You’d think from the headlines all around the world that every sanctioned Russian oligarch has by now lost their super-yachts, their mansions, and their multi-national bank accounts and are living in social exile, their reputations severely tarnished.
We’ve seen a photograph of a forlorn former Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich sitting in a private airport terminal in Israel—en route, it’s thought, to Portugal (he has Portuguese citizenship).
This week, Mikhail Fridman has given an interview to Bloomberg stating that, on a monthly stipend of £2,500, he can barely get by. “I don’t know how to live,” he reportedly said.
Protesters occupied the London home of Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska on March 14, 2022, hanging the Ukrainian flag from an upper window along with banners that say, "This property has been liberated" and “Putin Go Fuck Yourself.” (Photo by Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images)
This photograph taken on March 15, 2022 shows the 48m-long St Vincent and the Grenadines-flagged yacht "Lady Anastasia" (C) moored at a dock in Puerto Adriano in Calvia, on the island of Mallorca. Spanish authorities seized a second yacht in the Balearic archipelago on March 15 and are seeking to prove that it belongs to a Russian oligarch targeted by European sanctions imposed after the invasion of Ukraine, the Ministry of Transport announced. (Photo by JAIME REINA / AFP) (Photo by JAIME REINA/AFP via Getty Images)
A source with direct knowledge told me that private wealth management groups on Wall Street have had to deal with some curve balls, mostly from clients who’ve been domiciled in London for many years, and that most of the major international banks now have someone assigned to checking the OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control) list of sanctions every hour, to see if anyone new gets sanctioned or if a frozen asset suddenly becomes unfrozen.
I hear from two sources that, over at Goldman Sachs, Russian clients are already coming up with “creative” ideas to rename their LLCS or change ownership of their assets, causing their bankers to issue the odd expletive at the brazen tactics.
Goldman will almost certainly demur at these shenanigans, but will Credit Suisse or UBS take quite such a tough stance, given the large number of Russian oligarchs (Putin’s alleged girlfriend included) who have Swiss citizenship and who are now living in their Swiss homes? UBS and Credit Suisse have said they will comply with sanctions, so even if they do, then there’s still Cyprus or Bermuda (where the late Jeffrey Epstein allegedly hid hundreds of millions of dollars).
So, while the stories of supposed misery among the fabulously wealthy make for salacious reading, are they really indicative of mass financial suffering among Russia’s corrupt plutocracy? Or are they just gossipy headlines, serving a symbolic or political purpose rather than a substantive one? Most seriously of all: Could they even actually be counter-productive?
To find out what the oligarchs are really doing and thinking, I turned to what one might argue is the most reliable source of what is really going on: the “ROGs,” my invented acronym for the “Russian Oligarch Girlfriends”—a take on the term “WAGs” for British footballers’ wives because, let’s face it, they do have certain shared attributes.
(I speak from a minuscule amount of experience on this topic. In the summer of 2010, I found myself looking at the parked yacht of Oleg Deripaska, who, it’s worth pointing out, has recently been tweeting—from Moscow—advocating for peace. We were in Montenegro. It was a 40th birthday party of a British friend. Out of journalistic curiosity, I climbed the various layers of the floors on Deripaska’s enormous yacht, encountering semi-naked women and armed guards on every floor. It was like a James Bond movie. I found him at the very top, having dinner with the late Canadian financier Peter Munk. I believe the stemware was gold. I introduced myself. “Ah yes,” said Deripaska, who is roughly my age. “I hear that, besides me, you are the most dangerous person here.” He asked me to dance. And that meant simultaneously dancing with him and two armed bodyguards, which was strange.)
The 72m-long "Queen K", a luxury yacht belonging to Oleg Deripaska, anchored at Fethiye port in Turkey on May 23, 2017. (Photo by Ali Rza Akkir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Anyway, I digress.
One of the ROGs tells me that though the women sometimes talk to each other using “symbols” (a turkey means “we are in Turkey,” which is neutral in this conflict), mostly they stay off their phones to avoid detection while their boyfriends amp up private security. Even so, here’s what I have gleaned about where certain people are.
The Queen ROG, Alina Kabaeva, Putin’s alleged girlfriend and mother of his five kids (not four as has been reported, I am instructed by my source to mention), a former rhythmic gymnast, is reportedly hunkered down in Switzerland, where she has citizenship. She is allegedly busy talking to certain ROGs about “messaging”—not least because, officially, she is responsible for Russian media as chairwoman of the board of directors of the National Media Group. (No prizes for guessing why she got that role.) Kabaeva is revered by Russia’s young gymnasts, many of whom she mentors and apparently “protects against the coach,” according to my source.
The alleged girlfriend of Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov has said, according to a source, that she is on his un-confiscated boat in the Maldives, where increasing numbers of Russian yachts have been congregating.
Alexandra Korendyuk, Abramovich’s Ukrainian girlfriend (yes, you read that right), is rumored with him in Portugal.
The superyacht Solaris, owned by Roman Abramovich, arrives in the waters of Porto Montenegro on March 12, 2022. The yacht left a Barcelona port earlier that week as the UK government sanctioned Abramovich in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by Filip Filipovic/Getty Images)
Former Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov is likely in Turkey or the ski resort of Courchevel (conveniently close to Geneva).
You’ll note that the gathering places for the ROGs (apart from Moscow) are either the countries of the second or third citizenship of their boyfriends or countries that have declared neutrality or no alliance with the EU and US. They include Serbia, Dubai (possibly the favorite of the ROGs), Saudi Arabia, Israel, Singapore, Switzerland, and—in the case of Alisher Usmanov, Putin’s right-hand—Uzbekistan, his birthplace (he reportedly flew there in his personal Airbus A340-300).
So, yes, their social media activity is curtailed, but, according to the ROGs, they are not in the same situation as Mikhhail Fridman—as in they are not suddenly without funds or, perhaps, doing their own laundry. And, somehow, despite the loss of social media and the aversion to text, the gossip hotline is alive: they believe that Ukrainian First Lady Olena Zelenska and her kids are hiding in Switzerland. (It occurs to me that Switzerland must be getting crowded at this point.)
As for recent press reports of planes and boats traversing the Mediterranean? According to a source, those are deliberate decoys. According to my source, Abramovich was not really in Monte Carlo recently. Instead, my source claims the press was "paid" to say that he was. (I've found nothing to corroborate the claim.)
Think about this: If the late media magnate Robert Maxwell died with 400 bank accounts in 1991, imagine how much more complicated and numerous the accounts of the really rich are thirty years later. Especially when they’ve lived knowing that they could become targets at any second. (What often gets lost in the coverage of Ukraine is that Putin has not exactly been secret about his plans for Ukraine. He’s been talking about his intentions for years. The West, arguably, was either not taking him seriously or not paying attention, but that’s meat for another newsletter.)
My sources in ROG World suggest that, far from leading them to question the maneuverings of Putin, the sanctions have had the reverse effect on Putin allies. They’ve aligned behind him. “People don’t give a fuck about the sanctions,” one of the ROGs told me. “People don’t think Putin is bad; they are standing up for him actually… The idea of freezing assets of successful people loyal to their motherland just makes them feel more patriotic. I’m surprised how stupid people [in the West] are. The mood is amazing to people in Russia. They're very supportive for President Putin, very supportive. They are completely cool that we are not going to bend to stupid Europe to stop Western domination of our nation. They think that it's fantastic with the sanctions, that the price oil and gas goes up and then that the Saudi Crown Prince MBS does not pick up the phone to Joe Biden. It's like a joke. For two hours, MBS was talking to Putin, Russia. And yet he won’t speak to Biden.”
(A source close to the Saudi Crown prince tells me that recently Biden and Mohammed Bin Salman have finally spoken—but only after a frantic lobbying effort these past two weeks by the US, which had ignored MBS until now, unlike the previous administration—a topic you can read all about in my 2019 book, Kushner, Inc). At the time of going to press, the White House had not responded to my request for confirmation of this.
But given that, outside America, the three prime sources of oil other than Russia are Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, we do need to negotiate with the Saudis. We know from a leak to the New York Times that the US has already been to see Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela (another topic to be discussed) and we also know that conversations are starting with the Iranians.
So, where does this leave the Russian oligarchs? “Poorer, but not exactly poor,” says a former consultant to one of them. But also possibly more dangerous. A former senior State Department official who I’ve known for years had this to say on the condition of anonymity: “If we're successful broadly with our sanctions, they're going to have a crushing impact on Russian people. Because they're the ones who are going to be denied credit cards. They're the ones who are going to have no ability to back accounts overseas. If they travel, they're the ones who aren't going to be able to buy any number of consumer goods. The West has highlighted the oligarchs because it wants them to be the face of the sanctions, but really, as you say, they are not so impacted. And if our purpose is to find a way to weaken Putin, sanctioning a whole group of people who support Putin will only fuse them to Putin. They know that their wealth and their standard in Russian society depends on Putin. So the sanctions on them are meaningful—but in absolutely the wrong way.”
Well, that’s something to chew on.