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Russia importing luxury cars from Europe through Belarus despite sanctions – Verstka.Media investigation

Despite the international sanctions, luxury cars continue to flow from Europe to Russia through Belarus, as revealed in a Verstka investigation conducted jointly with the Belarusian publication Bureau with support from the Cyber Partisans hacktivist collective. According to the journalists, since the beginning of the full-fledged war in Ukraine, Russia has imported about 1,000 premium-class European cars worth more than $100 million through Belarus. Among the imported luxury vehicles are a Rolls-Royce Cullinan crossover worth about $630,000, a Ferrari SF90 Stradale sports car worth $530,000, and a Lamborghini Urus for $430,000.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, world-class car brands declared a boycott of Russia, withdrawing from the Russian market and leaving it to Chinese manufacturers. Meanwhile, the U.S., UK, and European governments imposed sanctions on luxury items, banning all cars worth more than €50,000. The restrictions targeted the Russian elite. “Those who sustain Putin's war machine should no longer be able to enjoy their lavish lifestyle while bombs fall on innocent people in Ukraine,” stated European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

However, Belarus is exempt from sanctions, making it a convenient transit point for vehicles purchased through parallel import schemes. Some Russian companies are open about parallel importing, such as the Avtodom Group, which was among the first to start bringing European cars to Russia. The company has been importing most of its stock through Belarus. “Belarus’ primary advantage is that it’s in the same economic zone as Russia. The same customs regulations apply. Secondly, it’s a neighboring country that hasn’t been hit by sanctions as severely as Russia,” Vladimir Zhelobov, director for parallel importing at the Avtodom and AvtoSpetsTsentr groups, explained to the journalists.

Russia and Belarus form part of the Eurasian Economic Union, so there are no tariffs for moving goods between the two countries. Nevertheless, car supplies from the EU to Belarus aren’t banned, and some car brands continue to cooperate with Belarus. “European brands are present in Belarus,” added Zhelobov. “Dealers can safely resell their cars to Russia. But one has to be reasonable.”

The authors of the investigation identified over 30 Belarusian companies, including entrepreneurs associated with Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko’s close associates, that are making money on supplies of premium-class Western cars from Belarus to Russia.

Some of the largest importers of cars from Belarus are connected with Russian government agencies, the investigators say. Thus, Atlant-M Britaniya, the official representative of the British luxury car manufacturer Jaguar Land Rover in Belarus, supplied luxury cars by Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, and other brands to Russia for almost $5 million from January to October 2023. In Russia, its shareholder Sergei Savitsky is listed as a co-owner in at least 20 businesses, including Avtotsentr Atlant‑М, which offers Russians to purchase European cars on its website. Some of the companies within the group are actively cooperating with Russian government agencies. For instance, MB Izmailovo, in which Savitsky holds a 25% stake, has been working under government contracts for the last three years, supplying Military Unit 3179 – the Vityaz Special Forces Center, also known as the Rosgvardia Spetznaz, whose fighters have participated in conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, Ingushetia, North and South Ossetia.

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