The first dollar billionaires from Russia appeared on the Forbes list in 1997. At that time there were only four, and today there are 83 of them. That’s the number of the closest circle of oligarchs around Vladimir Putin, because as the Forbes lists show, they were created by his rule. They were almost non-existent before Putin came to power in 2000, although the brutal privatisation of state resources had already been completed by then. Today, this club of the richest returns the favour to their political mentor, they are obliged to support, or at least not hinder, his life project – aggression against Ukraine.
The history of this club is actually a story about relationships in mafia organisations, not about the relationship between the “ordinary” state and “ordinary” capitalist companies. Following that history, scenes of mafia families’ summit from the most famous Hollywood movies, for example, from The Godfather or Once Upon a Time in America, come to mind. The first and most important such meeting was held in the Kremlin in mid-2000, just a few months after Putin’s first presidential inauguration. On the one hand, he was the new leader of the state, army and security services and on the other, 21st ranking businessmen at that time. At this meeting at the giant table in the Kremlin, the first strategic agreement was reached on the rules of the game for the future. Putin promised not to review the privatisation of the 1990s, and demanded loyalty in return. First of all, in terms of loyalty, for these influential people not to work against his government through the media they controlled and the political influence they undoubtedly had. He literally told them – You have political and quasi-political structures under your control. At this meeting, agreement was made on omertà, a code was adopted that would last for two whole decades.
The next meeting of this importance was held on February 24 this year, the day Russia attacked Ukraine. The hall in the Kremlin was filled with billionaires, and their leader, without whom they would not be what they are, asked for their loyalty again. The price of that loyalty was much higher than ever before, because personal sanctions had already been raised against everyone. Their billions in Western banks were blocked, their jet planes, yachts 120 meters long, their mansions in London, Nice and Tuscany were seized. The stakes for showing loyalty were also higher, because Putin’s country went to war for the realisation of its mythical “Russian world”, the final episode of its conquering and destructive doctrine of returning “historical territories”. Anyone who thought they should oppose, or even not participate vigorously in this work, received a clear warning from time to time that such a behaviour would not be tolerated. In the past six months, as Russia has been trying to occupy Ukraine, at least eight top Russian businessmen, heads of several major companies, have died under unexplained circumstances. The last of them, the first man of the oil giant Lukoil, Ravil Maganov, may have accidentally fallen from the window (or balcony) of a Moscow hospital, or committed suicide, as the controlled Russian media write. And maybe, after all, he got hurt because he was one of the few top businessmen, who did not have kind words about the aggression against Ukraine. His Lukoil asked for an end to the war back in March, and that is hard to forgive. In May, his former executive director Alexander Subotin also died, and also under unexplained circumstances, except for the state propaganda that discredits him saying that he died “after visiting a shaman”. The circumstances under which Leonid Shulman, one of the directors at Gazprom Invest and Alexander Tyulyakov, also one of the top managers at Gazprom (found dead in his garage), died/were killed, are not clear either. There is no trace of the murder of Vladislav Avayev, former vice president of Gazprom Bank, his wife and their daughter in a Moscow apartment. Just like the murder of the head of the gas giant Novatek Sergei Protosenya and his family in their apartment in Spain. It remains unknown why Vasily Melnikov, the owner of the medical company Medstom, his wife and two children were stabbed to death in Nizhny Novgorod in March. Just as it remains unknown how the Russian gas billionaire of Ukrainian origin Mikhail Watford died in his apartment in England. Or is it pointless to wait for the answers of the Russian investigation regarding these cases?
It would be reasonable to ask for only one answer – in what way did these unfortunate people violate the long-established code of loyalty? Because the death of at least eight top managers from the largest Russian companies, in just six months of Russian aggression against Ukraine, cannot be a “regular” crime, not even in Russian peacetime conditions, let alone in wartime ones. Probably knowing what will happen in the homeland if they try to raise their voice against aggression, some from the circle where omertà reigns, tried to flee the country, although they were aware that it was not a guarantee that they will continue to live. The most famous is Putin’s economic associate Anatoly Chubais, former right-hand man of Boris Yeltsin, according to many the “father” of privatisation from the 1990s, and particularly important, one of the few who politically survived the transfer from Yeltsin to Putin’s era. He fled Moscow a month after the attack on Ukraine, was seen afterwards in Turkey, Cyprus, Israel, and was recently admitted to a hospital, somewhere in Europe, in a serious condition, probably due to poisoning.
Igor Volobuev, the vice president of Gazprombank, also fled Russia with his family, to Ukraine, to fight on the side of his people, against the aggression led by his former employer. Since the beginning of the aggression, Sberbank board member Lev Khasis and Aeroflot deputy director Andrey Panov have also fled Russia. None of them can be content with their new life in voluntary exile, because they know very well what they are running away from. They are occasionally reminded of this with the news from their homeland about the mysterious deaths of one by one from the closest “family” in which the law of loyalty to “Cosa nostra” rules. Outlaws pay with their head.
If there is an unbroken historical thread in something, even a tradition on which Putin builds the “Russian world”, it is the liquidation of traitors and renegades from the inner circle of brotherhood in power; regardless of whether at the top is the Tsar, the party general secretary, or the elected president of capitalist Russia. The hand of revenge is long and patient, because disloyalty must sometimes be punished with cruelty and set as an example. Opposing today’s Russia in its conquest cannot be successful with only military defence of the attacked countries and territories. That resistance can only be effective if it also contains the logic of the police fight against the mafia, because the nature of the regime in the Kremlin is such that it demands an anti-mafia strategy and action. It’s not (just) a fight against a renegade and aggressive state, it’s a fight against an extremely rich brotherhood where the laws of loyalty rule, and the ultimate value is money. “Russian world” is just a worthless inscription on a safe which contains hundreds of billions stolen in Russia and around the world, and the brotherhood will defend them regardless of the victims it leaves behind.