FINLAND’S POLICE RAID JAMES BOND-ESQUE PRIVATE ISLAND – Finnish authorities said it was all about money laundering, but the island’s strategic location, multiple docks, helipad, security cameras, motion detectors + more suggest otherwise
ABOVE – A passport photo of Pavel Melnikov who holds Russian, Latvian + Maltese citizenships
BELOW – A satellite image of Sakkiluoto/Sackilot island, festooned with docks, from 2015. The helipad is on its eastern shore
BELOW – A helipad has been constructed on Sakkiluoto island
BELOW – One of the Turku premises raided by the Finnish NBI
For more than a month, a mystery of sorts that sounds ripped straight out of a Hollywood spy thriller has been brewing in Finland. Officially, Finnish authorities are investigating a Russian real estate company over money laundering, but a lack of information about the case has led to widespread speculation that the firm was actually buying up land and setting up covert facilities to support Russia’s spies during peacetime and special operations forces during a potential crisis.
On Sept. 22, 2018, Finland’s Keskusrikospoliisi (KRP), or National Bureau of Investigation, similar in certain functions to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, led a raid on the private island of Sakkiluoto, also known as Sackilot, which Russian businessman Pavel Melnikov owns through his Finnish-based company Airiston Helmi. Local police, Finnish border guard, Finland’s national customs agency, and the Finnish Defense Forces all took part in the massive operation, which also targeted 16 other sites linked to Melnikov and his associates.
In total, more than 400 personnel took part in the operation, including 100 from the KRP alone. Helicopters and a Dornier Do-228 surveillance plane watched overhead and authorities put a no-fly-zone into place over the Turku Archipelago where Sakkiluoto is situated.
“I thought: ‘Wow! That is certainly unusual,’” Leo Gastgivar, a retiree who lives on a neighboring island to Sakkiluoto and witnessed the raid there, told The New York Times for a story that outlet published on Oct. 31, 2018. “Nobody ever visits that place.”
But the assault on Sakkiluoto, which armed, fatigue-clad police tactical units in small boats carried out, is just one of the unusual things about the entire situation. Since Melnikov purchased the island, workers have built a total of nine docks, a helipad, barracks-like housing, security cameras, and motion detectors, all without any apparent specific purpose.
At the end of the day, Finnish authorities arrested just two unnamed individuals, a Russian – not Melnikov, who is reportedly back in St. Petersburg – and an unnamed Estonian of Russian extraction. The KRP also said they seized cash in various currencies, including $3.5 million worth of Euros. They also recovered computers and flash drives containing a reported 100 terabytes of data, according to The Times, which noted that this was equivalent to 50 times the print collection of the U.S. Library of Congress.
Finnish national authorities gave no advance notice of the operation to Patrik Nygren, the mayor of Parainen, which acts as the archipelago’s administrative hub. Finnish media reported, citing an unnamed military source, that both the Finnish Defense Forces and the Suojelupoliisi (SUPO), or the Finnish Security Intelligence Service, one of Finland’s top counter-intelligence arms, had been monitoring Airiston Helmi’s activities for some time. In 2016, the country’s state broadcaster, Yle, reported that Russians making large real estate purchases in Finland had raised suspicions within the Finnish government and suggested that the Kremlin could be engaged in a “hybrid warfare” campaign.
Airiston Helmi, and its supposed owner Melnikov, are equally enigmatic and sound like something intended for a James Bond movie. In publicly available corporate filings he has listed his citizenship as Russian, Latvian, and Maltese, the last of which sells citizenship. He reportedly also has legal residency in Hungary and passports from three unnamed Caribbean nations.
Melnikov is no longer listed as the head of the company, with an unnamed Italian businessman running the operation. The Times says that individual told them he had only taken the post “as a favor to a businessman he knows from Russia.” The company itself is formally owned by a series of shell companies based in popular tax havens such as the British Virgin Islands.
Oh, and did we mention that Airiston Helmi has never publicly turned a profit since its founding in 2007, despite millions of Euros in investment capital and a spending spree on property and equipment that includes not only Sakkiluoto and its facilities, but a pair of surplus Finnish Navy watercraft? The company owns a former workboat, which features a front-loading ramp like a landing craft and is presently configured as a floating sauna, and another small launch.
“There are no commercial grounds for acquiring land, but the roads are strategically important and their military significance is considerable,” Tom Packalen, a member of Finland’s parliament and a former police officer wrote in a blog post on the website of the Finnish newspaper Uusi Soumi on Sept. 24, 2018. “If Airiston Helmi is a truly commercial company, it’s run by really bad business people or it’s money laundering, which led police to lead a massive operation on the site.”
Herein lies the crux of the present public debate. It is entirely possible that Melnikov and partners have been using Airiston Helmi to launder money. It’s also possible that the Russian and his firm are a front for the Russian government in some way and are perhaps covering for various intelligence and paramilitary activities in Finland.
The Turku Archipelago, in particular, is highly strategic, containing major ports that are as physically separated from Russian territory, and therefore the threat of attack. These facilities are critical to Finland’s peacetime economy and would be of critical military value in a crisis.
The city of Naantali, which is on the Finnish mainland at one end of the archipelago, is also home to one of the country’s two major oil refineries, which has a daily output of 50,000 barrels of processed fuel. All of this would be of significant interest to Russia’s intelligence services and would be ideal targets to disrupt Finland’s economy or hamper its response to a military confrontation.
Finland, along with its neighbor Sweden, has long sought to chart a neutral course in regional geopolitics. This has become increasingly more difficult given its desire for closer ties with the West, which has drawn fierce criticismfrom the Kremlin.
After Russia’s illegal seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014 and the Kremlin’s subsequent support for separatists fighting the central government in Kiev, the Finnish government became even more concerned about what might happen if it found itself embroiled in a serious political crisis with the Russians.
In July 2018, Russian special operations forces executed a mock airborne raidon facilities on Gogland Island, which is Russian territory, further to the east in the Gulf of Finland. The drill had all the hallmarks of the Kremlin’s lightning takeover of Crimea. Many observers interpreted this as a signal to NATO- and non-NATO countries, especially in the Baltic region and in Scandinavia, ahead of U.S. President Donald Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Finnish capital Helsinki.
It is actions like this that have pushed Finland further toward the West and has prompted the country’s government to suggest it could be interested in joining NATO, drawing even stronger rebukes from Russia. Finland is presently taking part in the Alliance’s Exercise Trident Juncture in and around Norway, which is the largest NATO-led drill in decades.
It’s also why Russia might want an insurance policy of sorts already in place in the form of nebulous non-state actors such as Melnikov. Putin is widely understood to use a network debatably legal connections, including through powerful Russian oligarchs, to support clandestine or malign activities abroad.
The facilities on Sakkiluoto could give the Kremlin a physical lily pad from which to stage various intelligence and para-military operations inside Finland, which the Russians have become increasingly willing to launch in order to advance various national interests. In principle, the island would be an ideal place to covertly insert personnel, especially via small submarines.
Just this year, agents from Russia’s GRU, the country’s main military intelligence agency, attempted to assassinate former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal, who now lives in the United Kingdom, with a nerve agent, killing an innocent bystander in the process. More recently, the Kremlin’s operatives sought to hack into the computer networks at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) at The Hague in The Netherlands, which is helping investigate the Skripal case.
All that being said, though, there’s still no firm evidence yet that the raids on properties linked to Airiston Helmi had to do with anything but money laundering as the KRP has insisted. Finnish authorities have been tight-lipped about the investigation. Finland’s geography means that the Finnish Defense Forces often aid police operations with transportation and logistics support. SUPO is part of the Ministry of the Interior and often works with the KRP, as well. So the involvement of these organizations does not automatically point to something more sinister.
“It should also be remembered that money laundering is in itself a lucrative business, and there are a numerous reasons for people to want somewhere to stay for a night or two without having to sign a hotel ledger,” Robin Haggblom, a Finnish military observer who writes a blog under the name Corporal Frisk, wrote on Sept. 23, 2018. “On the other hand, the Russian cleptocracy [sic; kleptocracy] makes the dividing lines between crooks, spies, and businessmen somewhat blurred, and even if Airiston Helmi would prove to be a non-political criminal enterprise (it should be noted that no-one is convicted of anything as of yet), it isn’t beyond the realms of imagination for the GRU to call in a favour every now and then.”
We’ll definitely be keeping a close eye out for any new information about this mysterious situation in the Turku Archipelago.
BACKGROUND: Russian with Maltese citizenship in €10m money laundering probe has Tigné residence
Russian businessman Pavel Melnikov, a Maltese citizen, is at the centre of a Finnish money laundering probe after buying land and property in the Turku region.
A Russian national with Maltese citizenship has been identified as the subject of a Finnish criminal investigation on money laundering.
The businessman, Pavel Eduardovic Melnikov, was said to be a resident of Hungary, but has a residence in Malta at Fort Cambridge, Tigné.
He has been reportedly buying up islands and land from around the Turku archipelago, a strategic military point in southwest Finland close to Russia, through the Finnish company Ariston Helmi.
A massive police investigation was underway this week as dozens of strategic developments constructed by the company Ariston Helmi – helipads, quays and bridges and connecting roads – were built over a period of seven years at a cost of €9.2 million.
Now finnish national police are suspecting a “colossal operation” of money laundering, which has led to the arrest of two individuals and seven other questioned, as well as the seizure of military vessels procured by the Finnish company.
The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) carried out an extensive search of many business premises linked to the company suspected of running a money laundering operation dealing in millions of euros, and utilizing illegal labour. The NBI said it has been carrying out a preliminary investigation into the case for months with the assistance of the Tax Administration. “Preliminary investigation of the case has led to suspicions of aggravated money laundering and aggravated tax fraud, among other things. Ownership of the limited company in question has been traced to another EU country, and people from several countries have been questioned,” said NBI inspector Markku Ranta-aho.
The NBI has enlisted the help of the Finnish Border Guard and the Southwest Finland Police Department in the massive search operation, which has included over 100 officers.
Ranta-aho says a ban on air traffic in the region is in effect for the duration of the search operation, and maritime traffic near the areas under investigation may be limited.
and more BACKGROUND: Shota Zurabovich Shamugia
Shota Zurabovich Shamugia, 36, is a manager in Airiston Helmi. A report says that a 36-year-old Russian citizen working as an assistant to a company owner was detained in a money-laundering case.
A 36-year-old Russian citizen has been detained in Finland for money laundering. The man is an assistant to Pavel Melnikov, the owner of Airiston Helmi, iltalehti.fi reported. According to the Finnish commercial register, two 36-year-old Russians are listed as managers in the company; one of them is Shota Zurabochich Shamugia, who may be related to the thief in law Zurab Shamugia (Adu Zugdidsky), according to the CorruptionTV Telegram Channel.
Finland carried out a major sting operation on September 22; there were searches in the offices of Airiston Helmi among other places. According to CorruptionTV, the company purchased €9.200.000’s worth of land plots in the Turku district between 2007 and 2014. This is the amount as stated in the case file.
According to the Finnish commercial register, Pavel Eduardovich Melnikov, a citizen of Malta and Hungary, is the company owner. Melnikov was granted the Maltese citizenship by investment program. The company employs four other Russians, as well as citizens of Italy and Finland.
Seven people have been interrogated in the case; documents and memory sticks were seized from them. Earlier two people were reportedly detained, but no information on them was disclosed in the interests of the investigation.
The thief in law Zurab Shamugia lives in Latvia and enjoys certain dominance in the criminal circles of the country. He got jailed twice in Latvia in the 2000s, after which he decided to settle there. After the Estonian mafia boss, Nikolai Tarankov, was murdered in 2016, Shamugia’s power grew significantly. Some consider him the boss of all bosses in the Baltics.
and more BACKGROUND: On a Tiny Finnish Island, a Helipad, 9 Piers – Also computer discs + flash drives containing more than 100 terabytes of data — more than 50 times the estimated size of the entire print collection of the Library of Congress
SAKKILUOTO, Finland — Retired to a tiny island in an archipelago between Finland and Sweden, Leo Gastgivar awoke early one morning to visit the outhouse in his bathrobe, only to notice two black speedboats packed with Finnish commandos in camouflage fatigues waiting in the bay near his front door.
After an exchange of awkward greetings, Mr. Gastgivar went inside, collected a pair of binoculars and watched aghast as the commandos raced off toward the island of his nearest neighbor, a mysterious Russian businessman he had never met or even seen.
“I thought: ‘Wow! That is certainly unusual,’” Mr. Gastgivar recalled of the encounter. “Nobody ever visits that place.”
The island, Sakkiluoto, belongs to Pavel Melnikov, a 54-year-old Russian from St. Petersburg, who has dotted the property with security cameras, motion detectors and no-trespassing signs emblazoned with the picture of a fearsome-looking guard in a black balaclava. The island also has nine piers, a helipad, a swimming pool draped in camouflage netting and enough housing — all of it equipped with satellite dishes — to accommodate a small army.
The whole thing is so strange that the Sept. 22 raid, one of 17 in the same area on the same day, has stirred fevered speculation in Finland that the island’s real owner could be the Russian military. Finnish officials have attributed the raid to a crackdown on money laundering and cheating on tax and pension payments.
But few are convinced. More than 400 Finnish police officers and military personnel swooped down on Sakkiluoto and 16 other properties in western Finland linked to Russia. Helicopters and a surveillance plane provided support. The air space over the region was closed to all craft not involved in the security operation.
When Prime Minister Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia visited Helsinki, Finland’s capital, a few days after the raid, he scoffed when asked at a news conference if Russia had been preparing landing zones for military helicopters on Finnish islands.
“I don’t know in whose sick mind such a thought could be formulated,” Mr. Medvedev said. “Such thinking is paranoid.”
Yet the problem for Russia, and now also for Finland, is credibility. Moscow has denied so many strange and sinister things that have turned out to be true — or at least far more plausible than the Kremlin’s often-risible counter stories — that even the most seemingly far-fetched speculation about Russian mischief tends to acquire traction.
One former member of the Finnish Parliament, who once served as a border guard officer, has claimed without evidence that Russia had plans to build docks to service its submarines. One theory popular on social media is that the raided islands — which lie near Finnish military installations and important Baltic Sea shipping lanes — were part of an undercover operation by Russia’s military intelligence service, the G.U., formerly known as the G.R.U.
Mr. Gastgivar, for one, has long thought something curious was going on at his Russian neighbor’s island.
“I’ve been thinking for many years that they are doing something military over there,” he said. “Building, building, building, but nobody knows what for.”
Finland’s intelligence service, according to recent reports in the Finnish news media, has long warned that property purchased in Finland by Russian nationals could be used for military purposes.
During a recent visit to the island, not a soul was in sight, only clusters of deserted clapboard villas joined by wooden pathways through the forest of birch and pine that covers the island. Despite the abundant security precautions, no alarms were tripped and nobody rushed out to confront the intruders.
Yet the seafront sauna, stacked with fresh towels, looked ready for use, as did the barbecue pits and other amenities on an island that seemed like the luxurious lair of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the fictional villain of James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming.
Finland, anchored firmly in the West but wary of antagonizing Moscow, has a longstanding policy of not raising issues, at least in public, that might create friction with Russia, with which it shares an 830-mile-long border.
This approach, however, has come under strain from Russia’s increasing assertiveness. Finland, though not a member of NATO, risked Russian ire this week by sending troops to Norway to join American forces taking part in Trident Juncture, the military alliance’s largest military exercise since the end of the Cold War in 1991.
The September raids coincided with discussions in Parliament of new legislation to strengthen the powers of Finland’s intelligence service. Lawmakers are also considering prohibiting people from outside the European Union from acquiring land in strategic areas.
The biggest group of foreign property owners is from Russia, including people close to President Vladimir V. Putin.
Two people were taken into custody after the raids — an Estonian of Russian descent and a Russian — and officers seized a stash of cash in multiple currencies, including 3 million euros, or about $3.5 million. Also seized were computer discs and flash drives containing more than 100 terabytes of data — more than 50 times the estimated size of the entire print collection of the Library of Congress.
All the targeted properties were linked to Mr. Melnikov, the Russian owner of Sakkiluoto island, and a company he helped set up in 2007 called Airiston Helmi.
The company has repeatedly reshuffled its board of directors and ownership over the years, with the identity of its real owners disappearing behind opaque shell companies registered in the British Virgin Islands and other tax havens. It is now headed, at least on paper, by an Italian, who says he took the position as a favor to a businessman he knows from Russia.
It is far from clear exactly who Mr. Melnikov is. A man with the same name and birth date appears in Russian corporate and other records as the owner of six companies in Russia, including a well-known manufacturer of plumbing equipment, and as the holder of several patents related to plumbing. That man, now back in Russia at an office in St. Petersburg, declined to comment on what his assistant called “private” matters in Finland.
While investing in Finland, Mr. Melnikov operated under several different guises. Annual corporate filings variously identify him as Russian, Latvian and Maltese. Finnish news media outlets report that he also has residency in Hungary and passports from three tiny Caribbean nations that, like Malta, sell citizenship.
When Airiston Helmi first registered in Finland in 2007, the company declared itself engaged in “travel and accommodation services as well as real estate holdings and leasing/renting.”
It invested millions of euros in buying and developing property on the archipelago between Finland and Sweden but, year after year, reported a loss and had no evident source of revenue.
Kaj Karlsson, a Finnish contractor who supervised much of the construction on Sakkiluoto, said he could never work out what Mr. Melnikov was up to, especially after he started building new piers and installed a network of security cameras on an island with no people or crime.
“Usually an island has two piers, but how do you explain nine? It makes no sense,” Mr. Karlsson said. Mr. Melnikov, he added, “always made a good impression and seemed legitimate,” but never seemed very interested in getting a return on his investment.
“No way is this all about money laundering or tax evasion,” he said. “You don’t put so much effort into a money-laundering case.”
Even local officials are skeptical.
Patrik Nygren, the mayor of Parainen, the archipelago’s administrative center, said he received no advance notice and was out picking mushrooms with his family when the raids happened. The scale of the operation struck him as strange; Mr. Melnikov sometimes skirted building codes — like when he installed the helipad on Sakkiluoto — but was never threatening, the mayor said.
“Personally, I don’t think this operation was just about money laundering. There has to be something else,” he said.
Niklas Granholm, deputy director of studies at FOI, the Swedish Defense Research Agency, Division for Defense Analysis, did not rule out that the islands that were raided could have been part of a money-laundering scam. But he added that their helipads, multiple docks, barrackslike structures and location near Finnish military facilities suggested possible preparations for “some kind of hybrid warfare.”
Airiston Helmi’s seafront headquarters has a helipad and multiple surveillance cameras like Mr. Melnikov’s island, as well as a decommissioned military landing craft that has been converted into a sauna and three other vessels. Standing guard next to the main entrance of the company’s office is a fashion mannequin dressed in military fatigues with a cracked plastic head.
Its basement, according to a recent report in Iltalehti, a Finnish newspaper, contained a communications center with sophisticated equipment far beyond what an ordinary tourism or property company would need.
Thomas Willberg, a dairy farmer whose land abuts Airiston Helmi’s headquarters on the mainland, said he was asked several times by the Russian and his associates whether he would be willing to sell his cow patch. He declined.
The farmer said he met Mr. Melnikov a few times and did occasional odd jobs for him like clearing snow, but could never figure out why the Russian needed so much security equipment or what kind of business Airiston Helmi was really in.
“Finland is maybe sending a signal to our eastern neighbor that it is ready to take action if needed,” Mr. Willberg said.
Mr. Karlsson, the former construction supervisor, refused to believe that Mr. Melnikov was setting up hideaways for Russian soldiers, noting that the businessman always insisted on having large glass windows facing the sea — not a good feature to have if bullets are flying.
All the same, he conceded that he may have been naïve about Mr. Melnikov’s intentions. “He said he had fallen in love with our archipelago and could feel safe here, unlike at home in Russia. I swallowed that explanation,” Mr. Karlsson said.
“Pavel is clearly not what I thought he was,” he said. “I keep asking myself, ‘How could I have been so wrong?’”
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