Bernard Looney sits with Vladimir Putin and eleven sanctioned oligarchs on the board of an influential society that safeguards Russian “national identity” and organised publicity stunts for the president
Bernard Looney, the chief executive of BP, is a trustee of the Russian Geographical Society, described by President Putin as “facilitating the study of our ‘native land and its people’ in the broadest sense of the expression”.
The society was founded in 1845 under Tsar Nicholas I but was rebooted in 2009 by Putin, who personally chairs the board of trustees. Looney, 51, became a trustee in 2020, replacing his predecessor at BP, Bob Dudley, and attended a virtual meeting last year at which he was personally thanked by Putin for his contribution.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine means Looney’s role is likely to come under renewed scrutiny despite his repeated insistence that BP “sticks to business” in Russia, where it owns 19.75 per cent of state oil giant Rosneft.
President Putin has said that the Russian Geographical Society is “about much more than geography” and “has a part to play in helping to preserve the historical, cultural, and moral foundations of our life—the things that make up our national identity”.
The society was quick to open an office in Crimea shortly after its annexation, while it also funded an expedition and immediately added the peninsula to its maps of Russia.
It has also helped Putin plant a flag in the resource-rich Arctic and has run joint expeditions with the Russian Navy’s Northern Fleet, as well as providing Putin with a succession of PR opportunities to burnish his strongman credentials, analysts say.
On a 2015 visit to the Crimea, it arranged for him to descend to the depths of the Black Sea to inspect a sunken ship in a mini-submarine. Another visit to the Crimea provided Putin the opportunity to “discover” ancient artifacts.
Of the 40 trustees listed on the Society’s website, 11 are sanctioned by the US, five of whom are also sanctioned by the UK.
Marlene Laurelle, a Russia expert at George Washington University, has described its role as “reaffirming Russia’s territory and valorizing its geographical size”.
When he relaunched the society in 2009 Putin explicitly linked Russia’s geographic scale with its political muscle. “When we say great, a great country, a great state—certainly, size matters.”
In the meeting in April last year, Looney outlined to Putin’s the society’s work in the Volga Basin. Putin thanked him “for being part of the Russian Geographical Society’s activities” and said he was “satisfied with our co-operation” in a reference to BP’s shareholding in Rosneft. He said the Volga is “special for Russia, since it is a state-forming element for our country”.
BP’s active participation in the society may be part of its government relations strategy, according to Alex Nice, a fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
“The only meaningful government relations you can have, particularly in strategic sectors like oil and gas, is with Putin,” he said.
BP declined to say whether Looney would remain a trustee of the society when asked by The Times and SourceMaterial.
“Bernard Looney has been a member of its 40-strong Board of Trustees since 2020—he took over the position from BP’s previous chief executive officer Bob Dudley,” a company spokesman said. “In that time he has virtually attended one meeting of the Society, in April 2021.”