“The Oligarchs Are Financial Outposts in His War”: Why the West Must Ramp Up Its Campaign Against Putin’s Billionaires

March 24, 2022

Sanctions will not turn oligarchs against Putin—but they will sap a key source of the Russian dictator’s wealth and power to do damage abroad, writes Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

s Russian bombs fall on the hospitals, theaters, and schools of Ukraine, sanctions in themselves feel like an inadequate response. The first priority of any policy toward Russia must be how best to support Ukraine as it defends itself from the evil of Vladimir Putin, which is why I and others, most notably President Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself, have advocated for direct intervention by NATO in the limited form of a no-fly zone. For reasons I can understand, even if I think they constitute a dramatic miscalculation, that approach has been met with reluctance.

So if Western countries, cowed by the threats of a bully, are to limit themselves to action in the economic sphere, then at the very least they must ensure that it is devised and implemented as tightly and effectively as possible.

So far the flow of money to Putin has been complicated but not entirely stopped. Some 30% of Russian banks remain operational, like Gazprombank. Money is still able to flow from Sberbank—the Russian Ministry of Finance has been able to meet its bond obligations as a result, without seeking permission from any sanctions oversight committee, which an effective sanctions regime, such as that used against Iran, would require. These loopholes need to be closed.

We also need to be clear-eyed about who needs to be sanctioned and why. Which brings me to those targets for sanctions whom we often hear referred to as “oligarchs.” Why is it important that sanctions are tightened around Russian oligarchs, and what will that achieve?

Firstly, let us deal with what is not a likely scenario. The notion that sanctions against Russian oligarchs will trigger them to rise up against Putin and use their wealth and status to bring about some kind of palace coup is a piece of wishful thinking out of step with the realities of who these so-called oligarchs are, their relationship to Putin, and their purpose within his regime.

There was a time when those termed “oligarchs” did wield significant influence over the Kremlin, but such a notion is out of date by nearly two decades. My own imprisonment on trumped-up charges in 2003 signaled to oligarchs that they worked for Putin now—their wealth and freedom was conditional on that. Any dissent would not be tolerated. Any so-called oligarch who maintained or gained their status after my imprisonment is therefore a willing servant of the Putin regime.

Russia is not today an “oligarchy” but a dictatorship run as a criminal enterprise. Putin’s oligarchs are therefore not independent actors capable of wielding their power against the criminal at the top of the chain but merely his well-decorated minions. Their power is derived purely from their relationship with Putin. Therefore, they cannot be expected to do the right thing and use their wealth and power against him, because it is not their power and wealth to use, but Putin’s.

It is vital they are sanctioned, however, not because they could or would topple the Putin regime but because of their role within it. For 20 years this class of Russian oligarch has been complicit and compliant in the centralization of Putin’s power, and they have served loyally as financial agents of the regime across and within global economic systems. They have used their wealth as an extension of the Kremlin’s foreign policy. Lobbyists, wealth managers, and politicians have enjoyed feeding from their troughs while advocating softer, friendlier policies toward Putin’s Russia as a result.

If the full force of sanctions is not brought to bear against Putin’s oligarchs now, he will use them once again as agents to subvert and fracture Western societies from within at a time when democratic unity and resolve toward the regime has never been more vital. Whether Western countries choose to understand it or not—and it seems they have finally been waking up to this reality—Putin exists in a state of war with the West, and the oligarchs are financial outposts in his war.

Their wealth is also a significant part of his war chest. Again, we have to understand that even their wealth is not entirely their own. Much of it belongs to Putin and they are merely holding it for him, an alternative bank account for the regime to dip into as it sees fit. Putin is by some estimates the wealthiest man in the world. He has looted his own country on a scale without parallel or precedent. His own personal assets are estimated to be worth as much as $200 billion.

Sanctioning Putin alone cannot cut off his access to these funds because a huge amount of it is not held in his name but in the assets of dozens of the loyal accomplices to his pillage of Russia—the oligarchs. To freeze Putin and the regime’s access to the loot, therefore, we also need to freeze theirs.

Sanctions have not yet led Putin to cease his invasion. It remains to be seen whether sanctions alone, without some limited use of force, can ever achieve that. But in order to stand a chance, they need to hit the most important resource for financing aggression: foreign exchange earnings from the supply of energy resources and other raw materials to the European Union, primarily payments for natural gas supplies. Now this money is landing in Kharkiv and Mariupol in the forms of bombs and missiles.

Whether the West likes it or not, Putin is at war with it. If NATO is not prepared to confront him militarily, it must ensure that Ukraine is as well equipped as possible to maintain its brave military resistance. And it must fight the economic war as ferociously as it can and as creatively.

It is a welcome step that countries like the U.S., U.K., and Canada are taking steps to wean themselves off Russian oil and gas. For European countries with a greater dependency on Russia for their energy needs —particularly on Russian gas—I understand that the total abandonment of Russian supply in such a short period of time is difficult.

This is why last week, the Anti-War Committee of Russia, of which I am a member, suggested a creative step to acknowledge this difficulty while minimizing the financial damage the West does to itself in the meantime. We are urging Western governments to therefore use Russian bank accounts already frozen under sanctions as a means to pay existing Russian oil and gas contracts. Through the further sanctioning of oligarchs, the West should ensure that, as much as possible, their frozen assets are boosting an economic war effort on behalf of democracy, rather than being used to purchase the bombs and bullets raining down on innocent Ukrainians.

First published in Vanity Fair