. By their very nature, fuel crimes are hidden from the outside and any public outcry over them is therefore a rare phenomenon. These are no murders, mugging, robberies or thefts. Yet we should think more about their social aftermaths: tappers go unpunished while our public keeps losing confidence in the law-enforcement and judicial system degraded by corruption. Any connivance of criminal elements inevitably gives birth to new crimes.