There were social media posts calling for peace, an image of a murdered Russian opposition figure, a newspaper editorial asking President Vladimir Putin to “stop this war”.
As Russian forces pound Ukrainian cities, the feelings are perhaps unsurprising. Their source is – they come from wealthy Russians, including billionaires close to the Kremlin.
Russia’s war on Ukraine has sent shockwaves through the global community of wealthy Russians, who face sanctions that threaten their London mansions, Mediterranean yachts and children’s places in Europe’s private schools. elite.
Some have begun, albeit timidly, to speak out – although this may be too little to end the war or to protect their Western fortunes.
“These are very cautious measures, but nevertheless you can see that they are already thinking ahead and trying to save everything they can,” said Elisabeth Schimpfössl, author of the book “Rich Russians”.
President Joe Biden told the oligarchs in his State of the Union address on Tuesday that “we join our European allies in finding and seizing your yachts, your luxury apartments, your private jets. We come for your ill-begotten gains.
As the violence escalated and the United States, Britain and other countries announced plans to seize assets and limit their ability to store money in Western banks, some wealthy Russians began earlier this week to express their opposition to the war.
On Monday, London’s Evening Standard newspaper carried a front-page statement from its Russian-born owner, Evgeny Lebedev. “President Putin, please stop this war,” the headline reads, alongside a photo of a young Ukrainian girl killed by bombing.
“As a Russian citizen, I beg you to stop the Russians from killing their Ukrainian brothers and sisters. As a British citizen, I ask you to save Europe from war,” wrote Lebedev, who is the son of oligarch and former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev.
Lebedev is close to key British politicians and was appointed to the House of Lords of Parliament by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but he had previously refrained from criticizing Putin.
Three other Russian business tycoons – metals tycoon Oleg Deripaska, Alfa Bank founder Mikhail Fridman and banker Oleg Tinkov – have also called for an end to the war.
Deripaska, who founded the Rusal aluminum company and is considered an ally of Putin, wrote on the Telegram messaging service that “peace is very important” and talks to end the war should begin “as soon as as possible”.
Tinkov, founder of Tinkoff Bank, posted on Instagram on Monday: “Innocent people are dying in Ukraine now, every day, this is unthinkable and unacceptable.”
Neither mentioned Putin directly. Nor London-based billionaire banker Fridman, who was placed on a European Union sanctions list this week. Fridman, who was born in the Ukrainian city of Lviv, called the war a “tragedy” that “should be stopped as soon as possible”. But he became visibly uncomfortable when asked to criticize Putin.
“Hundreds of thousands of people work for us in Russia. And you know, I don’t want to make any comments that could potentially increase their risk,” Fridman told reporters Tuesday.
Fridman also denounced his sanction by the EU, which called him “an enabler of Putin’s inner circle”.
“Imposing sanctions against us here only creates enormous pressure on us personally,” he said. “But we have no impact (on) political decisions.”
The power of the oligarchs to change the course of the war is probably limited. Western officials believe that Putin’s inner circle is extremely small. The oligarchs who fell out with Putin often found themselves exiled, in prison or dead.
This week, Anatoly Chubais, a veteran oligarch who oversaw Russia’s privatizations in the 1990s, posted a photo of Boris Nemtsov, a leading Russian opposition figure who was gunned down near the Kremlin in 2015. Even without a caption, this was seen as a powerful statement from a Moscow Insider.
Schimpfössl, a lecturer at England’s Aston University, said war and sanctions have made it harder for Russia’s elite to live a ‘double life’ – staying on the Kremlin’s good books while living a life of luxury in the West.
“They all have blood on their hands. But nevertheless, a large part of their life also happens here,” in the West, she said. “And having that taken away is extremely painful for them.”
“I think it will be much harder for them to just be apolitical,” she said, adding that those speaking out were trying to find a balance: “trying not to anger Putin too much in thinking about the future” beyond the Russian president’s time in power.
Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich – one of the most high-profile oligarchs yet to appear on a sanctions list – has even offered to help broker peace.
A spokesperson said Abramovich “was contacted by the Ukrainian side for support in seeking a peaceful resolution, and has been trying to help ever since.” It was unclear how much help he could provide, and some have suggested the move was an attempt to remove his name from Britain’s sanctions list.
Abramovich, a metals mogul and Putin ally whose net worth is estimated at more than $13 billion, said he plans to hand over the management of Chelsea to the team’s charitable foundation to keep it out of harm’s way. scope of penalties.
Abramovich is one of many wealthy Russians with strong ties to the UK. Only a handful have been sanctioned by UK authorities so far, even as the UK has joined the US and European countries in cutting Russian banks and closing the skies to planes from the country.
Putin’s critics say Western countries have long turned a blind eye to ill-gotten Russian money. The UK, in particular, welcomed wealthy Russians as they bought luxury properties and British businesses, sent their children to expensive private schools and hired fleets of London lawyers and public relations experts. to keep their reputation clean.
Anti-corruption group Transparency International says Russians linked to the Kremlin or accused of corruption own 1.5 billion pounds ($2 billion) in assets in London.
The attack on Ukraine caused a change overnight. Johnson said the UK would “rip apart the facade behind which those who support Putin’s campaign to destroy have hidden for so long”.
Even Switzerland, a neutral and discreet financial haven, has joined the EU in imposing sanctions.
UK-based American financier and anti-corruption campaigner Bill Browder, who has campaigned for sanctions against Russia for years, says Western governments have finally woken up. But he said Putin would only be deterred if the West went after his personal fortune – much of it elusive and believed to be held by key allies.
“The key is that there has to be a cost to him. And if there’s no cost to him and him personally, he will continue,” Browder said.
Anyone who knows the cost of Putin’s crossing doubted that many others would be willing to pay the price for strong opposition to the Russian leader – or that Putin would listen.
“I think many Russian oligarchs, including Roman Abramovich, are now trying to be nice to both sides,” said Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil baron who spent a decade in prison in Russia after falling out with Putin.
“Putin will only conduct serious negotiations when he understands that he is stuck in Ukraine,” he told the BBC. “In reality, Putin will only be inclined to negotiate if Ukraine’s defense forces and his company compel him to do so.”