Who Are Russia’s Oligarchs? And What Is an Oligarch?

From a Wall Street Journal story by Chip Cummins headlined “Who Are Russia’s Oligarchs and Why Are They Under Scrutiny?”:

In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the U.S., the European Union, the U.K., Australia and others have said they are moving to scrutinize the assets of a handful of rich and powerful Russians.

Over the weekend, Italian authorities swooped in and seized a number of yachts and villas owned by some of Russia’s sanctioned billionaires. A few days before, French customs officers got a tip that another super yacht belonging to an oligarch was getting ready to set sail, and seized it. The Justice Department joined other countries in setting up special task forces to hunt down assets. The U.S. named its team Task Force KleptoCapture.

Western governments say these so-called oligarchs have profited from close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Many have spent lavishly outside Russia, boosting local economies with property purchases and other investments. Now, authorities around the world see them as a way to pressure Mr. Putin.

The scrutiny has turned a group of mostly obscure officials and businesspeople into some of the world’s most closely tracked individuals.

Some have publicly signaled they are against the war. Many of Russia’s better-known oligarchs aren’t on any governments’ sanctions lists. That is the case with Roman Abramovich, who made his money in the energy business and is the owner of British soccer club Chelsea FC. In recent days, he has offered to mediate peace efforts and said he’s looking to sell Chelsea.

What is an oligarch?

The term comes from political science. An oligarchy describes a power system led by a small group of people. In recent years, the word “oligarch” has taken on a more specific meaning when it relates to Russia, referring to the group of Russian businesspeople and officials who gained wealth and power in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Why are Western governments imposing sanctions on Russian oligarchs?

The U.S. has sanctioned many of these individuals in years past, including after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. After Russia invaded Ukraine, the U.S., EU and U.K. have intensified restrictions and added names to their target lists.

The Biden administration has said the oligarchs provide resources to support Mr. Putin’s Ukraine military campaign and must pay the price. Mr. Putin is “looking at the impact on his own economy, on his rich and wealthy oligarch friends, and on the people of Russia,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in February about the U.S. and allied sanction effort.

How did Russia’s oligarchs gain their wealth and power?

The country’s current crop of billionaires and officials accumulated wealth and power in different ways. Some of those on the sanction list are part of Mr. Putin’s inner circle; others are longtime associates; still others benefited from a wave of privatizations that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Do they all have yachts?

No, but like many superhigh-net-worth individuals, many do. Italy seized two yachts authorities said belong to sanctioned Russian oligarchs in a swoop that started Friday and lasted through early Saturday. French authorities Thursday seized another, which they said belongs to a company majority owned by Igor Sechin, the chief executive of Russian oil producer Rosneft. The 280-foot yacht, the Amore Vero, was seized overnight at a shipyard in La Ciotat, on France’s Mediterranean coast. The yacht was undergoing repairs, but French authorities said arrangements were being made for it to sail urgently. Mr. Sechin is sanctioned by the U.S. and EU. When he was sanctioned in 2014 by the U.S., he said he considered the move an endorsement of his effectiveness at Rosneft.

What other expensive toys do they own?

They are well-known buyers of art, trophy real estate, sports teams and private jets. Here’s a look at some of Russia’s best-known oligarchs and some of their high-profile holdings.

What are some of them saying about the Russian attack on Ukraine?

Oleg Deripaska, a raw-materials magnate who was previously sanctioned in the U.S., wrote on social media Sunday that peace “is very important.” Mr. Deripaska sued the Treasury Department in 2019 challenging his inclusion in an agency report on Russian oligarchs as well as the sanctions against him, alleging the U.S. made false accusations based on rumor and innuendo to support the sanctions. A court ruled against him last June.

Mikhail Fridman, a founder of Alfa Bank, Russia’s largest private bank, was sanctioned by the EU late Monday. Mr. Fridman said that he would contest the designation and that he isn’t politically or financially connected to Mr. Putin.

“It seems to me that we have done a lot of good things, invested in companies, created a lot of jobs,” Mr. Fridman said at a press conference from his private-equity firm’s office in London. “We will litigate to protect our reputation.”

What has President Biden said about oligarchs?

“We are joining with our European allies to find and seize your yachts, your luxury apartments, your private jets,” Mr. Biden said Tuesday during his State of the Union address. “We are coming for your ill-begotten gains.”

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