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How Putin tamed the oligarchs

Roman Abramovich: another powerless oligarch. Getty

Western sanctions on Russian oligarchs are based on a “wildly naïve assumption”, says Jade McGlynn in UnHerd: that there’s still a powerful business elite that can influence Vladimir Putin. Oligarchs wielded massive political influence in the 1990s, but when Putin came to power he issued an ultimatum: they could keep their money only if they stayed out of politics. Those who didn’t comply were locked up. These days, business elites require krysha – or protection – from powerful bureaucrats to ensure the safety of their wealth. As a result, there are two types of super rich: Putin’s men, such as energy tycoon Igor Sechin, who would have nothing without his ties to the president; and “tamed erstwhile oligarchs”, like Mikhail Fridman, who lives in exile in London. Both are “powerless to change the course of the war”.

Britain is partly to blame. We offered the oligarchs a “Get Out of Russia Free” card. They kept their money and families safe over here; our lawyers settled their divorces and prosecuted libel trials; our estate agents procured their mansions; our private schools educated their children; our museums “laundered their reputations”. With the UK “offering a safe haven”, they never felt the need to build or maintain strong legal institutions back home – so Putin could take total control with impunity. In Ukraine, “rivalries between different oligarchs created obstacles for any autocrats”. Russia, however, has the worst of both worlds: “the destructive economic legacy of oligarchy without any of the elite infighting”.