Can Russia’s billionaires stop Putin over Ukraine?
Russia’s billionaires: Who they are, what they own — and can they influence Vladimir Putin?

Photo illustration: Mae Decena. Sources: Mikhail Svetlov/Oleg Nikishin/Alexei Druzhinin/Sasha Mordovets/STRINGER/Picture Alliance/Getty

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Russia’s billionaires: Who they are, what they own — and can they influence Vladimir Putin?

LENSES

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Inside the Kremlin

Can they influence Putin?
360°

Russia’s billionaires: Who they are, what they own — and can they influence Vladimir Putin?

Targeting oligarchs is popular. It’s not clear it can help end a war.

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Overview

LENSES

The word is everywhere lately, in connection with the war in Ukraine and the increasingly long list of individuals being punished for their alleged ties to the Kremlin. But what exactly is an “oligarch” — a Russian one, anyway?

Technically, the term is Greek — oligarkhia — for “rule by a few.” It acquired the connotation of wealthy influencers only in the wild, no-holds-barred capitalism that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse. Say “oligarch” now and most will think: Russian, ultrarich, yachts and mansions.


Hear more from Tom Nagorski, Joshua Keating and Nikhil Kumar about this story:


Russia’s oligarchs rose from the ashes of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the end of state ownership of property and commodities. The economic program that followed was known as privatizatzya — Russian for what it sounds like: privatization, the process of redistributing ownership of all those assets that had been held by the Soviet state for more than seven decades. Privatizatzya saw a small group of entrepreneurs (itself a new class at the time) snap up state enterprises at fire-sale prices — the Soviet-era prices — which were vastly less than the true market value.

Not everyone who played the game succeeded. But given Russia’s vast supplies of oil, gas, gold, diamonds, timber and other natural resources, those who did cashed in on a grand scale. Before long, there were billionaires (in dollars, not rubles) in a society where civil servants earned a few thousand dollars a year. These newly rich would be the Russian oligarchs — faithful to the definition, in that the country really was being “ruled by a few.” It just happened to be a “few” who had rapidly become very, very rich — and politically powerful as well.

They are under a microscope now because of the war in Ukraine and their perceived connections to (and in some cases perceived influence on) Russian President Vladimir Putin, and because they are obvious targets as a raft of sanctions and other penalties are imposed against nearly all things Russian. If Russian companies, financial institutions and government officials are to be hit by the punitive measures, the thinking goes, surely these billionaire moguls should be as well.

As a tool of diplomacy, the tactic is straightforward: Pressure those with influence in Russia to change the direction of the war in Ukraine. If oligarchs are influential figures in Russian politics, sanctions are a direct way to twist their arm to get on the side of peace.

Thesis

The pursuit of the oligarchs raises fundamental questions — about the roots and nature of their wealth, the sanctions imposed against them, and their ability to influence Putin and the course of the war. Despite their enormous wealth and influence in Russian society and abroad, most of these oligarchs remain subject to the whims of Putin and the security state. Their influence and lavish lifestyles abroad are likely to diminish in the wake of the sanctions worldwide, but key questions are whether some of these billionaires may still have influence in the Kremlin — and whether they will choose to use it.

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Money Lens

The Target List

More than two dozen wealthy Russians now face sanctions imposed by Ukraine, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, Switzerland, New Zealand and the European Union. Among those sanctioned are some well-known names — perhaps most notably Roman Abramovich, owner of the Chelsea FC British soccer team.

Most are known more for their wealth and their seats atop Russia’s most powerful companies and institutions. A half dozen examples:

  • Igor Sechin, CEO of oil and gas giant Rosneft;
  • Alexey Mordashov, chairman and largest shareholder of Russian steel and mining giant Severstal;
  • Gennady Timchenko, a billionaire investor and chair of Russia’s national hockey league;
  • Alisher Usmanov, an early Facebook investor who found his fortune — estimated by Forbes at nearly $12 billion — in mining and sports;
  • Denis Bortnikov, son of the director of the Russian Federal Security Service and the head of a major state-owned bank;
  • Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s chef” (his catering business once prepared the president’s official dinners), owner of mercenary group Wagner Corporation, whose fighters are active in Africa and now in Ukraine as well.

Many of the oligarchs hold multiple passports and homes in different countries. Some do not work at all. All are phenomenally wealthy.

Grid reviewed public reports of net wealth for 13 of the sanctioned oligarchs from Forbes, Bloomberg and other sources, and found that their reported wealth — their own and their relatives’ — amounted to some $260 billion, though the actual number is likely much higher.

There were no reliable estimates of net worth for the remaining 11 Russians.

The sanctions

In announcing U.S. sanctions against several individuals on March 3, the White House justified moving against a group of wealthy Russians because they “continue supporting President Putin despite his brutal invasion of Ukraine.”

The main U.S. instrument of sanctions wielded against these individuals is the inclusion of their identities, aliases, and even companies and assets on the Treasury Department’s “Specially Designated Nationals” list. In other countries, the process may vary bureaucratically, but the effects are similar: making it a crime to transact with the named individual or any entity that individual owns. (Last year, an American financial services company was found to have violated Ukraine-related sanctions and paid $1.3 million to settle with the Treasury. A French bank paid over $8 million to settle charges that it violated Syria sanctions.)

Some of the 24 Russians whose assets are now being hunted have been on sanctions lists for years. In 2014, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the United States sanctioned Igor Shuvalov, a former deputy prime minister of Russia who amassed a fortune while in office. That year, the U.S. also sanctioned billionaire oligarch Arkady Rotenberg after his company won “high-price contracts for the Sochi Olympic Games and state-controlled Gazprom,” according to the Treasury.

Beyond a handful of seizures and frozen assets, the immediate effect of these sanctions is unclear.

Oligarch Usmanov has lost control of his superyacht, the world’s largest by tonnage; German authorities have prohibited the vessel from leaving the port in Hamburg. It’s one of four “superyachts” belonging to Russians that have been seized since the war began. French authorities seized a vessel they said was owned by Rosneft CEO Sechin, and the Italians seized two others, reportedly owned by Mordashov and Timchenko, two men considered to be in Putin’s inner circle.

Operation “KleptoCapture”

The U.S. government recently announced a new Justice Department task force to pursue sanctioned assets. The team, dubbed KleptoCapture, has announced no seizures of luxury assets to date. The government says it will also pursue financial institutions and professionals who help hide and launder illegal assets for the Russians. The Justice Department says KleptoCapture will also target cryptocurrency assets and use civil and criminal asset forfeiture authorities to claim property of any violators of the sanctions, all with the aim of punishing Russia’s economic elite.

“Oligarchs be warned: we will use every tool to freeze and seize your criminal proceeds,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco said, announcing the creation of “KleptoCapture” at the beginning of this month.

Loopholes?

Sanctions against individuals aren’t bulletproof. Banks don’t closely vet every transaction they handle, and if a sanctioned name is not obviously linked to an account or transaction, banks may not act. Anonymous shell companies, numbered cryptocurrency accounts and straw-man arrangements (i.e., having someone else make transactions on behalf of a sanctioned individual) are possible tools to evade the strictures.

Another popular strategy: moving assets to countries that don’t cooperate with sanction regimes. The United Arab Emirates has rankled Western law enforcement officials by continuing to welcome Russian wealth while keeping its financial enforcement notoriously lax.

Two superyachts owned by Russian oligarchs appeared Tuesday to be anchored in the port of Dubai: the Madame Gu, owned by the sanctioned steel magnate Andrey Skoch, and the Nirvana, owned by Vladimir Potanin, one of Russia’s wealthiest billionaires.

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Power Lens

Spreading the wealth — and influence

They may be kleptocrats. They may have become rich on ill-gotten gains and/or questionable dealings involving the Kremlin. But many Russian oligarchs have not only been welcomed in Western Europe — they have become well-respected figures in business, politics and the media as well.

A place called “Londongrad”

“Chelsea’s new boss seeks the quiet life” — that was the headline of Abramovich’s first interview after he bought the English soccer club in 2003, an acquisition that immediately catapulted the little-known businessman to the center of British public life. Although active in Russian politics as the governor of a far eastern province, Abramovich was hardly known in London. He used that first engagement with the press — a conversation with the Financial Times — to distance himself from the Kremlin, saying he had “no special relationship” with Putin.

Nearly two decades later, governments around the world are challenging that assertion — slapping sanctions on Abramovich and the others, in part because of their alleged ties to the Kremlin.

Whatever their history in Russia, many of these billionaires have had no trouble parlaying their fortunes into all-access passes to the most exclusive circles in the West, from the media to sports to politics.

Britain has been particularly welcoming. The country provided Abramovich’s springboard to prominence in the West, thanks to London’s status as a global financial center and a hub, as a recent report from the think tank Chatham House put it, for “lawyers, estate agents and wealth managers” offering services for “post-Soviet elites to hide their money and gain respectability.” The links to Russian money have run deep enough to earn parts of the city the Russian-sounding moniker: Londongrad.

Money = Influence

How much money flowed in, exactly? It’s hard to say, given lax regulations and — until now, at least — limited oversight. But the available indicators suggest colossal amounts of wealth, with almost $2 billion worth of U.K. property owned by Russians “accused of financial crime or with links to the Kremlin,” according to the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International. All told, one conservative estimate from a 2017 study pegs the total amount of Russian private wealth held abroad at $1 trillion.

“It’s very hard to get a grasp on the exact amount,” Thomas Mayne, who co-authored the Chatham House report, told Grid. But what is clear is that the money has been used to build influence.

“That’s part of their plan. They donate to charities, donate to political figures, donate to universities, in order to increase their profile,” Mayne explained. “Some of that is, you know, they just want to be the big man. But some of that is actively generating a reputation.”

Abramovich and others have succeeded despite long-running concerns about the sources of their wealth — and its connections to the corridors of power in Moscow.

“We’ve known for a long time that the guy in the Kremlin is a pretty bad guy,” Mayne said. “And we’ve known for decades that there are these men around him who have supported him and have made billions from close links to the Kremlin, and in some cases are used actively to further the Kremlin’s malign purposes. But we’ve been quite happy to take that money for 20 years.”

Abramovich established himself early in his London days as a major charitable donor. He also invested in high-end properties in central London, which, along with his investment in the Chelsea Football Club, have now been frozen by British authorities.

Others sanctioned by the British government include Oleg Deripaska, a Russian metals magnate, who is part-owner of a mining company that until recently was chaired by a former British energy minister. Deripaska has been under U.S. sanctions since 2018.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, meanwhile, is facing questions over his links to another Russian oligarch, Evgeny Lebedev, the owner of two British newspapers, whom Johnson made a member of the House of Lords in 2020. Lebedev’s official title, following his elevation: “Baron Lebedev, of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation.”

Lebedev’s wealth derives from his father, Alexander, a former KGB officer, who made his money in the banking industry, in those early days of post-Soviet capitalism in Russia. As the owner of London’s Evening Standard newspaper, Lebedev has become a fixture on the city’s social scene. But in the wake of the Ukraine invasion, Johnson has been accused of ignoring security concerns in appointing him to the British Parliament — something the government denies. Lebedev himself has insisted that “I may have a Russian name but that makes me no less a committed or proud British citizen.” Writing in the Evening Standard, he rejected insinuations that he was some “agent of Russia,” saying: “Being Russian does not automatically make one an enemy of the state, and it is crucial we do not descent into Russophobia.”

Not just Britain

Russia’s oligarchs have made major inroads in other parts of Europe.

Another prominent politician under pressure for links to the oligarchs is Gerhard Schroeder, who was Germany’s chancellor from 1998 to 2005. Schroeder sits on the board of the Russian oil giant Rosneft, led by Sechin, who has been sanctioned by the U.K., U.S. and others. Schroeder also holds a senior post at the company charged with building the recently scuttled Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Central to that project: Russian gas giant Gazprom, run by Alexei Miller, sanctioned by the U.S. several years ago. He was added to the U.K. sanctions after the Ukraine invasion.

“The gaze of many people is directed at you,” prominent members of Schroeder’s center-left Social Democrats political party said in letter addressed to him in early March, just days after Putin’s invasion began. “And you decide for yourself these days, dear Gerhard, whether you want to remain a respected Social Democrat in the future.”

In recent weeks, governments and private institutions across Europe have rushed to cut ties with Russian business, after years of cultivating close relationships. In France, former Prime Minister François Fillon has resigned from the boards of two Russian firms, including the petrochemicals giant Sibur, headed by Dmitry Konov, now under EU sanctions. Finland’s former leader Esko Aho has stepped down from the board of Sberbank, the Russian lender sanctioned in the wake of the Ukraine invasion.

Further fallout is likely as governments wade deeper into the Russia-connected cash coursing through Western capitals.

One question, as these and other efforts unfold, is whether the crackdowns will last. “It remains to be seen whether this will create a long-lasting institutional change about how we react to this kind of money, and especially kleptocratic funds in general, not just Russian funds,” Mayne told Grid. “Funds from China, Kazakhstan, Dubai and so on. We really need to use this as a force for good if we can, and change the way we view this money.”

The other question: Will the crackdown influence the Kremlin?

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Inside the Kremlin Lens

Can they influence Putin?

The taming of the oligarchs

To begin to understand the extent of the oligarchs’ influence in Russia, it helps to understand this basic fact: While these wealthy Russians have had to do what they can to stay in the Kremlin’s favor, they have generally exerted little to no influence over the government’s policies and decisions.

This wasn’t always the case. In the 1990s, the early oligarchs had significant influence over President Boris Yeltsin’s administration and used it to further their own business interests. “Politics is the most lucrative field of business in Russia. And it will be that way forever,” said billionaire Yukos Oil Company Chief Executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 1997.

When Putin replaced Yeltsin in 2000, he vowed to change things, telling a gathering of prominent oligarchs that he would deal with them “the same as with the owner of a small bakery or a shoe repair shop.”

In practice, Putin proved far harsher with some oligarchs than others. Stung by negative press coverage of the war in Chechnya and the 2000 Kursk submarine disaster, in which 118 Russian sailors were killed, Putin began his process of oligarch-taming by targeting the owners of outlets that were criticizing him. Two of the country’s top media barons and Putin critics, Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, left the country that year after being placed under Kremlin investigation. More dramatic was the fate of Khodorkovsky. After the oil tycoon began dabbling in politics — funding opposition parties and publicly musing about running for president himself — he was charged with fraud and tax evasion, undergoing an unlikely transformation from magnate to political dissident during his nearly 10 years in prison.

Putin’s message to the oligarchs was clear: They could keep their profits, so long as they stayed out of his way and occasionally pitched in to fund the Kremlin’s prestige projects, such the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

“They’re servants, basically,” Daniel Treisman, a political scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles, told Grid. “They coordinate all their major deals with the Kremlin and make sure the Kremlin is OK with them. They’re allowed to use their own connections in the security services and in law enforcement to harass rivals and to expropriate rivals at times. But when the Kremlin comes knocking, they have to answer the door.”

Treisman says that it makes sense to targets the yachts, mansions and other assets of Russian oligarchs, but that we should be under no illusions about these efforts affecting events in Ukraine. Some Russian oligarchs — including Ukrainian-born banker Mikhail Fridman and aluminum magnate Deripaska — have called for the war to end — avoiding any direct criticism of Putin. But the opinions of these men, both of whom have acquired non-Russian passports and spend a significant amount of time outside the country, are unlikely to sway minds back in Moscow.

The inner circle

In Putin’s Russia, political power has shifted from the oligarch businessmen to the siloviki, veterans of the security and intelligence services who rose to power along with Putin and share his conservative nationalist views. Several siloviki have used their positions to amass vast personal fortunes or take charge of lucrative state-owned enterprises, creating a new class that Treisman calls the silovarchs. Igor Sechin, the former KGB agent who was Putin’s secretary in the St. Petersburg government in the 1990s and is today the CEO of state oil company Rosneft, might be the archetypal silovarch.

The wealth of the silovarchs is often held by their extended family members or otherwise concealed. “You can’t just look at the Forbes list and say, ‘Oh, there they are,’” Stanislav Markus, a professor of business at the University of South Carolina who studies Russian capitalism, told Grid.

“If you think about the Russian elites, I would describe them as two partly overlapping circles: One circle is labeled guns, and the other one is labeled money,” Markus said. “In terms of who would be able to influence Putin, it’s definitely either just the guns or guns and money. The civilians, the ones with just money, they’re not that important right now.”

Even among the silovarchs, experts say, the circle of people who might influence Putin’s decisions has grown even smaller in recent years. Andrei Soldatov, an investigative journalist who has chronicled the rise of the siloviki, said that the group of people with real political power in Russia is even more concentrated today than it was under communism. “In the old Soviet times, you had maybe a dozen people, more on the Central Committee,” he told Grid. “Now it’s maybe four or five.”

In Soldatov’s view, this select group probably includes Nikolai Patrushev, another KGB vet who serves as Putin’s de facto national security adviser; and defense minister Sergei Shoigu, the longest-serving member of the Russian government and a longtime Putin confidant. They are also among the few who still see the president in person.

Which of the oligarchs make that list — of people who may still have Putin’s ear? One is Yury Kovalchuk, a banker who has been a confidant of the president since the two owned dachas together at a lakeside community near St. Petersburg. According to the Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar, Kovalchuk and Putin have been inseparable in recent months, as the president has grown more isolated during the pandemic. The banker was, according to Zygar’s reporting, influential in developing the sweeping historical theories that Putin has used to justify the war in Ukraine.

The short list may also include Timchenko, the commodities trader and hockey league chairman, who has also known Putin since the St. Petersburg days; Arkady Rotenberg, Putin’s old judo buddy, who, along with his brother Boris, has amassed a fortune in infrastructure construction; and Prigozhin, “Putin’s chef,” who has been linked by Western journalists and governments not just to the Wagner Group but also to the infamous “troll factory” Internet Research Agency, which played a controversial role in the 2016 U.S. election.

The oligarchs make an appealing target for politicians and law enforcement agents alike. Supporting the Ukrainian resistance by impounding a Russian billionaire’s mansion or yacht is — on its face, at least — an uncontroversial, even criticism-proof approach. It feels good, after all, to go after kleptocrats.

Still, there are no guarantees these measures will have much impact beyond the difficulties that Abramovich, Mordashov and the others may face.

There are the above-mentioned loopholes, for one thing. For another, while the U.S. has levied sanctions against dozens of oligarchs over the past decade, many have remained in business, and none of the earlier sanctions dissuaded Putin from escalating tensions with and ultimately invading Ukraine.

As for the question of whether an oligarch might reach out and sway the president’s mind, the only hope would be one of the small group who has kept ties to the Russian leader, and given who they are, that seems unlikely.

”My sense is that it’s these people who have a personal bond with Putin that Putin might still listen to,” said Treisman. “It’s not people who have a formal role like, say, the prime minister, or people who just have a lot of money. I don’t think there’s any reason to listen to them.”

This story has been updated.

  • Tom Nagorski
    Tom Nagorski

    Global Editor

    Tom Nagorski is the global editor at Grid, where he oversees our coverage of global security, U.S.-China relations, migration trends, global economics and U.S. foreign policy.

  • Jason Paladino
    Jason Paladino

    Investigative Reporter

    Jason Paladino is an investigative reporter for Grid where he focuses on national security policy, U.S. foreign involvement and corruption.

  • Nikhil Kumar
    Nikhil Kumar

    Deputy Global Editor

    Nikhil Kumar is the deputy global editor at Grid, reporting on global affairs.

  • Joshua Keating
    Joshua Keating

    Global Security Reporter

    Joshua Keating is a global security reporter for Grid focused on conflict, diplomacy and foreign policy.

  • Anna Deen
    Anna Deen

    Data Visualization Reporter

    Anna Deen is a data visualization reporter at Grid.

  • Alex Leeds Matthews
    Alex Leeds Matthews

    Data Visualization Reporter

    Alex Leeds Matthews is a data visualization reporter at Grid.

Contributors

Russia’s billionaires: Who they are, what they own — and can they influence Vladimir Putin?