Vladimir Putin is said to be one of the richest people in the world, but this has never been proven. Now journalists have uncovered a network of companies and organizations that appear to be guarding their assets. The key clue: they all use the mysterious LLCInvest.ru email domain.

Is Russia’s President Vladimir Putin not only a very powerful but also a very rich man? There has been plenty of evidence of this over the years. The warmonger from Moscow is said to have amassed a gigantic fortune during his many years at the helm of Russia. He is associated with a number of luxurious properties, including a massive Black Sea palace, acres of surrounding vineyards, a ski resort and a villa north of St. Petersburg.

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According to the American magazine Fortune, some experts estimated Putin’s wealth at a whopping $200 billion a few years ago. In comparison: Tesla founder Elon Musk currently leads the list of Forbes magazine. He is said to have a net worth of $219 billion. He is followed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos with $171 billion. If the experts’ assessment is correct, Putin would be one of the wealthiest people in the world.

A few years ago, the Kremlin put Putin’s annual salary at around $120,000. According to official information, he owns an 80 square meter apartment, three cars and a trailer. But even in the course of the “Panama Papers” revelations, there were doubts as to whether this information was correct. Because at that time international financial transfers were revealed, in which billions from Russia play a role. True, his name was not mentioned once in the documents. But according to the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” and the British “Guardian”, a network of letterbox companies is supposed to lead into the closest circle around the Russian President. Putin’s confidants were also listed as straw men. The “Süddeusche Zeitung” wrote at the time that they had never come so close to the trail of Putin’s money.

The problem with such statements: tracing back Putin’s possessions is anything but easy. He made sure of that. There is little public evidence of his alleged wealth. An indication can be found in a British court document from 2010. A London judge commented on a financial dispute with a shipping company. In one sentence he wrote about a meeting in a Geneva restaurant where two businessmen talked about “a yacht that Mr. Putin had been given as a gift”. However, the yacht named “Olympia” was managed by a company in Cyprus. Company records revealed that the real owner was not Putin but the Russian government.

The situation is similar with other alleged possessions of the Russian President. A thick veil has settled around her. In fact, after every major journalistic investigation, one of Putin’s old friends has come forward to claim assets linked to the Russian President as his own. Putin’s sidekick Arkady Rotenberg, for example, claimed ownership of the lavish Black Sea residence. The villa north of St. Petersburg was claimed by Sergei Rudnov. He is the son of Putin’s old friend Oleg Rudnov, who died in 2015.

Journalistic research shows that all assets associated with Putin have one thing in common: they are formally registered to companies and non-profit organizations connected by a technical infrastructure under the email domain LLCInvest.ru. This includes, for example, Villa Sellgrendas, the Black Sea Palace, the Igora ski resort in north-western Russia, several holiday homes allegedly used by Putin, and a house in a posh area near Moscow that once belonged to Putin’s daughter and her husband belonged.

Reporters from the Russian weekly Sobesednik first linked the LLCInvest.ru domain to a network of non-profit organizations founded by friends of Putin in 2017. Now, news site Meduza and Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) have found a total of 86 companies and non-profit organizations whose employees and owners are also using email addresses under this mysterious domain. They are all apparently part of the LLCInvest network. Together they have assets worth at least $4.5 billion. These include mansions, jets, yachts and bank accounts holding huge amounts.

Many of these companies have identical directors, addresses and service providers. Some are directly owned by Russian bank Rossiya. Dozens are also owned by the bank’s shareholders, including Putin’s old friend and billionaire Yuri Kovalchuk and Putin’s alleged lover Svetlana Krivonogikh.

“The only explanation I see is that these companies are linked by a common management system,” an expert on corruption in Russia told Meduza. The news site also reports that it has shared more than 100 emails with OCCRP with LLCInvest e-mail addresses, but the journalists did not receive a single reply.

The reporters also tried to reach representatives of the LLCInvest companies by phone. Four hung up immediately. The fifth, listed as a director of several LLCInvest companies, confirmed that he uses an email address on the domain that was assigned to him after he was hired. He also claimed not to know who owns the companies. “I sign the papers […] without going into the details,” he said.

The reporters from Meduza and OCCRP confronted the Kremlin with the results of their research. In response, they received this statement: “The President of the Russian Federation is in no way connected or associated with the assets and organizations you mentioned.” Bank Rossiya did not respond to a request for comment.

Much is still unknown about the LLCInvest companies at this time. For example, it’s not clear how big the LLCInvest universe actually is. Overall, however, the research provides a fascinating insight into Putin’s secret machinations. It seems like billions of dollars in assets are linked in a way that benefits the Russian President.

The Russian corruption expert told Meduza that the mere opacity of some LLCInvest holdings should be grounds for closer scrutiny. “Such opaque forms of asset ownership associated with politically influential figures indicate an increased risk of corruption and money laundering,” he said.