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Luxury car smugglers bypass Russian sanctions via Finland

Yle journalists placed geolocation trackers on luxury cars near the Russian border, pinpointing the vehicles as they made a 5,000 km journey to a Siberian car dealership.

A box lorry tows two luxury cars on a flatbed trailer.
A Svenska Yle investigation team placed trackers on luxury cars headed into Russia to follow their journey over the border. Image: Dan Gustafsson / Yle
Yle News

Smugglers are still sending luxury cars to Russia across the Finnish border, using false documents to evade sanctions enforcement.

Reporters from Yle's Swedish language department used geolocation trackers to follow the route of the cars after they crossed the border into Russia.

According to the tracker data, the vehicles ended up at a dealership in the Siberian town of Tomsk, which would be a clear violation of EU sanctions on Russia.

A documentary about the investigative team's findings can be seen on the Finnish-language programme MOT and Spotlight, in Swedish.

Tracking the trail

A video highlighting how the journalists placed the trackers on the cars at the Vaalimaa border crossing queue.

The journalists initially received a tip that there were Russian-bound cars headed to Finland via Germany.

The investigative team suspected they would arrive at the port of Kotka before being illegally exported to Russia.

In order to see where the new high-end cars were going, the journalists headed to the Vaalimaa border crossing in southeastern Finland, where they hid geolocation trackers on two cars that were being towed behind a box lorry.

The vehicles in question were a dark blue BMW X3 and a white Lexus RX350. But the journalists suspect there may have also been a third car in the box lorry itself.

Circumventing customs

The volume of goods crossing the Russian border has fallen dramatically since the introduction of EU sanctions, so Finnish Customs have had a good deal more time to carry out inspections. Even so, authorities are not able to examine every single lorry and container going by.

"We can't inspect every load, because traffic and trade would come to a standstill," said Sami Rakshit, head of Finnish Customs' Enforcement Department.

Officially, the cars Yle tracked may have been on their way to Central Asia. For example, it would not violate sanctions to transport cars through Russia to Kazakhstan, but it would be illegal to leave them in Russia.

However, Finnish Customs has seen cases of lorry drivers having two different customs documents.

"We were shown a document saying the shipment was going to Kazakhstan, but there was also another document for Russian customs on the truck. That document showed the shipment was headed to Russia," Rakshit said.

The cars crossed into Russia the day after the trackers were put on them in Vaalimaa.

5,000 km into Russia

Map of Finland, Russia and Kazakhstan and a route from Vaalimaa to Tomsk.
Map of Finland, Russia and Kazakhstan, showing the cars' route from Vaalimaa to Tomsk. Image: Maija Hurme, Leena Luotio / Yle

The vehicles' first destination was to a St Petersburg-based forwarding company that provides clients with customs clearance help.

A few days later, the cars were taken to an area in Moscow that appeared to be a new vehicle collection depot.

Then, a few weeks later, the white Lexus was pinpointed at a car dealership in the city of Tomsk, Siberia, where it was being sold for around 100,000 euros.

The tracker on the dark-blue BMW also showed that it was moving in the same area, suggesting that it had already found a new owner.

The distance between the Finnish border and Tomsk is roughly 5,000 kilometres.

From Canada to Siberia

The white Lexus that made its way to Tomsk in Siberia from Canada.

The white Lexus that Svenska Yle followed has been for sale on a Russian car website since February this year. The car was brand new at the time, with only 27 km on the odometer. The photos in the ad were taken in Canada.

A picture showing a licence plate on the rear of the car led to the identity of the first owner in Canada, a private individual whose name appears to be Russian.

A few days after buying the car, he sold it to Deluxauto Incorporated, a Canadian export company.

But the firm denied selling cars to Russia, while a Tomsk car dealer confirmed that the white Lexus came from Canada.

Both Canada, the US and EU all have similar sanctions against Russia, making the export of new cars to Russia illegal.

"We all have to take responsibility"

A long list of companies are often involved in sending goods across the Russian border, but transport firms play a pivotal role.

There are several Russian-owned transport companies registered in Finland that deliver goods from Finnish ports to the Vaalimaa border crossing.
A handful of these companies' turnover and profits have increased sharply in the wake of Western sanctions against Russia. However, none of the firms wanted to be interviewed on the subject when reached for comment by Svenska Yle.

Finland's Foreign Minister Elina Valtonen (NCP) said something needs to be done about skirting the sanctions.

"It should not be possible. We all have to take responsibility, step up our efforts and prevent sanctions from being circumvented," she said.

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