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Boyar of Boxing: Why Putin’s closest ally watches over Russian boxing

Karim Zidan delves into the rise of Vladimir Putin’s closest ally, Igor Sechin, and his recent interest in boxing administration. 

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Phil Mackenzie

In late April 2017, the Boxing Federation of Russia announced the formation of a new Supreme Supervisory Board that would directly influence the structure and future development of the sport by taking over the financial affairs of the federation. The council is chaired by the head of the Russian Presidential Security Service, major-general Alexei Rubezhnoi, and is composed of other notable Kremlin figures like Timur Prokopenko, the deputy head of domestic policy in the Russian Federation, and Denis Medvedev, a representative of the Federal Tax Service in Russia. And yet the most striking and conspicuous addition to the council was that of Igor Sechin, the CEO of the Russian state oil conglomerate Rosneft and “the scariest man on earth.”

The gradual changes that led to the introduction of an executive committee made up of notable Kremlin figures began in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. While most mainstream outlets focused on the accusations of Russian state-sponsored doping programs to cheat during the Olympics, Russia was already embroiled in a second scandal specific to its boxing federation. The CEO of the federation, Yevgeny Sudakov, and head coach Aleksandr Lebzyak, were fired from their positions. Instead of electing a new president for the boxing federation, a new charter was drafted that envisaged a federation run by an executive committee known as the Supreme Supervisory Board of the Russian Boxing Federation, along with its committee chairman and secretary general. The position of president was abolished thereafter.

First came the election of the chairman, Alexei Rubezhnoi. Prior to his recent involvement in boxing administration, the major-general was promoted to head of Vladimir Putin’s presidential security service in June 2016. His primary responsibility is the physical safety of the Russian president. Interestingly, one of Rubezhnoi predecessors as head of the security detail was Evgeny Murov, who served as the president of the boxing federation between 2007-09, and was later made honorary chairman of the Supreme Supervisory Board (before charter changes) that Rubezhnoi is now responsible for. This emphasizes that the sport of boxing was never far from the Kremlin’s grasp.

The position of Secretary-General was given to Umar Kremlov, the president of ‘Patriot,’ the promotional boxing company based in Russia with a roster that includes Roy Jones Jr. and boxing brothers Fedor and Dmitry Chudinov. In total, 15 people were selected to serve on the boxing federation’s executive committee, including boxing champions like Shamil Sabirov, Gaydarbeka Gaydarbekova and Eugene Makarenko. However, it was the late addition of Igor Sechin, Putin’s right-hand man, that made matters all the more interesting.

Russia’s Darth Vader

The man who would one day become one of the wealthiest and most influential of Russia’s oligarchs began his career as a Soviet interpreter.

Fluent in Portuguese and French, Sechin’s skills led him to Mozambique, where he worked as a translator for Tekhnoexport, a foreign trade association that supplied weapons to Angola and Mozambique, as well as for the “Soviet intelligence services” in Africa. Upon his return to Russia in the 1980s, Sechin found work as a professor of foreign economic relations at Leningrad University. Through his work, the future oligarch met Vladimir Putin in 1990, who then held the position of deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. He hired Sechin the following year.

Between 1991-96, Sechin juggled positions like chief specialist and Chief of Staff to the deputy mayor. By 1996, however, the mayor of St. Petersburg that Putin served under lost his bid for re-election, a result that saw Putin relocate to Moscow to further his ambitions. Sechin continued to work as a deputy for Putin as the future president worked his way up the ranks, from the presidential property management department and the Federal Security Service (FSB) to the Kremlin as prime minister. By 1999, Putin was made acting president after Boris Yeltsin resigned, and Sechin became first deputy chief of his presidential administration.

“When I moved to Moscow, [Sechin] asked to take him with me. And I took him,” Putin wrote in his autobiography titled “First Person”.

St. Petersburg International Economic Forum Photo by Alexander Aleshkin/Epsilon/Getty Images

Sechin worked closely with Putin for the following decade. Between 2004-08, he served as a deputy chief in Putin’s administration and later as deputy prime minster following Putin’s second completed presidential term in 2008. However, he was not be a part of Putin’s administration for the president’s third stint in office in 2012, and instead transitioned to a full-time position as the president of state-owned oil giant Rosneft. Sechin had been placed as the chairman of of the board of directors in 2004 but only took on the title of president after leaving politics eight years later.

Much has been made of Sechin’s position with Rosneft. Reports suggest that he was the architect behind the demise of oil giant Yukos in 2003. Rosneft promptly swallowed Yukos’ assets after Mikhail Khodorkovsky, considered the wealthiest man in Russia at the time, was arrested, charged with fraud, and given a nine-year sentence. However, the Russian government brought new charges of embezzlement and money laundering in 2010 and his prison sentence was extended for another four years. Putin personally pardoned the diminished oligarch in 2013, though that hasn’t stopped Khodorkovsky from blaming Sechin for being the mastermind behind his demise and for plundering his oil company.

It is here that Sechin began to earn his reputation as ruthless and unrelenting. Russian media, previously unaware of the shadowy figure in Putin’s administration, began to refer to him as “Darth Vader.” He seemingly managed to bring Russia’s energy sector under government control and helped Moscow regain some of the power and sway it had lost during the initial years following the collapse of the Soviet Union. As Sechin grew to become Russia’s most powerful oil tycoon, so did the Kremlin’s sphere of influence over the energy sector and the Russian state’s economic competitiveness on an international scale.

St. Petersburg International Economic Forum Photo by Alexander Aleshkin/Epsilon/Getty Images

Sechin’s position as CEO of Rosneft has also morphed into a particularly useful political asset in the increasingly tense relationship between Russia and the United States. Sechin’s position with Rosneft allowed him to establish a relationship with Rex Tillerson, who was CEO of ExxonMobil until he became United States Secretary of State under President Donald Trump. Now one of Putin’s closest allies is a key intermediary in Russia’s attempt to improve relations with their Cold War counterpart.

If Sechin is able to re-establish economic ties with the U.S., his sphere of influence in the Kremlin will only continue to grow. And yet, the oligarch still found the time to take interest in Russian boxing and its untapped potential for diplomacy.

Boxing’s Boyar

Sechin’s involvement in boxing began in 2013 when Rosneft sponsored a heavyweight title fight between Wladimir Klitschko and Alexander Povetkin. According to Forbes, Sechin’s oil conglomerate partnered with Russian boxing promoter Andrei Ryabinsky and took on all costs associated with the contest, including the purses for both fighters.

Anything to ensure that Russia played host to the ‘Fight of the Decade.’

"We understand how important and interesting an event this will be for all boxing fans,” Sechin was quoted saying." “For all the fans, this will be a duel of two legendary athletes, two Olympic champions meeting the strongest contenders. Not only is this a bright sporting spectacle, but also a significant contribution to the sporting spirit of the younger athletes, as well as in the development of mass sports."

By Dyor, via Wikimedia Commons

The fight incurred significant costs – well over $23 million – and made minimal profits. Even less redeemable was the actual fight, which consisted of 12 sluggish rounds with little entertainment value. Sechin, who sat ringside with a scowl etched across his pointed face, did not attempt to involve himself in boxing again for another four years.

In 2017, Sechin announced his return to boxing, this time in an administrative position instead of a promotional one. Despite dozens of local articles addressing his involvement in the Supreme Supervisory Board of the Boxing Federation of Russia, his actual duties are shrouded in mystery.

It is possible that Sechin’s will represent Kremlin interests in the boxing federation, likely in the form of sports diplomacy – the desire to achieve sporting success on an international stage in order to improve relations between nations in the process. When asked what the goal of the Supreme Supervisory Board will be, chairman Alexei Rubezhnoi explained that “boxing has to become a truly global sport and such an approach will give Russia new athletes and ensure victory on the world stage."

Sechin’s purpose in boxing will likely coincide with the Kremlin’s need for state prestige and validation through sports. Organizing successful international events and moulding future stars will foster nationalistic bonds and economic ties, and distract attention from far less savoury ongoings within the country, much like the World Cup will do in the run-up to the Russian presidential elections in 2018.

The Supreme Supervisory Board has already gained support from highly controversial figures in Russian politics, including Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. Given that he routinely uses combat sports to bolster his own image, promote his political agenda, and as a distraction from horrific oppression like the reported purge of suspected homosexuals in Chechnya, his support only adds fuel to the notion that the Kremlin is looking for political gain through boxing.

“We are ready to make a worthy contribution to this noble cause,” Kadyrov wrote on Instagram.” I congratulate Alexei Rubezhnoi and wish you success and good luck."

Once a sport used by Russian boyars as mass entertainment and by Peter the Great to project masculinity and power in the Russian people, boxing could become an interesting state tool with untapped potential for the Kremlin.