As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine enters a new month, the wealthy elite close to Russian President Vladimir Putin are facing a radically changing set of circumstances far from the frontlines.
The invasion prompted Western nations to impose restrictive sanctions on Russian individuals and banking institutions. And while a handful of oligarchs – those billionaires who made much of their fortunes under the watchful eye of Putin – have called for peace, many have stayed quiet as nations cut off their access to markets and commerce.
On March 2, The US Justice Department announced a collaborative effort with the European Union and other allies for a special task force targeting their yachts, jets, real estate and other assets abroad. In addition, on Thursday, the US Treasury Department announced a slew of new sanctions against hundreds of members of the Russian State Duma, dozens of Russian defense companies, and the CEO of Sberbank, which is Russia’s largest financial institution.
Officials say their intentions are to squeeze those who have profited from Putin’s rule and potentially apply internal pressure for Russia to scale back or call off the offensive in Ukraine. Traditional financial safe havens like Switzerland and Monaco even announced their own measures aimed against those close to Putin, and nations far from the conflict such as Australia and Japan have also moved to freeze finances.
The sanctions’ impacts have rippled across the business and sporting worlds as members of Putin’s inner circle have their assets frozen.
Here’s a look at some of the oligarchs close to the Kremlin who have commented on the war, and those who have stayed quiet.
Oleg Deripaska, a close ally of Putin who made his fortune in the aluminum business, was slapped with sanctions on March 10 by the UK government, which noted Deripaska’s estimated wealth of £2 billion and stakes in En+ Group, a major energy company and owner of one of the world’s major aluminum producers.
Shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Deripaska said on the Telegram messaging app: “Peace is very important! Negotiations need to start as soon as possible!”
As the ruble collapsed and Russia’s stock market failed to open for trading, Deripaska said he wanted “clarifications and intelligible comments on the economic policy for the next three months,” adding that the central bank’s decision to dramatically hike interest rates and force companies to sell foreign currency was the “first test of who will actually be paying for this banquet.”
Deripaska was previously sanctioned by the US in 2018 in response to Russian inference in the 2016 election. The US investigated him for money laundering and accused him of “threatening the lives of business rivals, illegally wiretapping a government official, and taking part in extortion and racketeering,” according to the Treasury Department, which added, “Deripaska has said that he does not separate himself from the Russian state.”
Mikhail Fridman, chairman of conglomerate Alfa Group, has a net worth of $11.4 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaire’s Index. He was recently sanctioned by the European Union, which said he “has managed to cultivate strong ties to the administration of Vladimir Putin, and has been referred to as a top Russian financier and enabler of Putin’s inner circle.”
Before being sanctioned, Fridman, who was born in western Ukraine, wrote in a letter to staff days after the invasion that he wanted the “bloodshed to end.”
“My parents are Ukrainian citizens and live in Lviv, my favorite city. But I have also spent much of my life as a citizen of Russia, building and growing businesses. I am deeply attached to Ukrainian and Russian peoples and see the current conflict as a tragedy for them both,” wrote Fridman.
“This crisis will cost lives and damage two nations who have been brothers for hundreds of years. While a solution seems frighteningly far off, I can only join those whose fervent desire is for the bloodshed to end,” he added in the letter, which was provided by his office. The Financial Times was first to report the letter.
Friedman called the violence a “tragedy,” adding “war can never be the answer” – but he stopped short of criticizing Putin directly.
“If I make any political statement that is unacceptable in Russia it will have very clear implications for the company, for our customers, for our creditors, for our stakeholders,” Fridman said.
Another oligarch who expressed public dismay over the crisis but failed to criticize Russia is Roman Abramovich, owner of Premier League club Chelsea, who has moved to sell the team amid his own sanctions. Abramovich “is one of the few oligarchs from the 1990s to maintain prominence under Putin,” according to the UK, yet he has always denied such a link.
Prior to being sanctioned by the UK on March 10, Abramovich said the net proceeds of the club’s sale would be used to establish a charitable foundation “for the benefit of all victims of the war in Ukraine.”
The European Union sanctioned Abramovich last week, citing his “long and close ties to Vladimir Putin” and remarking that his “privileged access” to the president helped him “maintain his considerable wealth.”
Notable oligarchs have stayed quiet
Many Putin allies and members of his inner circle have not commented publicly on the war, potentially underscoring Fridman’s remarks that questioning the Russian leader comes with consequences.
The sanctions from Western nations against Russian government officials and leaders continue to mount, including those against:
- Igor Sechin, Chief Executive of energy company Rosneft – a superyacht owned by Sechin was recently seized, according to the French finance ministry.
- Andrey Kostin, Chairman of VTB bank.
- Alexei Miller, CEO of energy company Gazprom.
- Sergey Chemezov, head of state-owned defense company Rostec.
- Igor Shuvalov, chairman of Vnesheconombank.
- Nikolai Tokarev, president of Russia state-owned pipeline company Transneft.
- Gennady Timchenko, founder and owner of Volga Group – an investment firm with a large stakehold in Russian gas producer Novatek.
- Arkady Rotenberg, owner of Mostotrest, the Russian construction company that helped build a bridge that linked the Crimean peninsula to Russia. The Rotenbergs are close friends of Putin’s.
All of whom have remained publicly silent on the war. CNN has reached out to each individual for comment.
Russian elite speak out
Comments from other high-profile figures, however, demonstrate that disapproval of the war could run deep among the nation’s elite.
Evgeny Lebedev – the son of Alexander Lebedev, who describes himself as an ex-oligarch – wrote a public statement to Putin in the UK paper Evening Standard, which he owns. “As a Russian citizen I plead with you to stop Russians killing their Ukrainian brothers and sisters,” Lebedev said.
“As a British citizen I ask you to save Europe from war. As a Russian patriot I plead that you prevent any more young Russian soldiers from dying needlessly. As a citizen of the world I ask you to save the world from annihilation,” he added.
Vladimir Potanin, the country’s richest businessman and president of metals giant Norilsk Nickel, implored Russia not to take the assets of Western companies fleeing the country.
“Firstly, it would take us back a hundred years, to 1917, and the consequences of such a step – global distrust of Russia on the part of investors – we would experience for many decades,” he said in a message posted on Norilsk Nickel’s Telegram account last week.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was sanctioned by the US government on March 3 for being the “lead propagandist” of the Russian Federation. On Friday, Peskov’s wife and two of his adult children – including daughter Elizaveta Peskova – were also sanctioned by the US.
Peskova, who has more than 180,000 followers on Instagram, shared an anti-war message on her verified account the day after the invasion commenced, posting the hashtag #нетвойне, which means “no to war.”
A couple of hours later the message was deleted.
CNN’s Charles Riley, Evan Perez, Emiko Jozuka, Niamh Kennedy, George Ramsay, Vasco Cotovio, Nathan Hodge, Mike Callahan, Maria Angelova, Mariya Knight and Anna Chernova contributed to this report.