Russia loses key Western business ally in airport tragedy

Cristophe de Margerie, who died when his private jet crashed into a snow plow at a Moscow airfield last night, was CEO of France's Total energy company. It's just the latest in a string of high-profile plane crashes in Russia.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/File
Russia's then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (r.) listens to French energy giant Total CEO Christophe de Margerie after a signing ceremony at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow in March 2011. Mr. de Margerie was killed when his corporate jet collided with a snow plow Monday night at Moscow's Vnukovo Airport.

The Kremlin has lost one of its strongest Western supporters in the effort to lift US and European sanctions.

Cristophe de Margerie, CEO of France's Total energy company, perished on a Moscow airfield early Tuesday morning in one of those bizarre, murky plane crashes that seem to happen all too often in Russia.

Mr. Margerie was an outspoken opponent of Western sanctions against Russia, and his company was heavily invested in developing the giant Yamal gasfield in northwestern Siberia, together with China's CNPC and Novotek, a private Russian gas firm co-owned by heavily sanctioned Kremlin ally Gennady Timchenko.

The Yamal project, with its emphasis on helping Russia master liquified natural gas technology under Arctic conditions, is key to the Kremlin's strategy of sidestepping sanctions and remaining a strong player in global energy markets.

Margerie was leaving Russia after attending a government-sponsored investment conference. His private French-built Falcon jet reportedly hit a snowplow as it was attempting to take off from Moscow's Vnukovo 3 airport, and crashed in a ball of flames, killing all aboard.

The accident is likely to cause a political firestorm, and could have a damaging impact on Russia's plans to circumvent Western sanctions on its crucial energy sector. Margerie had been a close ally of the Kremlin, which was quick to issue condolences. He also was reportedly a personal friend of French President François Hollande.

Some experts say Margerie's death may not make much difference. "We sometimes overestimate the influence of big business over politics. They have some say in things, but politics is a world of its own," says Alexei Makarkin, director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. Moreover, Margerie's successor as Total's CEO will probably continue to defend the company's Russian investments. 

It may be a measure of just how politically sensitive the accident is that Russian investigators broke their usual rules by swiftly announcing the name of the snowplow driver, Vladimir Martynenkov, and claiming to the press that he was drunk at the time. However, Mr. Martynenkov's lawyers and family subsequently insisted he could not have been drunk, and investigators appeared to admit the accident's causes may be more complicated than first thought.

The accident will not help Russia's image as a place where, two decades after the collapse of the USSR, outward modernization still does not extend far below the surface. In recent years bizarre accidents at Russian airports have killed the Polish president, along with his entire entourage, and wiped out an entire Russian professional hockey team.

"Russia's a country of risky weather, and on top of that we have human problems, technological issues," says Dmitri Orlov, director of a think tank connected with the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. "Of course this looks bad. There should be a strong reaction from Russian authorities, and effective measures taken" to prevent any recurrence.

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