As oligarchs dissent, cracks in the Kremlin start to show

As oligarchs dissent, cracks in the Kremlin start to show
Credit: Presidential Executive Office of Russia

Vladimir Putin does not face any genuine opposition at home to his war in Ukraine. Dissent is rare after the Russian President spent the last 20 years centralising power on himself. Still, a few cracks have started to appear on the Kremlin's surface.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, at least four oligarchs have reportedly left Russia, and at least four other high-ranking officials have resigned their posts and departed the country, according to reports by US media.

Not many of them, however, have gone on record to speak out against Putin or the war. But on 19 April, a Russian businessman and billionaire Oleg Tinkov broke the silence when he took to Instagram to openly express his outrage.

"I don't see ANY beneficiary of this crazy war! Innocent people and soldiers are dying," Tinkov exclaimed. "The generals, waking up with a hangover, realised that they had a shitty army."

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"And how would the army be any good, if everything else in the country is shit and mired in nepotism, servility and subservience?" He noted that there are "morons who believe in Z (a symbol of support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine) but that 90% of Russians are against the war."

Kremlin threats

It is unclear what people truly believe in Russia due to its high levels of political repression, especially when a significant portion of the population gets its information from state media. Yet Tinkov's criticism was enough to set off alarm bells in the Kremlin.

Just a day later, the bank's leadership received a phone call from Moscow ordering them to cut all ties with the bank's founder, Tinkov, who still owned 35% of shares. In addition, the bank was obliged to change its name, while Tinkov was required to sell all his interests. If not, the bank would be nationalised, Tinkov told the New York Times on Sunday.

Two days later, Tinkoff bank announced it would change its name later this year, but denied being forced by Moscow. Tinkov himself sold his 35% of shares to oligarch Vladimir Potanin. Tinkov won't say how much he got for it, but said that it covers barely 3% of the true value.

Russian kill list

Tinkov did not have much choice. He has been abroad since 2019 and is being treated for leukemia. But now it is Putin's revenge that he fears, rather than the disease.

Old friends of his in Russia warned him that he may be next on the Russian death list. "I had nothing to say about the price. It was like a hostage situation: 'You have to take what you get," Tinkov said.

Tinkov is one of the few Russian billionaires that made his fortune relatively independent from Putin's circle in the Kremlin. Most oligarchs have close ties to the Kremlin and in exchange for immense wealth, they remain silent on political matters.

Silent oligarchs

Despite some speculation that the Russian elite could oppose the war in Ukraine, given they have a lot to lose by Russia becoming an international pariah, the majority of them have remained silent out of fear.

The relationship is crystallised by Putin's meeting with 37 oligarchs who were ordered to the Kremlin on 24 February, when Russia invaded Ukraine.

One of the participants told The Washington Post that they knew then that they would lose everything. Putin said he had no choice but to invade Ukraine but promised that Russia would stay in the global markets. But not one person from Russia's elite protested.

The few oligarchs who do voice their concerns never directly criticise Putin. It is never about the suffering that Russia causes Ukraine, but about the economic damage due to the war.

There are two types of oligarchs, Kremlin expert Catherine Belton told De Standaard. There are those who made their fortune in the chaos of the 1990s and those who became rich after Putin's rise to power. Any reserved criticism is mainly from the first group.

Anatoly Chubays is an oligarch that led the sell-out of state-owned companies under Boris Yeltsin. He quietly left Russia for Turkey. De Standaard wrote that sources said that he did so out of dissatisfaction with the war in Ukraine. He is the most senior figure to leave the country, although he didn't openly criticise Putin.

Dangers of opposition

Bloomberg recently spoke with ten anonymous top officials in Russia's government and its business elite. They all feared the consequences of isolation. thinking that the invasion of Ukraine will set Russia decades back. Yet explaining their fears to Putin is impossible, as the president relies on information from a select few confidants.

Voicing dissent is a dangerous game in Putin's Russia, even for powerful oligarchs. At least six Russian oligarchs have been killed in mysterious circumstances, according to Newsweek. It is unclear if any of these former executives had criticised Putin.

In mid-April, former deputy chairman of the state gas company Gazprom, Vladislav Avayev, was found dead in his apartment, along with his wife and daughter. Avayev is supposed to have shot them first, then himself.

Barely a day later, the body of former Director of the gas company Novatek, Sergei Protosenja, was discovered, together with his wife and daughter in a Spanish resort. It was claimed to be the fallout of a family drama.

Price of ties to the Kremlin

Even after withdrawing from the north of the country and limiting itself to the eastern front of Ukraine, the Russian Army is still suffering heavy losses.

Nonetheless, dissent appears to be too high a price for most of Russia's elite. Russia's elite has benefitted from close ties to Putin, having cemented Russia's wealth in the hands of a few.

These few now find their hands tied. The oligarchs profited from Russia's crony system, but with power so centralised around one person, there is a price even for them.

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