On December 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Russian oligarchs at the Kremlin. Тhe men in attendance had a combined wealth of $213bn, almost as much as the Russian federal budget. So it was no wonder Putin wanted to meet them and assure their loyalty, especially before the presidential elections next year (even if they will be just a formality).
Until recently, such meetings used to happen once a year, but this one was the third in 2017. So why all this enthusiasm for meetings at the Kremlin? For those who have been following closely the dealings of the Russian oligarchs, it is not that difficult to guess.
On November 22, Russian oligarch and senator Suleiman Kerimov (net worth of $6.3bn) was arrested in Nice and now stands accused of money laundering.
On December 13, the premises of the Dutch subsidiary of Russian Alfa Bank were searched and its assets frozen; the bank is owned by Michael Fridman, Pyotr Aven, Alexey Kuzmichev and German Kahn (combined net worth of $35.6bn).
On December 13, as well, a Daily Beast investigation revealed that Mikhail Prokhorov (net worth of $8.9bn) had 23 accounts in the Cyprus branch of the now closed FBME bank. The bank lost its license and the accounts of its clients were frozen after the US accused it of facilitating money laundering.
Gennady Timchenko (net worth of $16bn), a close friend of Putin’s, and his company, Novatek, are still under US sanctions. Russia’s richest man, Leonid Mikhelson (net worth of $18.4bn), who is also Timchenko’s partner and co-owner of Novatek, is threatened with sanctions.
Russia’s largest private oil company, Lukoil, owned by Vagit Alekperov (net worth of $14.5bn) and Leonid Fedun (net worth of $6.3bn), is also still on the sanctions list. There are other Russian oligarchs who might get slapped with sanctions, including Dmitry Rybolovlev (net worth of $7.3bn) and Viktor Vekselberg (net worth of $12.4bn).
Proximity to Putin, which used to be considered most important for capital growth in the Russian oligarchic system, is now becoming a considerable risk.
In other words, approximately half of Russia’s biggest oligarchs are having troubles abroad; the other half might start having them in February 2018, when the US expands its sanctions list.
The oligarchs most likely to get on that list, of course, are the ones closest to the Kremlin. A number of Russian opposition leaders are actively cooperating with the US authorities, who are consulting them on this issue.
Proximity to Putin, which used to be considered most important for capital growth in the Russian oligarchic system, is now becoming a considerable risk. Reuters recently reported that, before the February 2018 announcement of new sanctions, some of Russia’s wealthy are trying to appear less often at Kremlin events. Russia’s oligarchy is quite dependent on the West, so such apprehensions about the sanctions are not surprising.
Not so long ago, Putin seemed to enjoy complete impunity for his actions on the international scene. The Kremlin was ready to fight on all fronts, send its troops to Ukraine and Syria, interfere in elections in Western countries through hackers and trolls, and even try to organise a coup in a Balkan country. The reaction of the West was slow and weak at first, but it finally seems to be gaining momentum and going even beyond sanctions. The Joint Investigation Team, tasked with investigating the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in Ukraine, is making progress, and, in January, is expected to indict a Russian general. The future of the Russian gas pipeline project to Europe, “Nordstream 2” (planned to be built across the Baltic Sea, from Russia to Germany), is also under question, as its European partners are pulling away.
Putin must have noticed by now that the international situation has really changed. With a stagnant economy and an upcoming World Cup, he might do well to try to fix relations with the West a bit. And it seems that he’s ready to take a step back. He already declared the withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria (whatever this will actually mean) and started negotiations for placing UN peacekeepers in the war-torn Donbass region of Ukraine and for prisoner exchanges with Kiev. In recent months, there also haven’t been any new, known cases of Kremlin hacker attacks, and the troll factors seem to have quieted down.
At his recent public Q&A, Putin did not outline his strategy for the next presidential term. It seemed he actually avoided grand declarations which he usually makes at such events; there was not a trace of the aggressive rhetoric he used to maintain until recently.
In any case, this perceived retreat might be more tactical than strategic. Without an enemy in the West, Putin would lose a lot of his domestic legitimacy. This doesn’t mean that the Russian people want a confrontation; on the contrary – a recent survey shows that 75 percent think that relations with the US and other Western countries should be improved. There is no contradiction here: Putin loves to talk about how he wants to improve relations, but the West is afraid of Russia’s growing strength and is trying to preclude such attempts.
The worsening of the economic situation in Russia was compensated for by the intensification of propaganda: weekly talk shows which spurn the West are already broadcast daily. TV ratings are falling but Putin doesn’t have a choice – amid low oil prices, he would find it very difficult to mobilise his base without an external “enemy”.
This means that Putin will be stepping back only as far as the West forces him to, and not a step more. He is no longer on the offensive and is now laying low and watching. How far the West is willing to go in pressuring the Kremlin remains uncertain, and the criteria by which new names will be included on the sanctions list are still unclear.
Paradoxically, it’s this atmosphere of uncertainty that makes sanctions such a powerful weapon. Putin himself loves using uncertainty to control the Russian elite, but now it’s the West playing this game. The severity of the sanctions is not as important as the anxiety that anyone could get sanctioned, especially if they show up in a photo with Putin.
Maybe that was why the oligarchs meeting Putin on December 21 were seated in alphabetic order around the table. Parhaps the seat next to the Russian president was so hot that his protocol people did what they had to to avoid awkward scenes.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.