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Punishing Russia’s Oligarchs

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    A banner in the colors of Russia’s flag depicts Chelsea soccer club owner Roman Abramovich during a soccer match between Chelsea and Newcastle United in London, England, in March 2022. (AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
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    Vladimir Putin, left, and Russian metals magnate Oleg Deripaska, right, walk to a meeting in Danang, Vietnam, in 2017. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool via AP)
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    Vladimir Putin presents a medal to Russian billionaire tycoon Alisher Usmanov, right, in Moscow, Russia, in 2013. (AP/RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)
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    A luxury yacht named Solaris that belongs to Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich sails near Bodrum, Turkey. (IHA via AP)
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    Vladimir Putin, left, poses for a photo with Renova CEO businessman Viktor Vekselberg during an awards ceremony in 2017. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool via AP)
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On February 24, Vladimir Putin invaded Russia’s western neighbor. World leaders sought to punish him for attacking Ukraine. To do so, they have targeted those who support Putin and profit from his rule: Russia’s uber-wealthy oligarchs.

An oligarch is a businessperson who controls enough resources—often a monopoly—to influence a nation’s political system.

Stanislav Markus studies Russian oligarchs. He says many of these powerful elites emerged from dodgy sales of Russian government-owned businesses in the 1990s. The tycoons loaned the government money, and the government purposely didn’t repay them. That allowed the oligarchs-in-the-making to seize the companies and sell stakes in them, mostly to themselves. The deals made both sides rich.

After coming to power in 2000, Putin supported more oligarch-making. It worked like this: Businesspeople with stakes in important sectors like healthcare and defense overcharged the Russian government for services. They offered kickbacks (financial bonuses or bribes) to officials for looking the other way.

Before Putin, oligarchs often had the upper hand. They sometimes dictated policy to the Kremlin—the seat of Russia’s government. But Putin forced the oligarchs in some industries to sell stakes back to the state. He also gave favored status to state-owned corporations. These moves secured the Kremlin’s control over the economy—and over the oligarchs.

Today, many of Putin’s oldest and closest friends are oligarchs. They have helped Putin stay in power with their political and economic support.

For his part, Putin has allowed the oligarchs to operate nearly unrestrained, except by him. If they stay out of politics, the Kremlin leaves their unlawful profits alone. This corrupt relationship is the reason countries are penalizing the oligarchs.

“We are coming for your ill-begotten gains,” U.S. President Joe Biden says. He has promised to “seize your yachts, your luxury apartments, your private jets.”

In the United Kingdom, dozens of rich Russians have been sanctioned (punished) over the Ukraine invasion, including the owner of a popular English soccer club. The nations of the European Union, Australia, and famously neutral Switzerland have all punished oligarchs too.

People hope harsh and ongoing sanctions will demolish oligarchs’ wealth—and possibly prompt them to abandon Putin or even change the course of the war.

A ruler who lacks understanding is a cruel oppressor, but he who hates unjust gain will prolong his days. — Proverbs 28:16

Why? Throughout history, leaders rise and fall according to the gracious plan of the God who rules over all.