Russia's Oligarchs Are Either Pressuring or Being Pressured By Putin

Could the key to kicking Russia out of Crimea be a bunch of very wealthy people? 

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Could the key to kicking Russia out of Crimea be a bunch of very wealthy people? Specifically, implementing measures that will make them slightly less wealthy and threatening to pull them out of the global economy?

Many think so, including:

  • Rep. Paul Ryan, who said yesterday that targeting Russia's oligarchs assets and ability to do business could be a way to get Putin to stand down
  • John Kerry -- no fan of Russia oligarchs -- who has threatened economic sanctions
  • Chess grandmaster and Human Rights Foundation chairman Garry Kasparov, who wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the West should "use banks, not tanks"
  • British Prime Minister David Cameron has indicated that such sanctions could be finalized within days

The Guardian compiled a helpful list of just who the oligarchs we're talking about are: 12 of Russia's billionaires who would be hit particularly hard by sanctions preventing them from doing business internationally.

There's reason for them to worry: in 2008, after Russia invaded Georgia, Russian oligarchs suffered great losses in the stock market, and raising and investing money became harder. Though the global recession didn't help matters then, the former is already happening now (see also Bloomberg Businessweek's charts on how the Russia economy is doing lately). The losses have been "staggering," as Time put it.

But the New York Times' Ellen Barry writes today that it may not be so simple. Though Russian oligarchs aren't thrilled with the prospect of economic sanctions, they don't wield the kind of power over Putin we may have thought. Rather than putting pressure on Putin to pull out of Crimea, it may be Putin who is pressuring them to be nothing but supportive of his actions:

'I've seen 10 people from the Forbes list in the recent few days. They're pale; they don't understand,' said Aleksandr Y. Lebedev, a prominent banker who sold most of his Russian assets after public disputes with Mr. Putin. But the oligarchs realize, he said, that their interests carry no weight in this situation, especially if they, like Mr. Lebedev himself, own property outside Russia.


Russia's tycoons have been silent since the crisis began, apart from approving messages on social media. Many inside Russia's large corporations are no doubt supportive of Mr. Putin's moves in Crimea, which are widely seen here as correcting a historical error made by the Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev, when he transferred Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Mr. Putin’s approval ratings are at their highest point since he returned to the presidency in 2012. If corporate leaders are complaining, they are doing it quietly.

Putin's inner circle of advisors, Barry says, were not oligarchs but former KGB associates whose decisions wouldn't be influenced by their own assets outside Russia (because they have little or none).

In the end, it may be Ukraine's oligarchs who have the real influence here. Some of them have already been appointed to government posts. (Here's the Guardian's list of Ukrainian oligarchs.)

To this, Putin said: "They name oligarchs, billionaires as governors of eastern regions ... Naturally, people don't accept that."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.