Offshore firm links BBC chair to sanction-hit Russian ‘Nickel King’

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The BBC’s chair used an offshore Cayman Islands company to invest in a crypto business founded by a now sanction-hit Russian oligarch.

Richard Sharp was an early investor in Atomyze, a Swiss blockchain business established by the oligarch Vladimir Potanin. Also known as the “Nickel King”, Potanin has played ice hockey with Vladimir Putin and was one of the oligarchs summoned to the Kremlin when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Potanin was hit with sanctions by the UK government in June as part of a crackdown on “Putin’s inner circle”. The Foreign Office said the oligarch – once considered Russia’s richest man – was targeted because he “continues to amass wealth as he supports Putin’s regime”.

It is unclear how the Russian ended up in business with Sharp, a former Goldman Sachs banker and Conservative party donor who was appointed as chair of the BBC by Boris Johnson’s government.

Sharp’s previously unreported investment in the oligarch’s Atomyze crypto business was made in 2019 through a Cayman Islands company called ABCP GP Ltd. The Cayman Islands are an offshore tax haven known for publishing limited financial documents on who owns businesses.

Atomyze uses blockchain technology to trade commodities, especially metals produced by Potanin’s Nornickel company, which dominates the global market for nickel.

The future BBC chair subsequently became a company director of Atomyze for two months. Although Sharp has since stepped down from this role, Swiss corporate filings show an individual who works for Sharp’s personal investment office continues to sit on the board of directors.

There is no suggestion Sharp has breached any of the recently introduced UK government sanctions, which would prevent ongoing financial dealings with Potanin or his businesses.

Sharp was appointed BBC chair after previously giving hundreds of thousands of pounds to the Conservative party. His lengthy career in the City of London included a successful stint as a Goldman Sachs banker – where a young Rishi Sunak worked for him – before he moved into private investments and took senior roles in the British arts scene.

His personal wealth is such that he donates his £160,000-a-year salary for the part-time BBC job to charity.

Sharp, along with the BBC director general, Tim Davie, and a number of prominent BBC journalists, has been banned by the Russian government from travelling to the country since the invasion of Ukraine due to the British broadcaster’s coverage of the conflict.

A spokesperson for Sharp’s investment trust said he had “a longstanding interest in a range of emerging technology companies”. They emphasised that no sanctions had been imposed on Potanin when Sharp invested in the oligarch’s company, which is regulated by the Swiss authorities.

The spokesperson said Sharp put his investments in a blind trust – an arrangement where financial assets are managed by a third party to avoid conflicts of interests – in May 2020 after being hired as a Treasury adviser by the then chancellor, Sunak.

They added: “The arrangement was maintained after Sharp became chairman of the BBC. This blind trust has professionally managed the ABCP GP Ltd and Atomyze Switzerland interests with complete independence from Mr Sharp and at the trust’s sole discretion since its establishment.

“At the current time, the blind trust, and therefore Mr Sharp, have no financial or directorial interests in any businesses owned and controlled by Mr Potanin.”