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Who are the Russian oligarchs? And are they starting to turn on Putin?

Vladimir Putin Oleg Deripaska
Posted at 11:57 AM, Mar 03, 2022

Russia’s billionaire elites are on notice: The Russian invasion of Ukraine has threatened the lifestyle of the so-called oligarchs.

What exactly is an "oligarch?" The dictionary defines the term as “a very rich business leader with a great deal of political influence” — especially in Russia. But who are they, and how did they get so rich?

The origin of the modern Russian oligarchs begins with the fall of the Soviet Union.

"These are not people who invented Google or Microsoft or Amazon. These are people that took over state industries that were there during the Soviet era, and in 1991, there was a mad scramble for who was going to run these industries," said Howard Stoffer, a professor of national security and international affairs at the University of New Haven. "(The oligarchs) all took over these industries and they all became these muti-zillionaires."

As long as they stayed loyal to Vladimir Putin, the oligarchs lived the lives of the rich and infamous — a world of yachts, private schools, private jets and sports teams. But Putin’s Ukraine invasion threatens that lifestyle.

A Twitter account is now tracking their private jets. Dozens of oligarchs face sanctions, frozen assets and travel restrictions.

President Joe Biden even called out Russia's elite in his State of the Union this week.

"Tonight, I say to the Russian oligarchs and the corrupt leaders who built billions of dollars off this violent regime — no more," Biden said.

Under pressure, the oligarchs' loyalty to Putin is showing cracks.

Roman Abramovich is reportedly helping negotiate peace and trying to sell Chelsea — one of England's most popular soccer clubs — before he's sanctioned.

Once Russia’s richest man, Oleg Deripaska tweeted earlier this week that “peace is the priority. Negotiations must start ASAP.”

The founder of Russia’s largest private bank, Mikhail Fridman, has reportedly called for the “bloodshed to end."

It’s unclear whether Putin’s super-rich allies can pressure him into standing down. Many are staying silent, aware that crossing Putin carries a dangerous risk.

"You can't owe too much when you're dead, and Putin would probably kill anyone at this point who would be resisting him," Stoffer said. "I think they're afraid — the ones out of the country are glad to be out of the country, the ones that are not, I think, are just laying low."

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