Russia’s billionaires are the best conduit to apply pressure on Putin

Sanctions are forcing Russians to queue up at ATMs, causing the ruble to crash, and strangling livelihoods across the country. But the plight of the ordinary citizen is unlikely to move Vladimir Putin, who is not exactly the most democratic of leaders.

Russia’s billionaires and oligarchs, though, may have Putin’s ear. They have enriched and empowered each other ever since Putin came to power in 2008, and Putin’s own wealth is held, in large part, in the names of these rich friends and associates.

Threatening these billionaires with targeted sanction pain may be the only way of influencing Russians who can, in turn, try to influence Putin.

Are sanctions against Russian oligarchs working?

There is no way to be sure of what the billionaires are telling Putin inside the sanctum of the Kremlin. But in public, at least, several rich Russians have begun to make anti-war noises.

On Sunday (Feb. 27), two Russian billionaires called for the conflict to end. Oleg Deripaska, an aluminum tycoon, has been sanctioned in the US since 2018, and Mikhail Fridman was newly sanctioned by the EU after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Deripaska, in a Telegram post, wanted peace talks to begin “as fast as possible.” Neither explicitly condemned Putin.

In the UK, Roman Abramovich, the oligarch who has owned Chelsea Football Club for two decades, passed the club’s “stewardship and care“ — a phrase with no clear, precise legal meaning — to Chelsea’s charitable foundation. Abramovich faces no sanctions, and he remains the owner of Chelsea; the move may be an attempt to put distance between him and the club at a time when public association with a Russian oligarch is not particularly desirable.

Evgeny Lebedev, another as-yet-unsanctioned oligarch in the UK, used the front page of his newspaper, London’s Evening Standard, to call for an end to the war. Alexei Mordashov, a steel magnate who is Russia’s richest person, said on Monday (Feb. 28) — the day he became subject to EU sanctions — that Russia and Ukraine “must do everything necessary so that a way out of this conflict is found in the very near future.”

Evening StandardEvgeny Lebedev’s Evening Standard calls for Putin to end the war.

The sincerity of these statements and gestures is open to doubt. But Russian oligarchs have spent a long time cultivating enjoying a dual life — making money out of the Russian system while living high and yachting around in the playgrounds of the West. If the danger of that life evaporating is acute enough, sanctions experts hope, the oligarchs will push to roll back the war that put them in this situation.

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