Andrey Yakunin, the son of the former head of Russian Railways Vladimir Yakunin, who is sanctioned as a "Kremlin insider", went on trial in Norway on November 29 having been accused of illegally flying drones in Norway. He faces a possible jail sentence.
Speaking via lawyers from his detention centre in Norway, Yakunin exclusively told bne IntelliNews that he was simply on holiday, touring Norway in his UK-registered yacht Firebird. He has been to Norway on holiday every year since 2016, which he shares together with photos, video and comment online in an annual blog.
But this year things went wrong after police raided his boat and arrested him in the port of Hammerfest on October 17, seizing a drone and other equipment in their search, and he has been in detention ever since.
“Initially, as mentioned, the police were in the yacht. After the initial questioning they said that ‘we would like to question you in more detail’ and asked me to follow them to the police station. After the interview at the police station, I was informed that I would be detained overnight, and subsequently I was informed that I was arrested,” Yakunin told bne IntelliNews in an exclusive interview.
Yakunin, a former fund manager and a UK citizen since 2015, was one of eight Russians that were arrested the same week. At least one of the other Russians, who were travelling separately from Yakunin, was also charged with flying drones.
Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 Norway banned all Russian nationals from operating aircraft in or over Norway, a description under which drones have been included as aircraft.
The police have not accused Yakunin of spying or any other nefarious activity; only of illegally operating aircraft in Norway.
Police have accused Yakunin of flying a drone at Svalbard, a charge that he doesn’t deny, claiming that he was unaware of the ban and hadn’t try to hide his activities.
“We never made any secret out of it. Anybody can access Firebird’s social media account and see those [drone shot] pictures there. However, when the police boarded and asked about what photo and video equipment we had, we also had absolutely no reason not to share that we had drones on board. It so happens that one of the guys in the force was very well qualified and it took us under five minutes to access system logs and check the details of all the flights which we did with the drones,” Yakunin said.
Yakunin is a fan of extreme sports and had been sailing his yacht Firebird, a 27.1-metre Oyster expedition yacht refitted for sailing in the polar regions, around the Norwegian coast since the summer, hiking, skiing and mountain climbing as part of his annual recreational trip.
Hammerfest is home to Norway’s largest LNG terminal, but the police have not suggested he flew his drone over the facility or any other restricted area. Yakunin told bne IntelliNews that he didn’t even know it was there.
“I have no idea, because I had only learned about the existence of the plant only after the investigation started. It wasn’t my intent to photograph it, so I have no reason to undertake any investigation into it; however, from my experience in Norway, usually there are exceptionally clear signs when you are entering restricted zones or zones where photography is forbidden,” Yakunin said.
A judge at the Western Finnmark District Court ordered Yakunin to be held in custody for two weeks after request by the police before the trial started. The police asked for detention based on the risk of flight, while the investigations continued.
“The man has Russian and British citizenship and is charged with violating the Sanction Act §4 for flying a drone in Norwegian territory at Svalbard,” Police Prosecutor Anja Mikkelsen Indbjør told the Barents Observer at the time of Yakunin’s arrest.
During his arraignment Yakunin argued that he had entered Norway on his British passport, that his home address is in Italy and that he should be regarded as a British citizen, fopr whom the aircraft ban would not apply. However, during the search of his yacht police report that they also found his Russian passport.
Yakunin’s lawyer, Jens Bernhard Herstad, told the Barents Observer: “He admitted flying a drone but had no reason to believe this was illegal. He is a British citizen.” This case is not about Norway’s national security, the lawyer added, but about a tourist who is passionate about extreme sports and nature.
The trial is due to last until December 2 and will be closely watched, as it has already proved controversial. The very hastily written regulations that were issued just days after the war in Ukraine started, banning all Russian indiscriminately, are so broad that the wrongdoing they are trying to prevent has not been directly addressed. While Yakunin is clearly in contravention of the regulations, jailing him needs a basis in law: some have argued that his “crime” under the regulation has simply been to be Russian, because flying a drone is not a "crime" for anyone else. That is discrimination and that runs against the Norwegian constitution.
Others have questioned the inclusion of drones in the definition of “aircraft”, which in Norwegian law is defined by the Aviation Act, which does not cover drones, Bergens Tidende, a Norwegian newspaper, said in a recent opinion piece.
“There is no legal basis for every Russian to be "apprehended" and "detained" simply because they fly a drone in Norway. It is a different issue that it is forbidden, both for Russians and others, to use drones in ways that violate or threaten Norway's independence, security or other national interests,” Tidende wrote.
There is a problem with the fact that Yakunin has been formally charged with “violation of the sanctions act threatening the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine”, according to him. Yakunin has not been charged with espionage, but simply with flying drones, which does not formally fall under any of EU sanctions on Russia.
“According to the EU legal regulations that form the basis for the sanction provision, it is not prohibited for Russians to use smaller drones. It can be argued that the EU sanctions regulation has a broader concept of aircraft than the Norwegian Aviation Act, but uncertified drones do not need to be registered in the EU either. Smaller drones that are not to be certified therefore fall outside the scope of EU sanctions rules,” Tidende added.
Although there are larger drones that do need to be registered, Yakunin used a lightweight DJI Mavic 2 recreational drone that doesn’t, and it can be easily bought online without restriction. He also has a valid drone operator's licence and pilot ID.
Yakunin’s lawyers clarified that “he has only admitted to the fact of flying a recreational drone on Svalbard, not that he was wrong to do so. He used the drone for photography and scouting of mountaineering routes, activities he could not have reasonably been expected to know were illegal given the lack of clear regulation around recreational drone flight.”
Yakunin claims that his trip to Norway was purely recreational and even hired a tour guide, Massimo Candolini, to make the arrangements, including getting the official permission to sail his yacht in the waters around Svalbard and other places along the coast they visited.
“Svalbard is a demilitarised zone and [it] is very well known [among] outdoor enthusiasts and adventurers… [for] any foreign flag vessel to visit Svalbard, it requires receiving the appropriate authorisation from the local government, the Sysselmann [district commissioner],” Yakunin told bne IntelliNews. “The authorisation is split into cruising and shore side. We had Massimo, who is a mountain guide and instructor who taught me a lot about how to climb safely and responsibly; [he] was the responsible person for part of our assurances.”
The Arctic is a very fragile habitat and what the Sysselmann does is to limit the number of tourists to protect the environment, especially the wildlife sanctuaries, so access is strictly regulated. Yakunin says that Firebird and its crew had all the necessary permits to travel through the area.
Because of the danger of a chance encounter with a polar bear the protocols demanded that Yakunin and his party were strictly supervised at all time by the tour guide.
“There is an obvious issue in Svalbard, which is called the polar bears, and the safety protocol requires for good scouting, but on landing for the guide, who also has to have “eyes on”: to be the first to land and the last to step or shore into the tender to ensure the safety of all. We strictly abided by these rules for all of our time in Svalbard,” Yakunin said.
Andrey Yakunin, 47 years old, is the son of Vladimir Yakunin, a former Soviet diplomat who ran Russia Railways for a decade before being fired by Putin. Yakunin senior was placed on the US State Department’s sanctions list of Russian officials and businessmen in the first rounds of sanctions following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The UK also sanctioned Vladimir Yakunin in 2022, but on the incorrect basis that he was still the head of Russian Railways, a post he had not held for seven years at the time.
The father accumulated a large fortune, and an investigation by opposition blogger and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny revealed he owns a luxury mansion in Moscow.
The son, who founded the London-based VIYM (Venture Investments and Yield Management) fund in 2006, told bne IntelliNews in 2018 in an interview that he has raised $400mn to make multiple investments into retail, private medical services, hotels and other businesses, including a Hard Rock Café in Davos, Switzerland, from private investors – a claim Yakunin confirmed again during the interview. Andrey Yakunin denied that the money in his fund had any connection to his father. Yakunin said all his investment activity is now entirely focused on Italy.
“VIYM is a range of companies over a number of jurisdictions. The key one is our Luxembourg partnership, where I remain a partner, even though with the participation of some London colleagues, my share now is under 25%, as I’m focused much more on the Italian project right now… I stepped down from our advisory business in London and the partners there are actually the people who are doing the work and keeping that partnership growing… My number one occupation is the development of our Antognolla Resort and Residences [in Italy], which will be operated by Six Senses.”
Yakunin senior left his position as a the head of a large state-owned comapny and told bne IntelliNews separately on the sidelines of the Dialogue of the Civilisations conference he organises in Rhodes that he has nothing to do with politics since stepping down from the railway company, and spends the majority of his time in academia.
Whatever the ties to the Kremlin the father may still retain, the son has been an outspoken critic of the war in Ukraine and made the headlines in Russian opposition media by publicly opposing the war and previously reportedly added that he had “never voted for Putin.”
“I was one of the first to go publicly on record with my position along with a lot of my friends when the hostilities broke out. If anything, over the time since then, I have grown stronger in my position and see no reason to re-evaluate,” Yakunin told bne IntelliNews.
When asked if he believes the position of the Kremlin that it has the right to annex the Donbas and four Ukrainian regions in September, he replied: “I don’t think that any nation has the right for such action, Russia is no exception.”
Yakunin seems to have been caught up in a wider operation to arrest Russians in Norway flying drones in contravention of the new regulations
“One of the disappointing things is that the reason for the operational boarding and investigation of Firebird has never been presented to us either,” Yakunin said. “However, the persistence of the police asking if I have anything to prove that I have a Russian nationality alongside my British one does hint that there was certain interest, and as I have no reason to keep a copy of my Russian passport on board in Firebird, it took a while to establish… No reason or explanation was given for the investigation.”
The new rules were issued by the Norwegian civil aviation authority immediately after the invasion of Ukraine and came into effect on February 28. The ban on using drones is explicitly mentioned in the regulations that also explicitly include a ban on operating aircraft over Svalbard, Jan Mayen and the Norwegian mainland.
Jonas Gahr Støre, the Norwegian prime minister, last month blamed foreign intelligence services for drone sightings at offshore oil and gas fields and Norwegian airports. “It is not acceptable that foreign intelligence is flying drones over Norwegian airports and defences. Russians are not allowed to fly drones in Norway,” the Guardian reported.
Russia’s Embassy in Oslo belatedly issued a warning on its Facebook page at the end of the same week after Yakunin’s arrest advising its citizens going to Norway for tourism purposes to avoid bringing expensive photo and video equipment, as well as not to take images of Norwegian infrastructure.
Six other Russian passport holders were arrested in similar circumstances – four in Mosjøen, one in Tromsø and one in Kirkenes, the Barents Times reports – before Yakunin’s arrest and have also been held in detention ahead of trials starting this week.
An eighth Russian was detained at the Storskog border checkpoint as he was leaving Norway. The police reportedly found two drones in his luggage and many hours of recordings from different places in the country.
Yakunin says he has no connection to these people and doesn’t know them, although he has been following their cases. “Last week there was a court decision in another case in the south where the charged person is apparently a travel blogger and another person is a mining inspector, a yachting mountaineer, and a real estate man. I can hardly see any pattern between us,” Yakunin said.
Yakunin says that regulations could be interpreted to include a ban on other nationalities from flying recreational drones, but the charges are specifically aimed at Russians.
“The way I understand it, and I think this is what we find particularly important in this case, is that I haven’t seen an argument for what I have done. The argument indeed seems to sit on what I am: i.e. Russian born,” Yakunin said.
“I think that even if drawing parallels to Russian spies, it is very important to recognise that there is a dramatic difference in my case. Even though I have retained my birth citizenship of Russia, the last time I was a resident or tax resident of Russia was back in 2008. Even though it is not hard to argue that I’m ethnically Russian, in the legal sense of the word, I just cannot see the ties which would justify classifying me as a Russia-connected person, and this is the advantage of the English law, because the UK sanctions act is a much better piece of legislation, much less open to such charges.”