Russian oligarchs, the impossibly rich men who are often cronies of Russian President Vladimir Putin, are not all falling in line with him during the upheaval that has followed the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
With sanctions being levied against them personally in many cases, it appears there are cracks forming in the otherwise airtight world in which they normally live, protected by their friendships and alliances with the Russian strongman.
With one of them openly offering his services as a mediator in the conflict, some others are posting messages on social media calling for peace; another even showed an image of a murdered Russian opposition figure who was killed in 2015, without any comment.
Russian oligarchs trying to walk very thin line between West, East
One oligarch, the owner of a London newspaper, even published an editorial demanding that Putin “stop this war.”
With incredibly disturbing images coming out of Ukraine, amid accusations that the Russian forces using cluster and vacuum bombs, which are banned by the Geneva Convention for use against civilians, the oligarchs appear to desire to distance themselves from the ugly reality on the ground in Ukraine.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has even touched the bubble of immense wealth that surrounds these billionaires, who made their millions and billions in Russian oil and gas and other ventures, as their yachts tied up in Mediterranean ports and their London mansions are threatened by the sanctions.
Perhaps in a lukewarm bid to hedge their bets in case — as seems likely — Putin is unable to control Ukraine for any length of time, some of these billionaires are sending out signals that they do not agree with the unprovoked aggression in Ukraine.
“It’s very cautious steps, but nevertheless you can see they are already thinking of the future and trying to save whatever they can,” says Elisabeth Schimpfössl, author of the book “Rich Russians,” in an interview with the Associated Press.
If it weren’t before, the handwriting is now clearly on the wall for the oligarchs, as President Joe Biden warned them in Tuesday’s State of the Union address that “we are joining with our European allies to find and seize your yachts, your luxury apartments, your private jets. We are coming for your ill-gotten gains.”
As the U.S., Britain and other countries declared their plans to seize their many assets and limit their ability to deposit their funds in Western banks, some of these wealthy Russians began voicing their personal opposition to the war during the past several days.
London’s Evening Standard newspaper, owned by the Russian-born Evgeny Lebedev, published a front-page statement from him imploring “President Putin, please stop this war,” next to the damning photo of a young, bloodied Ukrainian girl killed by shelling that shocked the world.
“As a Russian citizen I plead with you to stop Russians killing their Ukrainian brothers and sisters. As a British citizen I ask you to save Europe from war,” Lebedev urged. The publisher is the son of another oligarch, the former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev.
The publisher, who is known to have links to British politicians, was appointed to the UK’s House of Lords by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, had never criticized Putin previously.
But he is not alone, as three other notable oligarchs have also lent their voices to the opposition to the unprovoked war in Ukraine. Metals magnate Oleg Deripaska, Alfa Bank founder Mikhail Fridman and banker Oleg Tinkov, the owner of the Tinkoff cycling team, also called for an end to the war, according to the Associated Press.
Deripaska, the founder of the Rusal aluminum company, who is widely considered an ally of the Russian leader, wrote a post on the Telegram messaging service saying “peace is very important” and that parleys to end the war should start “as soon as possible.”
Tinkov, who made his millions as the founder of Tinkoff Bank, posted on Instagram on Monday, saying: “Innocent people are dying in Ukraine now, every day; this is unthinkable and unacceptable.”
Naturally, none of the messages made mention of Vladimir Putin directly. The same is true of London-based billionaire banker Fridman, who was the target of European Union sanctions this past week.
Fridman, who was born in the Ukraine, said that the war a “tragedy” that “should be stopped as soon as possible.” But he refused to criticize Putin openly on Tuesday, telling reporters “Hundreds of thousands of people are working for us in Russia. And you know, I don’t want to make any comments which potentially could increase their risk.”
Fridman found his voice, however, when it came to the sanctions which are meant to punish those closest to the Russian head of state, denying that he was an “enabler of Putin’s inner circle,” as the sanctions charged.
“Imposing sanctions against us here just creates enormous pressure for us personally,” Fridman said, adding “But we do not have any impact (on) political decisions at all.”
Admittedly, no one other than the Russian strongman can ultimately make the decision to stop the war; western leaders and intelligence operatives believe Putin’s inner circle is actually very small. And yes, oligarchs who have found themselves on the outs with the Kremlin have been exiled, imprisoned — and found dead.
Anatoly Chubais, one of the more prominent oligarchs who not only oversaw but profited from Russia’s privatizations during the 1990s, posted just a photo of Boris Nemtsov, a leading opposition figure who was mysteriously shot dead near the Kremlin in 2015.
Having no explanation or even a caption of any kind, it was viewed as a very powerful statement, considering its source.
Author Schimpfössl, who is a senior lecturer at Aston University in the UK, said the war and the sanctions cascading down on the oligarchs afterward have finally made it harder for this unique group of billionaires to go about their “double life” staying in favor of the Kremlin while living the life of Riley in the West, with their private schools for their children, private islands and megayachts.
“They all have blood on their hands. But nevertheless a lot of their life also is happening here,” in the West, Schimpfössl notes, adding “And having that taken away from them is extremely painful for them.
“I think it will be much more difficult for them to just be apolitical,” she explains, saying the path is a tricky one for the billionaires, “trying not to make Putin too angry while thinking into the future” and whatever regime will succeed Putin.
Roman Abramovich has stepped in to the breach much more openly than other oligarchs, as the Chelsea Football Club owner even offered to help mediate for peace in the Ukraine conflict.
Abramovich, one of the highest-profile oligarchs who has not yet been targeted for sanctions “was contacted by the Ukrainian side for support in achieving a peaceful resolution, and that he has been trying to help ever since,” a spokesman for him stated this week. However, it remains unknown just how he personally might help the peace process, while some hinted that he may have made the move in an effort to avoid sanctions.
The metals mogul who is a Putin ally, and whose net worth is thought to be over $13 billion, has stated that he will transfer control of Chelsea to the team’s own charitable foundation as a way to keep it free of sanctions.
Although the U.K. has moved in lockstep with the U.S. and European nations in placing draconian sanctions on Russian banks and closing off their skies to the country’s aircraft, and there are many wealthy Russians living and doing business in the UK, comparatively few of them been sanctioned by British authorities.
The West as a whole has done nothing to track or sanction the ill-gotten gains of many Russian oligarchs, with ranks of them buying up luxury properties in London as well as well-regarded British businesses. After establishing themselves there, they send their children to private schools, hiring rafts of “lawyers and public relations experts to keep their reputations clean,” according to the Associated Press.
Incredibly, the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International charges that Russians who have links to the Kremlin or who are accused of corruption own 1.5 billion pounds’ ($2 billion) worth of property in London alone.
But the tide appears to have turned on the impunity with which many believe the oligarchs with friends in the Kremlin go about their business in the West. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the U.K. will now “tear back the facade that those supporting Putin’s campaign of destruction have been hiding behind for so long.”
Some may just try to play off one side against the other in an attempt to keep their sumptuous livings intact. A former oligarch who spent a decade in prison after crossing President Putin says that there are very few billionaires who will truly have the courage to turn against the Russian strongman, and perhaps none of them will be able to effect change anyway in the course of the war.
“I think that many Russian oligarchs, including Roman Abramovich, are now trying to be nice to both sides,” says Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who made his millions in oil after the privatization of Russia’s oil infrastructure.
“Putin will conduct negotiations seriously only when he understands that he is stuck in Ukraine,” he told the BBC in an interview, adding “In reality, Putin will be inclined to have negotiations only if Ukraine’s defending forces and its society force him to do so.”