To punish the Russian oligarchs, the first step is to find their money
WASHINGTON — As Russia’s military assault on Ukraine continues, some attention has turned to punishing the country’s wealthiest individuals, the oligarchs who have made billions of dollars doing business with the government of President Vladimir Putin.
From government officials to media CEOs to business moguls, a small group of individuals have seen their power and wealth grow in Putin’s Russia – but now governments and corporations around the world are announcing plans to try to freeze their assets.
But tracking the wealth of Russia’s ruling class is no easy feat. It is linked to major corporations, institutions and plots of land scattered across the globe. A look at the spread shows the challenges that will come with attempts to untangle it.
Even getting a full accounting of the Russian oligarch’s foreign investments is difficult, but accounting and forensic analyzes offer some insight.
the The Atlantic Council estimates that $1 trillion is Russian “black money” hidden in various countries and companies around the world. During this time, the National Bureau of Economic Research estimates that 60% of the wealth of Russia’s richest households is parked outside the country’s borders.
The figures are all estimates as exact figures are difficult to gather. The money of the Russian oligarchs is invested in various ways and the sums are staggering. Yet, looking back over the past few decades, there is a long list of examples that show just how widespread the money is, from sports to tourism to technology.
Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea Football Club from the English Premier League in 2003 for around $90 million. The team is now worth billions. (This week the British government froze Abramovich’s assets, meaning the ownership of the team is in a state of uncertainty.) On the European continent, Russian Alexei Mordashov was the biggest shareholder in the German giant. of TUI tourism, with a stake of around 1.4 billion dollars, when Ukraine was invaded.
And the investments are also in the United States. Russian Oleg Deripaska pledged $200 million to help build an aluminum plant in Kentucky in 2019, before pausing investment in 2021. Meanwhile, in 2016 Mikhail Fridman invested $200 million in what used to be the world’s most valuable private start-up, Uber. He sold his shares in 2019.
And these are just a few high-profile investments in the public eye. There are certainly dozens more, many of which are quieter and much harder to track.
And beyond business, there are the real estate properties of oligarchs around the world. When you’re a traveling billionaire, why not travel in style? But the properties owned by the oligarchs are more than just a base, they are investments.
A story in Forbes this week pointed to 62 properties owned by 13 targeted Russian oligarchs worth around $2.5 billion.
Abramovich owns properties in Aspen, France, St. Barths and the UK worth around $620 million, the magazine reported. Andrey Melnichenko owns properties in New York, France, Italy, Monaco, Switzerland and the UK worth $400 million. Alisher Usmanov owns $250 million in properties in the UK, Germany, Switzerland, Monaco and Italy.
In fact, Russian real estate investments are so scattered that it is almost impossible to find them all. Many US cities have at least a few properties. Look online and you’ll find stories of oligarchs holding property in Miami, Los Angeles, Cleveland and Washington, D.C.
And with all that money and spending, Russian oligarchs have established ties with some well-known and powerful institutions in the United States. In a report on “reputation laundering”, the Anti-Corruption Data Collective builds a database of oligarchs and their gifts to elite organizations in the country.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has received at least $900,000 in donations from Russian oligarchs, according to the ACDC database. New York University brought in over $4 million. Brandeis captured over $10 million.
In Washington, DC, the Kennedy Center has received more than $5 million from the Russian billionaire class. The Mayo Clinic raised at least $1 million, according to the database.
And that doesn’t begin to show the impact of the oligarch, says David Szakonyi, one of the ACDC’s co-founders. There are dozens of instances where the group knows there are gifts and donations, but there is no way of knowing how many.
And this is true in all areas with many investments by Russian oligarchs. Billionaires are not new to the scene. And as their wealth grew, it became harder to track. Walk down the street of a major city today and you might pass a property or a business it owns – or an institution it has endowed.
All this to say that there might be a strong desire to punish the billionaires who profited from Vladimir Putin’s regime in Moscow, but making those desires come true won’t be easy.