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Ukraine invasion opens faint, but once unthinkable, fissures between Putin and Russian oligarchs

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/28/2022 Greg Miller
Billionaire Oleg Deripaska speaks to reporters in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, in 2019. © Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg Billionaire Oleg Deripaska speaks to reporters in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, in 2019.

LONDON — Fissures appear to be forming between Russian President Vladimir Putin and members of the oligarch class who made billions of dollars while showing fealty to the autocratic leader but now see their fortunes threatened by Western sanctions over the invasion of Ukraine.

The cracks are faint and fall short of suggesting any groundswell of oligarchic opposition to Putin, according to experts and Western officials. But expressions of unease that weeks ago seemed unthinkable have surfaced repeatedly in recent days.

After an earlier social media post calling for peace talks “as fast as possible,” Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska followed up on Sunday with a veiled shot at Putin’s stewardship of the economy, issuing a statement that said, “It is necessary to change the economic policy, it is necessary to end all this state capitalism.”

A second oligarch, Mikhail Fridman, said in a letter to subordinates that the Ukraine “crisis will cost lives and damage two nations who have been brothers for hundreds of years,” according to Reuters, which said that it had seen portions of the message.

Fridman said that he was born in Ukraine and that his parents still reside in the western part of the country. “While a solution seems frighteningly far off,” he wrote, “I can only join those whose fervent desire is for the bloodshed to end.”

Even the daughter of Putin’s principal spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, voiced opposition to the invasion by posting a black square on her Instagram account with a caption, “No to war!” It was an apparent message of solidarity with protesters in Russia, even as her father defended arrests of thousands who have turned out for rallies that he said were “not allowed by the law.”

Sanctions experts and former U.S. officials said that while the signs of dissent remain tepid, they represent a more palpable fraying of relations between Putin and the ranks of elite loyalists than has been observed in years.

“The splintering of the regime is visible,” said Daniel Fried, a former State Department official who helped lead the sanctions response to Russia’s previous military incursions into Ukraine.

The war in Ukraine isn’t working out the way Russia intended

“This is not to say somebody is going to overthrow Putin or that he’s going to fall,” Fried said, noting that when Peskov’s daughter posts support for Ukraine, “you know there is a split.” He described the spate of messages as the most significant expression of dissent by Russian elites “since the Soviet period.”

Fried and others emphasized that no member of Putin’s inner circle or Russia’s oligarch class has come close to condemning the Russian leader, faulted the decision to launch the invasion or called for the Kremlin to reverse course.

Video: Is Russia going to invade Ukraine? Here's how we got here and what could happen next. (The Washington Post)

The motivations behind the messages are not clear. To some, they are signs of misgiving with a war that is not unfolding the way Putin expected. Others see self-serving, if not cynical, poses of conscience struck in hopes of avoiding the crosshairs of sanctions. Sanctions advocates described the distinction as irrelevant, saying the message adds to the pressure on Putin regardless of the motivation.

“None of these guys has broken with Putin yet, but the fact is they are speaking up against” the invasion of Ukraine, said Jamison Firestone, a New York attorney who works with the Anti-Corruption Foundation led by jailed Russian dissident Alexei Navalny.

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Roman Abramovich, a Russian billionaire considered by experts and officials to be among the most prominent sanctions targets, has yet to take a public position on the invasion but was reportedly in Belarus on Monday to take part in talks between Russian and Ukrainian representatives. Abramovich has made some moves in recent days interpreted by experts as signs of anxiety over sanctions.

Over the weekend, he announced that he was turning over operational control, though not ownership, of the Chelsea soccer team in England he owns to a charity affiliated with the club. Days earlier, his private jet, a palatial Boeing 787, departed an airport near Monte Carlo and landed in Moscow, according to online aircraft tracking services.

“I highly suspect the threat of sanctions is responsible for Mr. Abramovich’s interest in peace,” Firestone said. “I don’t care. We need to motivate more people like that.”

Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich attends the UEFA Women's Champions League final soccer match in Gothenburg, Sweden, on May 16. © Martin Meissner/AP Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich attends the UEFA Women's Champions League final soccer match in Gothenburg, Sweden, on May 16.

Abramovich has not been hit with sanctions so far. The financial penalties on Deripaska date back to 2016, when he was accused by the Treasury Department of being linked to Russian interference in the U.S. election, an allegation he has denied. But Fridman, an Alfa Group founder who is ranked among the 10 richest Russians in the world, was sanctioned on Monday by the European Union.

The United States, the European Union and Britain have signaled that dozens of oligarchs and senior Russian officials are likely to be named as sanctions targets in the coming weeks. These are in addition to broader measures advanced over the weekend, including sanctions blocking Russian central bank access to billions of dollars in foreign reserves that sent the country’s currency tumbling.

Fried and others cited the pained expressions on the faces of top Russian economic and finance officials meeting with Putin on Monday as further sign of the strain on elites, whose children, many of whom have become accustomed to luxurious lives in Western countries, have in some cases been more pointed in their voicing of opposition to the war than their parents.

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Abramovich’s daughter, Sofia, a horse-riding aficionado who has lived in London, said in a social media post last week that “the biggest and most successful lie of the Kremlin’s propaganda is that most Russians stand with Putin.”

A granddaughter of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin attended an antiwar rally in London, according to a report in the British newspaper the Independent. A Russian billionaire who owns that newspaper as well as another called the Evening Standard used the front page of the latter publication on Monday to issue an appeal to Putin.

“I plead with you to use today’s negotiations to bring this terrible conflict in Ukraine to an end,” wrote the publisher, Evgeny Lebedev, who holds a royal title in the United Kingdom and whose father was an officer in the KGB.

There have also been signs of countervailing pressures on those registering their opposition to the invasion. The “No to war!” message posted by the daughter of Putin’s spokesman, for instance, remained online only briefly before it was taken down.


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