After the collapse of the USSR, Russian citizens gained the opportunity to freely travel abroad and conduct business worldwide. In the early post-Soviet years, Russians established numerous companies in many countries around the world. This opened unprecedented opportunities for Russian intelligence services. One of the most effective ways to infiltrate and legitimize agents of Russian intelligence into various Western structures was to send officers of the Russian intelligence services to work in Russian companies abroad. This practice has persisted to this day and significantly intensified after the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine in 2014, informs 24Brussels.
Many Russian companies abroad serve as operational centers and provide the foundation on which Moscow builds various structures of its agent network and espionage in host countries. Their tasks include executing Kremlin’s assignments in the field of propaganda and recruiting political supporters. The main goal is to recruit influence agents from among the political and cultural elites of their countries – renowned writers, politicians, scientists, artists, church officials, and others. Their activities take place legally, through publications, public speeches, and participation in Moscow-organized public events.
An example of the Kremlin’s use of commercial structures to promote its interests in the West can be seen in the Cypriot branch of the «ITERA» company and the activities of some of its leaders.
Recently, media reports, citing Forbes, stated that the founder and head of the energy company «ARETI,» billionaire Igor Makarov, renounced his Russian citizenship. Makarov retained Cypriot citizenship, which, according to Politis, he obtained in 2020 in exchange for investments in the country’s economy. Politis also reported that the businessman’s name appeared on a list of 34 «suspicious» episodes of granting Cypriot citizenship in exchange for investments.
After the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces, Makarov fell under sanctions imposed by Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and Canada.
The history of Makarov’s company illustrates how easily and actively Russian intelligence services use commercial structures as operational centers and sources of financing for their activities abroad.
The international group of companies «ITERA» was founded in 1992. In 2013, Makarov sold his gas assets to «Rosneft,» after which «ITERA» changed its name to «ARETI.»
In the same year 1992, Makarov registered a branch of his American company, ITERA International Energy L.L.C., in Cyprus. One of the founders (holding 0.167% of shares) and the executive director of the new company was a person named Yuri Dmitrievich Pyanykh. Since 2002, he has been a member of the Board of Directors of LLC «Neftgasovaya kompaniya «ITERA.»
The history of this «businessman in civilian clothes» serves as a classic example of a long and successful career of an officer of Soviet/Russian intelligence, first under diplomatic cover and then under commercial cover.
According to open sources, Yuri Pyanykh was born in 1952. In 1976, he graduated from the physics and technology institute, majoring in radioelectronics. Right after that, he started working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the USSR, holding various positions. It is worth asking the question: do technical institutes train career diplomats in the field of radioelectronics? No, they produce radio-electronics engineers.
Moreover, it is known that many graduates of technical universities worked in Soviet intelligence and are currently working for Russian intelligence under diplomatic cover.
In the official biography of Pyanykh, it is stated that he held various positions in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the USSR, but the specific positions are not mentioned. In the absence of information about his diplomatic career, this entry in Pyanykh’s official biography unequivocally points to his activities as an intelligence officer under diplomatic cover.
During his «work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the USSR,» Pyanykh became an experienced parachutist and diver – skills that would be essential for a Soviet «diplomat in civilian clothes.»
Employees of intelligence agencies are trained in various educational institutions, not only in the academies of the FSB and GRU (Military Academy of the Ministry of Defense). These include MGIMO, historical and journalism faculties of MGU, the Academy of Foreign Trade, Military Institute of the Ministry of Defense (formerly Military Institute of Foreign Languages), Institute of Asian and African Countries. Practically all educational institutions that prepare people for work abroad have connections with intelligence agencies.
Technical universities in Russia also train intelligence personnel. Former Soviet illegal spy Sergei Zhirnov told our publication that graduates of technical universities were recruited by the KGB and GRU for conducting radio electronic intelligence and servicing spy equipment. Those who were planned to be sent to work abroad under diplomatic cover were enlisted in the staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Soviet foreign representations in international organizations. They then underwent training at the KGB Academy (now FSB) or GRU Academy (Military Academy of the Ministry of Defense) and were later deployed to their foreign posts. In February 1987, Yuri Pyanykh was sent to Nicosia as the Second Secretary of the Soviet Embassy and later Russian Embassy in Cyprus, holding the position of Economic Advisor. It should be noted that depending on the host country, the position of Economic Advisor in Soviet and currently Russian embassies was assigned to one of the two Soviet intelligence agencies (KGB or GRU), and now it is assigned to one of the two Russian intelligence agencies (SVR, GRU).
Pyanykh served in this position until 1992. While working as an «economic advisor» at the Russian diplomatic representation, he organized a marine intelligence special operation by GRU undercover, studying the seabed around Cyprus. Under the guise of a scientific expedition to explore the Mediterranean Sea floor, the «researchers» gathered information about British military bases on the island. They intercepted conversations of British military personnel and observed the activity at the British RAF Akrotiri base. They also searched for underwater cables and, according to some information, connected surveillance equipment to them. They studied the interference immunity of British communication lines and listened to conversations of Turkish, Israeli, and Egyptian fleets, collecting information about them. Together with the Soviet Ambassador to Cyprus, Yuri Fokin, Pyanykh organized the operation of a military floating hospital off the coast of Cyprus. Under the guise of treating patients, this ship collected intelligence while anchored at Larnaca. From this position, they conveniently monitored the British military base in Dhekelia and the ships entering the port.
In 1992, Russian citizen Igor Makarov established the Cypriot branch of ITERA International Energy L.L.C. Meanwhile, Yuri Pyanykh, an engineer specialized in radio electronics by education, had recently worked as a diplomat at the Russian embassy and had no prior experience in business. Yet, during the same period, he abruptly ended his diplomatic career and joined «ITERA,» becoming its executive director miraculously. As we can see, entrepreneurial experience is not required for working in Russian companies abroad. Instead, other types of experience are sought after.
With the knowledge of the methods and working style of Russian intelligence agencies, there are no doubts that Pyanykh changed his workplace based on orders from his superiors in Moscow. Otherwise, his rapid transition from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to a high position in a company with which he had no prior connection cannot be explained.
It’s worth noting that ITERA was founded by immigrants from Turkmenistan — Igor Makarov and Valery Otchertsov (Deputy Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Turkmenistan). Pyanykh was a stranger to them. Likely, including Pyanykh on the company’s board of directors was a condition for registering ITERA under the jurisdiction of Cyprus. This is a common practice in Russia — in all major Russian companies, several officers from intelligence services, mainly from the active reserve, are brought into the board of directors.
In the terminology of the KGB-FSB, the «active reserve» or «Apparatus of Assigned Officers of the FSB» (APS FSB) refers to «officers of state security who are embedded in various state, scientific, civil, commercial, and religious institutions and organizations.» Retired personnel of the intelligence services are also actively used. Officers of the active reserve are assigned to important facilities, enterprises, institutions, institutes, businesses, etc. They remain part of their unit but are directed to work in civilian institutions. While holding their official positions, their main task is to carry out activities in the interests of the state security agencies.
During the establishment of «ITERA» on Cyprus, Yuri Pyanykh was not in the active reserve but was an active intelligence officer operating under diplomatic cover. It is likely that Pyanykh was appointed as the executive director to control the company’s activities and use it in the interests of the intelligence services. Alongside Pyanykh, Colonel Viktor Dmitrievich Shvets, born in 1945, joined the board of directors of «ITERA» and assumed the position of the head of the company’s security service.
From this point, Pyanykh, while being the leader of a commercial company, started engaging in active public and political activities on Cyprus. Working together with the Russian embassy, he participated in creating an agent center for Russian intelligence under the cover of the Russian Orthodox Church. In the early ’90s, thanks to Pyanykh’s efforts and the Russian Ambassador Georgy Muradov, a Russian Orthodox parish was established in Limassol. At some point, it was led by Father Viktor Zogiy, who European intelligence services identified as a career officer of the KGB’s First Chief Directorate (PGU). When it became clear that he was exposed, Zogiy hastily left Cyprus.
In 1997, Pyanykh, together with his former colleague from the Soviet embassy in Nicosia, Valery Gusev, who also became a «businessman» with a Cypriot passport, established a foundation for the construction of a Russian church in Limassol. Pyanykh became the director of the foundation, and the co-chairman of the board of trustees was Sergei Naryshkin, who currently leads Russia’s foreign intelligence service.
In February 1995, Yuri Pyanykh founded and became the president of the «Association of Russian Businessmen in Cyprus.» Some sources claim that Pyanykh, on behalf of the Russian authorities, controls all Russian businesses on the island. Allegedly, all Russian businessmen, in one way or another, follow his orders, recommendations, instructions, and commands. According to an informed source, «Pyanykh can create insurmountable obstacles for doing business on the island. He is the controller of Russian authorities on Cyprus, together with the Russian ambassador. In a way, Pyanykh is more influential than the ambassador because the latter is limited by diplomatic constraints, while Pyanykh is not limited by anything.»
Yuri Pyanykh, being a Cypriot citizen, is involved in the activities of all Russian structures on Cyprus and holds positions in the leadership of numerous associations, councils, and foundations created and financed by Moscow. Some of these entities camouflage themselves as public organizations, simulating cultural and scientific activities. Their main objectives are to find new allies in Western countries and recruit emigrants from the former USSR and Russia. Another part of these structures aims to exert influence on the government of Cyprus.
Since 1998, Pyanykh has been a part of the Russian-Cypriot intergovernmental commission on economic cooperation as an expert. This structure primarily deals with coordinating efforts to hide illicit Russian capital in Cypriot banks, providing favorable conditions for Russian companies operating in Cyprus, and finding ways to evade sanctions against Russia. Cypriot citizen Yuri Pyanykh effectively advocates Russia’s interests within this commission and allegedly wields significant influence over Cypriot officials.
He is involved in organizing and financing pro-Russian events. For example, Pyanykh provided funds for organizing the annual Kremlin-backed propaganda event «Immortal Regiment» in Cyprus. This was revealed by pro-Russian activist Lyudmila Chuykova in 2019 when she complained that the Russian cultural center had taken away her right to organize and conduct «Immortal Regiment» events in Larnaca.
Since 2002, Yuri Pyanykh has been a member of the Presidium and Governing Board of the International Council of Russian Compatriots, an organization funded by the Russian budget and created by order of Putin. The primary task of this organization is to form Kremlin’s fifth columns in countries with significant Russian-speaking populations.
Since 2003, Pyanykh has been a member of the Presidium of the Russian-Arab Business Council established by KGB General Yevgeny Primakov. RADС was formed as a division of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and serves as a tool for Kremlin’s influence in the Middle Eastern countries. Among others, Pyanykh is joined by the head of Rostec, Sergey Chemezov (under sanctions), the president of VTB Bank, Andrey Kostin (under sanctions), and a member of the RSPP Board, Sergey Pumpyansky (under sanctions), along with many other participants in Putin’s crimes.
In March 2004, during the presidential elections in Russia, Pyanykh set up a polling station in a building owned by «ITERA.»
In 2007, he became a member of the World Coordination Council of Russian Compatriots Living Abroad (VKSRС). This organization serves as the executive body of the World Congress of Russian Compatriots (VKRС), which, according to its charter, is meant to «facilitate the interaction of compatriots with the state authorities of the Russian Federation and the state authorities of the subjects of the Russian Federation.» The interaction of emigrants with the Russian authorities is mainly related to their recruitment, which is a direct task of the special services. VKRС was created by the Kremlin as a mechanism to spread and strengthen its influence in the world through Russian diasporas. The branch councils of Russian compatriots that originated from it have become channels for spreading Kremlin’s propaganda and disinformation. Through them, Moscow instills distrust in democratic institutions, divides free societies from within, manipulates public opinion, and sows doubt about freely elected governments, liberal values, and open societies.
Following these events, Pyanykh created the «Coordination Council of Russian Compatriots of Cyprus (KSRСK)» on Cyprus and became its permanent member.
«Branching out new fake public organizations from the old ones is a typical method used by Russian intelligence services abroad.» — Dmitry Khmelnytsky.
Originally, the office of KSRCK was located within the territory of the Russian Embassy in Nicosia, where their meetings were held. A few years ago, KSRCK moved to the premises of the «Vestnik Kipra» newspaper, which serves as a mouthpiece for Kremlin’s propaganda. The editor of this newspaper, Natalya Kardash, is a member of KSRCK and the World Association of Russian Press (VARP), a subdivision of Russia’s foreign intelligence and a tool for Kremlin’s influence. She closely collaborates with Pyanykh, and knowledgeable individuals assert that Pyanykh played a direct role in the creation of «Vestnik Kipra.»
Pyanykh appointed Igor Nasonov, a citizen of Cyprus and Russia, and the chairman of the association of Russian-speaking residents of Cyprus, «Horizon,» as the head of KSRCK. Last year, Nasonov was replaced by Dmitry Apraksin, also a citizen of Russia and Cyprus, who is a professor at the University of Nicosia. Nasonov and Apraksin only lead KSRCK formally; the real leader of this fake organization is Yuri Pyanykh.
The activities of KSRCK are managed and financed from Moscow. Since February of the previous year, KSRCK has become the official organizer of numerous propaganda campaigns in support of Russia, Putin, and the crimes of the Russian army in Ukraine. It is evident that all of this was done under Moscow’s instructions, with the Russian Embassy and the Russian Cultural Center in Nicosia being the main organizers. However, the mechanism for preparing and conducting these events was created and put into action by Yuri Pyanykh.
During these events, speakers propagated lies from Russian propaganda, Kremlin’s disinformation, and wild conspiracy theories. Their speeches were broadcasted on local television, and the texts of their speeches were published in the media and distributed through social networks. The speakers allowed themselves to publicly criticize the authorities of Cyprus and the EU, accusing the West of satanism (Putin’s favorite thesis) and claiming that the democratic West attacked Russia, forcing it to defend itself and engage in a defensive war. All of these statements were publicly made by the chairman of KSRCK, Dmitry Apraksin, and other members of this organization during mass actions in support of Russia.
Notably, in authoritarian countries, Russian compatriot coordination councils behave differently. For example, in Turkey, KSRCK does not criticize the country’s authorities and does not question the «values of Turkish democracy.» On the contrary, it praises Erdogan and his achievements.
An informed source, on the condition of anonymity, informed our publication that KSRCK receives financial assistance from Russian companies and businessmen operating in Cyprus, including «Itera.» Recently, the number of sponsors for KSRCK and its structures has increased due to Russian IT companies relocating to Cyprus after the imposition of sanctions against Russia for its military invasion of Ukraine. Many of these companies continue to work in the interests of the Russian government, taking advantage of being in European jurisdiction.
In 2008, Pyanykh, on behalf of ARBK, organized a vacation in Cyprus for the families of deceased FSB «Alpha» special forces personnel, for which he received gratitude from the leadership of the «Alpha-Center» foundation, one of the pockets of the FSB.
Pyanykh actively participates in the organization of all official events under the auspices of the Russian Embassy or the Russian Cultural Center. He can always be seen at meetings with Russian official delegations visiting Cyprus. Together with Natalya Kardash, he organizes and finances annual Cyprus-Russian festivals in Limassol, as well as celebrations of Slavic literature and culture, among other events.
These events are financed from the Russian budget and sponsored by businessmen and companies close to the Kremlin, such as «Itera.» All of this activity has nothing to do with culture and serves as a special operation to spread Kremlin propaganda, strengthen influence, and recruit agents among the local population.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of organizations, events, and activities that Yuri Pyanykh is involved in. However, it is enough to understand the depth of his penetration into the socio-political life of the island and the strength of his influence on ongoing processes.
There is no doubt that «Itera» was engaged in commercial activities. However, there is also no doubt that this company is being used by Moscow and its intelligence services as a cover and a financial source for espionage and influence within the Republic of Cyprus. Renouncing the Russian citizenship of its founder changes nothing and only strengthens the camouflage and possibilities for the Kremlin in an EU member state.